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Why you might need more protein than you think

When it comes down to health and performance, there is no one nutrient more important than the other. Each has its own vital role in the body. From my perspective as a sports dietitian, knowledge is power. The more my athletes know and understand, the more likely it is they will be able to make informed choices when faced with a dilemma or query about how they should fuel their body. The aim of this article is to keep it as simple as possible and for you to be able to reflect on your own protein intake and make any required adjustments. Even one slight tweak may help.

Some science basics about protein

Protein is essential for cell growth and repair. It also influences training for both endurance and strength-focused athletes. Protein is also used to create hormones, enzymes and antibodies…it is a VITAL part of our diet.

Each individual protein molecule is made up of amino acids. The majority of these amino acids can also be synthesised within the body, apart from nine of them. These nine are known as ‘essential amino acids’ and have to be consumed in the diet.

Dietary protein provides these essential amino acids which are used to create and remodel muscle mass. However, not all protein-rich foods contain all nine essential amino acids. Animal proteins are considered ‘complete’ as they contain all of the required essential amino acids. Plant proteins are not complete. This means that vegans and vegetarians will need to eat a wide variety of plant-based proteins each day to ensure they take in all of the required essential amino acids.

So how much do we need?

Protein is a busy nutrient as the body’s rebuilding process is always going on in the background. Exercise creates trauma in the muscles as a response to increased training load. Protein helps these muscles rebuild, repair and adapt to training and become stronger. Muscle mass is also built when the net protein balance is positive, meaning muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Research (1) has shown that muscle protein turnover is highest after exercise. Protein can also be used as an energy source when other fuels have been exhausted. This is very rare and only happens in extreme situations such as crash dieting. So for all these reasons, an active person has higher protein requirements than someone who is less active.

The American College of Sports & Medicine recommends between 1.2 - 2g protein per Kg of bodyweight for an endurance and strength athlete. So for a 70kg person, this would be anything between 84-140g per day. These recommendations allow for individualisation as one size does not fit all. If you are training harder for more hours a week, you may need slightly more than someone who is only training twice a week.

Here comes the bit that most people don’t know

Protein ingestion after exercise is important as it can stimulate muscle protein synthesis for up to three hours. But, this process can remain elevated for up to 48 hours post-training! Therefore post-exercise protein is not only important, but we should also stagger eating protein throughout the day (particularly if your requirements are on the higher end). This will ensure that there is a sufficient supply of amino acids available to repair and build new muscle. If you like numbers, you may be looking at anything between 15-30g of protein each meal and with snacks. If you consume anything over your requirements, the body will simply break the excess protein down to urea and excrete it from the body or use it for energy (if required).

EXALT’s signature blend of protein is made up of three protein sources: whey, egg white and casein; each with a different absorption rate. This allows protein to be available to the body over a longer period (up to 7 hours).

So what do these numbers really mean?

Few of us have time to measure out portions and count numbers. If you generally have a minimum of one portion of protein per meal, you should be close to meeting your daily requirements. For example:

  • Breakfast: yoghurt with 60g of nuts/seeds
  • Lunch: two eggs
  • Dinner: salmon steak
  • Snack: cereal with 250ml milk

If you eat well, then you shouldn’t need to add supplements. However, they can be useful if you are in a rush and you can’t have a proper meal. Additionally, there may be a reason you struggle to get what you need. For example, vegetarians or vegans may struggle to meet their requirements through their diet, so a vegan protein shake may help boost their daily protein intake.

The EXALT range uses real food in every bottle and has a minimum 20g of protein per bottle, making it the perfect go-to if you are in a rush or have no access to food after training. There are also two vegan drinks in the range; Big Red and Nutella which have between 20-30g protein per portion, an optimal amount to support any training program.

What about recovery after exercise?

Due to its job in rebuilding muscles after exercise, protein has a central role to play in recovery. We will go into more detail this article about recovery but in short, having protein with some carbohydrate after we exercise such as a bagel and nut butter or a bottle of EXALT’s Berry Beast, which is rich in protein and carbohydrates, will increase the rate at which your body recovers. The protein content of your post-training snack will not only kick start the recovery process but also aid the absorption of carbohydrate back into your muscles. So for optimal recovery and training adaptation, we need to think more broadly thank just protein.

As with anything related to nutrition, try and keep it simple. Don’t get confused by the conflicting advice out there. If you are eating well, your diet can provide you with the majority of the required protein. You should aim to have protein at each meal (and snack) and aim for a variety of protein sources throughout the day.

References

(1) Witard OC, Jackman SR, Kies AK, Jeukendrup AE, Tipton KD. Effect of increased dietary protein on tolerance to intensified training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43:598–607.

 

About The Author

ALEX COOK

Our sports and endurance dietitian

Alex Cook is a registered clinical and sports dietician with over a decade of experience in dietary management, nutrition planning and sports performance. Specialising in endurance nutrition and supporting a range of athletes, from ultra-distance enthusiasts to elite-level junior athletes, and assisting with multi-day expeditions in challenging environments.

Alex has had varied experience in the past, having worked with the Ministry of Defence, NHS and a number of rehabilitation and physiotherapy clinics too. She is a contributor to a number of publications within the diet and fitness industries including Athletics Weekly, Running Fitness,Trail Running magazine, Fit and Well and Woman's Own.

Alex has worked with EXALT to analyse the ingredients used in our products and help us to create formulas that work to support sports performance, so you can become the best version of yourself at the grab of a bottle.