Fundamentals of Protein & Its Benefits by Personal Trainer in Dubai, UAE
Proteins are the building blocks of life. Every cell in the human body contains protein. You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and make new ones. Protein is a macronutrient that is essential to building muscle mass.
In this article we will discuss the following:
- Key functions of protein
- The basic structure of protein and amino acids
- Different types of protein and amino acids
- Protein digestion, absorption & metabolism
- Health benefits
- Performance benefits
- Requirements for general population
- Requirements for optimal performance
- Myths of Protein
Key Functions of Protein
Why protein? Let’s get across the point that there are numerous different functions for proteins and we’re not going to get here into too much detail but an overview of the numerous functions of protein and why it’s important to have adequate amount. Protein isn’t just used for muscle it’s also used for DNA, for hormones, for enzymes so various different functions in the body.
|Structural||Muscle proteins||Collagen, Elastin|
|Transport||Red blood cells||Albumin, globulins, lipoproteins|
|Enzyme Function||Almost all enzymes||Lactase, pepsin|
|Hormones||Most non-steroid hormones||Adrenaline|
|Acid Base Balance||Buffer||Glutamine|
|Fluid Balance||Osmotic pressure||Albumin|
|Energy Balance||Krebs Cycle Intermediates||Enzymes|
In the table above the functions are mentioned in the left hand side column. We have structural function e.g. we have connective tissue made of collagen and elastin, we have transport function, for instance hemoglobin in our blood, we have enzyme function, almost all the enzymes are proteins. At the bottom is energy balance, lots of different energy systems are controlled by enzymes and it is the release of energy in these systems which is controlled through enzymes, which are proteins. Then we have hormones, so we have adrenaline. And we have our immune function, we have acid balance, we have fluid balance, so just lots of different functions of proteins. Thus protein has numerous different functions and it’s so important to have adequate amounts of protein for Optimal Health because of this.
The Basic Structure of Protein and Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Proteins are large biomolecules and macromolecules that comprise one or more long chains of amino acid residues.
There are two basic types of amino acids, ‘Essential’ and ‘Non-essential’. In total there are 20 and out of that we have 11 non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are amino acids which can be synthesized via other amino acids in the body, so we don’t need to consume them from our diet and they don’t need to be taken externally. Then we have essential amino acids, there are only nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized in the body therefore they do need to be acquired from our diet.
|11 Non-Essential||9 Essential|
Then there are some that are conditionally essential, and we’ve highlighted those with asterisk, and they are there with the non-essential. What this means is that under normal conditions these are non-essential so they don’t need to be consumed by our diet, however in certain conditions, in certain disease states or certain illnesses or at times of development or growth these become conditionally essential. Their synthesis is limited from other amino acids and we need to take them in from our diet. This can happen in premature or newborn babies. Also a good example is Glutamine amino acid, a conditionally essential amino acid for individuals who have suffered from severe burns. As glutamine has a really important role to play in healing, so for individuals who suffer from severe burn glutamine is important. In their treatment glutamine supplementation is often used. So, it’s important to understand that not always but under certain conditions certain non-essential amino acids do need to be consumed from external sources from our diet.
Of the nine non-essential amino acids there are three which are the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), out of these leucine is kind of a poster boy, but BCAAs include Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine.
The last 3 Essential protein mentioned in the list (Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine) are BCAAs (Branched-chain amino acids).
BCAAs are heavily pushed in the supplements realm but it is not required if you have adequate amounts of high quality protein. Recent research has shown that a dietary supplement of BCAAs alone cannot support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis.
“A dietary supplement of BCAAs alone cannot support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis. The availability of the other EAAs will rapidly become rate limiting for accelerated protein synthesis” – Wolfe
It’s often kind of said that if you were fasted and having BCAAs, it is going to kind of help muscle protein synthesis, that’s the building of new muscle protein within the body. It’s important to know that branched chain amino acids don’t have this effect, which it’s kind of stated to be, because the availability of other essential amino acid, which are required for muscle protein synthesis, rapidly become rate-limiting for accelerated protein synthesis.
That’s why it’s most important to consume adequate amounts of protein within the diet for muscle protein synthesis and that’s the way to kind of maximize muscle protein growth and development. A nice way to think about BCAAs is to understand that leucine kind of triggers muscle protein synthesis, so it’s a really important amino acid, but that’s all, however if you don’t have the essential amino acids to actually start growing muscle and synthesizing new tissue then it’s to no benefit. You can think of it as if you can try and start the car but there’s no fuel to actually go anywhere i.e. build new muscle. It’s more reasonable to think that there may be benefits in prolonged endurance performance, there’s some research showing potential benefits in certain performance parameters especially in more prolonged endurance performance, so it can have a role to play.
Therefore, though BCAAs are commonly recommended to be taken for muscle growth, if one is taking adequate amount of high quality protein then additional intake of BCAAs is not required. It is more reasonable to think that there may be benefits in prolonged endurance performance and thus it does have some benefit but not required if you have adequate high quality protein.
Protein and its Structure
The most important thing to understand before we take a look at the structure of protein is that protein is the only macronutrient which contains nitrogen. Nitrogen is a molecule which contributes towards nitrogen balance and nitrogen balance is a measurement of protein turnover. So nitrogen balance is the nitrogen or protein that we are taking into our body in comparison with the amount we are excreting. Therefore, if you are consuming more than you are excreting then you’re in a state of positive nitrogen balance, and this is when we are likely building nutrition, and for instance muscle tissue. Therefore, if you are trying to gain muscle then you want to be in a positive nitrogen balance. Where as if you are excreting more than you’re taking in, then you’re in a state of negative nitrogen balance, and this is when you are likely or potentially losing tissue of some form.
Amino acids are the basic building blocks for protein. Amino acids are linked together by peptide bonds and they are linked together in sequences. It is the sequence of different amino acids which makes up the shape of a protein.
The shape of a protein dictates its function within the body. So, if we are creating a protein we are kind of using different amino acids, but if we are missing a certain amino acid it basically has an impact on the ability to synthesize new protein. Therefore we need to make sure that we have adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids and if we miss certain ones then it is going to impact our whole body protein synthesis or development and our ability to develop new tissue.
We then have complete and incomplete proteins.
Complete proteins – All EAA’s in adequate amounts
- All animal-based protein sources
Incomplete proteins (deficient in at least one EAA)
- Usually plant-based sources
Combining food sources important for vegetarians
- A mixed diet will do this
- Leucine consideration?
Complete proteins are proteins which contain all of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts for protein synthesis and these are often animal-based protein sources, for instance chicken, pork, beef, and dairy eggs, fish, these are all complete protein. They have the full profile of essential amino acids. And this is why they are often labeled as high-quality sources because they contain the full profile.
Incomplete proteins are deficient in at least one or more essential amino acids, and usually these foods are plant-based sources such as beans, pulses and grains with the exception of soy.
Soy is actually a high quality complete protein source. Also quinoa, but quinoa interestingly despite being a complete protein is actually quite low in protein. Quinoa is a plant-based source and for instance if we wanted to consume say 25 grams of protein from quinoa it would equate to 570 calories, quite a lot of calories for not kind of massive protein. If we were to get the same amount of protein from chicken then it would only be around 110 calories.
Therefore, it’s important to think of how effective protein servings or sources are. Think of the amount of protein relative to how many calories we would need to consume. However, incomplete proteins aren’t completely irrelevant. One can consume a wide variety within diet.
For individuals who only consume plant-based sources, for instance vegetarians or vegans, they need to consume a wide variety of protein sources. Therefore it is important to have a variety in our diet. Having a variety of different incomplete protein sources allows to complement each other. Certain foods are potentially lower in certain essential amino acids, for instance we have legumes that are actually quite high in lysine whereas grains are quite low in lysine, so having them in day can kind of complement each other and make up for essential amino acids. It was once thought that this had to be done per meal but we now know, because of the amino acid pool and how long that lasts, this can be done throughout the day. So just make sure to have a wide variety throughout the day and this will allow to achieve adequate amounts of different essential amino acids. A mixed diet will help in achieving required protein target.
It is also important to remember that Leucine has an important role to play in synthesis or triggering the response of new muscle protein to be produced. For a vegetarian leucine can be quite low, but if a vegetarian is consuming good quantities of dairy and also eggs, then they can kind of meet Leucine requirements. But for vegans who only have plant-based diet, potentially supplementation is worth considering.
Metabolism is the process by which our body converts what we eat and drink into energy. It is the set of life-sustaining chemical reactions in organisms. The three main purposes of metabolism are: the conversion of the energy in food to energy available to run cellular processes; the conversion of food to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and some carbohydrates; and the elimination of metabolic wastes.
A little recap on digestion – what happens when we consume protein? Dietary protein gets broken down by enzymes. There are lots of different enzymes in the GI tract which break down the food that we consume. For protein these are protease and peptidase.
Protease is an enzyme breaking down protein. It catalyzes proteolysis, breaking down proteins into smaller polypeptides or single amino acids, and spurring the formation of new protein products. They do this by cleaving the peptide bonds within proteins by hydrolysis, a reaction where water breaks bonds. So those are the enzymes which break down protein into amino acids that get stored in our blood and also in bodily fluids. It is the pool of amino acids. This is why if you don’t eat protein you still have this pool and next time you eat you’ll use these amino acids for synthesis of new tissues. As new tissues are synthesized we have body tissues, so that’s our muscle connective tissues, we have enzymes, and we have hormones or antibodies, so these are all proteins in our body.
And what also can happen is breaking down of old proteins that get degraded. That’s the breakdown of tissue back into amino acid. The tissues are broken down into their constituent amino acids, which can be then reused or repurposed within our bodies. When we are not using or we don’t need any more amino acids for synthesis of new tissue, protein oxidation occurs. And we have deamination, which is the removal of the amino group which contains nitrogen. As we know that protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen and it’s the amino group which makes an amino acid, so we try to, we need to remove that amino group, its removing is converted into ammonia and ammonia is actually quite toxic so it is converted into urea and then is excreted by urine. Thus we have urea getting excreted in urine and then we have the amino group getting excreted as ammonia.
So we have the amino group and then we also have the carbon residue, and the carbon residue is what is used for producing energy so we have carbohydrates and fats.
In the diagram we’re just focusing on the protein. As we can see we have protein being broken down to amino acids, which then enters the nitrogen pool or amino acid pool, and then can be used to synthesize new tissues. This can go backward and get degraded back to amino acids. From the amino acid it comes down into the urea cycle. On amino group getting removed it gets converted into ammonia, which then enters the urea cycle and gets excreted as urine. However, the carbon group, the two arrows coming from nitrogen pool and going right into carbohydrates has two phases. In the first phase, it can get converted into pyruvic acid and this is the process of gluconeogenesis, which is the conversion of amino acids into glucose. And the second phase is the conversion of amino acids to acetyl CoA, which then ends the processes of de novo lipogenesis (DNL) which is from amino acids to lipids or fats. Think of gluconeogenesis as ‘gluco’ for glucose and ‘genesis’ from de novo lipogenesis. Think of ‘lipo’ for lipids.
However, although these pathways do exist, it is very unlikely that de novo lipogenesis occurs. This is because although this pathway exists, it’s very inefficient and if we are consuming excess like really large excess amounts of protein then potentially it may occur. It’s very unlikely that it will happen unless we are overfeeding proteins.
Gluconeogenesis can occur when glucose is made from amino acids and it can be called upon to maintain glucose levels.
- When glucose is made from amino acids
- Can be called upon to maintain blood glucose levels
- Stimulated by the release of Glucagon from pancreatic islets
For instance if we are following a very low carbohydrate diet the body still needs glucose, for instance the brain requires a continuous supply as glucose is its kind of primary fuel source. What happens is that glucagon is released from the pancreas, which stimulates gluconeogenesis, glucagon is the antagonist hormone, and insulin is released to bring down glucose levels in the body whereas glucagon has the opposite effect. Glucagon is released when there’s a fall in glucose and is used to produce glucose in the body to allow us to function and kind of maintain optimal blood glucose levels.
Health Benefits of Protein
Healthy hair and skin as hair and skin are both made of a protein called keratin. They are the same protein, they are just laid out slightly differently. So if you have inadequate amounts in your diet you will actually see this in the quality of both your hair and your skin. Also protein is beneficial for weight loss, protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients so it’s been shown to have a positive impact towards appetite and also potentially in weight loss.
You’ll often find yourself more favorable to the higher protein diet potentially due to the feelings of satiety. Feeling full after meals and also with regards to having metabolic effects, protein can actually have an effect on our basal metabolic rate because of thermic effect of food. What this means is that protein actually has the highest thermic effect of food of all the macronutrients. By potentially switching out some carbohydrates or fat and increasing our protein, it will have a benefit towards weight loss and also our metabolic rate. It would be more favorable for body composition due to this, because we’re on expending more to kind of digesting and it’s helping potentially because one is less hungry and more likely to stick to a diet.
- Healthy hair & skin
- Satiety in one meal and over 24 hours
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
- Muscle retention
- Necessary for immune function
Proteins also have an important benefit to muscle retention, especially for individuals who are dieting. And that’s not to say that it’s more important than resistance training. It is not that resistance training is more important or has a bigger impact on muscle protein synthesis and also muscle retention than protein. Protein can augment the response, so especially when dieting, making sure that having adequate amounts of protein and potentially increasing protein intake is going to be beneficial.
Protein is necessary for immune function for preventing illness. Therefore, protein does have a role to play and specifically to our elderly individuals.
Sarcopenia is an age related disease, it is muscle protein breakdown and a result of aging. It is due to increase in muscle protein breakdown and a reduction in muscle protein synthesis, so basically sarcopenia is due to breaking down muscle and making less. However, research has shown that basal rates of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown are unchanged with healthy aging. Instead, muscles of the elderly are resistant to normal anabolic stimuli e.g. amino acids and resistance exercise.
So what does this mean? Basically it’s that it requires a greater stimulus to get the effects of Leucin or that muscle protein synthesis response. Therefore, what we need to do is to increase our protein servings in order to hit Leucin threshold. Basically it means to get that muscle protein response and also increase or incorporate resistance training to help prevent this breakdown of muscle we see with ageing. And basically it means that rather than having smaller protein servings throughout the day, potentially having larger servings is going to be more beneficial, it takes a little bit more to get it going for the elderly.
Performance Benefits of Protein
Exercise is most important for the effects of protein on muscle protein synthesis but protein has a role to play in Muscle Recovery and also adaptions to training, and this is not limited to strength and power sports.
↑ Muscle recovery
↑ Adaptations to training
- Not limited to strength/power sports
We have benefits for both in repairing muscle damage and for power and strength athletes we have supporting muscle protein synthesis and increasing lean body mass. But for endurance athletes there is an increase in mitochondrial capacity by an increase in aerobic and enzymes. In the energy systems having adequate amounts or sufficient amounts of proteins is going to benefit the production of energy within our body. So with athletes for instance if we’re trying to improve recovery, really nice practical way would be to potentially just add a protein shake post exercise to get the benefits and also the training adaptations.
Protein Requirements for General Population
Requirement of protein for different individuals including elderly, athletes and general population are important to understand.
It’s important to note that 1 gram of protein equates to 4 calories. Earlier recommendations were often done based on percent of total energy. However, we try to avoid this. For instance, if an individual is on 15% protein and is consuming 2,000 calories then that would be 300 calories. Then if the individual goes on a diet and reduces calories to say 1000 and accordingly reduces protein also to 150 calories.
Thinking critically, why should they reduce their protein requirements when they begin to diet? The individual still needs protein for all the different functions within the body. So this is why we tend to avoid percentages in recommendations. And there is now enough research which is more accurate and based on relative to body weight. It’s really useful because it also accounts for differences in males and females because females tend to be lighter. By doing it relative to body weight this accounts for this situation, and also if an individual begins to diet their body weight isn’t initially going to change much and as they potentially lose weight over time then we can adjust their protein requirements by bringing it down based on that body weight recommendation.
1g Protein = 4 kcal
Percentages often used in research
- As a percentage of daily energy intake (e.g. 15% protein)
- Enough research now to provide more accurate recommendations relative to bodyweight
RNI = 0.8g/kg
- Represents the minimum amount to avoid deficiency
- Even the experts say this is too low
Current evidence indicates intakes in the range of at least 1.2 to
1.6 g/(kg.d) of high-quality protein is a more ideal target for achieving optimal health
Currently 0.8 grams per kilogram is the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein. Basically, get your body weight in kilograms then multiply it by 0.8. Therefore, a 100 kg individual times by 0.8 would need to consume 80 grams per day. Many people will understand that this is a very small amount. These recommendations represent a minimum amount to avoid deficiency.
An example condition is kwashiorkor disease, this is a condition which is often seen in developing countries. You may have seen images of children who have quite skinny look, having low body weight but have large extended pot bellies. The reason for this is it’s a protein malnutrition disease. What often happens is that children who have been breastfeeding and then they switch to a diet made up mainly from grain, they have protein deficiency or inadequate amounts, and what happens is Edema, large amount of water retention around their joints and also around their stomach. The name actually comes from Ghana and it basically describes the disease that comes after the birth of the second child, which makes sense because if a mother is feeding her first child and then has a second child, that newborn baby is going to be breastfed and the older sibling is going to have to suffer. It’s just to show that this recommendations of 0.8 is to avoid conditions like this and we now know that lots of experts are saying that these recommendations are way too low and indicate kind of a 1.2 up to 1.6 for general kind of healthy aging.
Everyone always asks why haven’t they increased this recommendation? The reason for this is there are various different factors. For instance it was originally based on nitrogen balance research and now we have more science intensive methods. We have something called the indicator amino acid which is basically a test, which is more sensitive and gives us a better understanding. Also the experts in this area have only been recently promoting this in the last one decade. So the current recommendations are based on kind of previous research and it does take a while for things to change. Hopefully they will get updated but it’s just important for us to know that this is not our optimal target, we should be looking for kind of 1.2 to 1.6 grams.
Protein Requirements for Optimal Performance
For optimal performance it is not enough to go by minimum recommended to prevent people getting ill and potentially die, so we should actually be looking at a range of 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight. And this is for general population. For endurance athletes, 1.2 to 1.7 and probably to the upper end of this range. And then lastly potentially heavy lifters having maybe 1.82 all the way up to kind of 2.7. So really high amounts of protein within the diet. And the reason for this is because these individuals are looking to maximize muscle protein synthesis and so doing everything they can to gain lean body mass.
One may ask, what’s my exact number? And it depends on the sport, it depends on lots of different factors, it depends on their body composition, it depends on their dietary considerations, are they currently in a deficit? So potentially we may need to reduce protein at certain time because it may actually take someone out of a deficit for individuals who are potentially competing in bodybuilding and are dieting quite aggressively or kind of on low calories protein can take someone out of a deficit.
So protein may need to be reduced at certain points and when we talked about the thermic effect of food people will often over play these effect and say that you can consume as much protein you want because you’ll just burn it off your body will heat up so that the meat sweats you get, if you’ve ever been to a “all you can eat Brazilian” for instance that warm feeling that those meat sweats you get after is basically the thermic effect of feeding, it’s the cost of breaking down those protein within the body. So understanding this is important and we should think practically. Individuals for instance must think where they’re currently at, work out what essentially protein intake they’re currently consuming and then if they are way lower than these recommendations then don’t necessarily have to jump up to upper end, going to the lower end first and then over time potentially increasing it could be probably the best way to go.
Myths of Protein
There are myths associated with protein.
One myth is that you can only digest / absorb 20 to 30 grams of protein. It’s just a misunderstanding. All protein is digested and absorbed. For people above these amounts is not necessarily for maximal muscle protein synthesis. For larger individuals potentially more is required but although it’s not necessary for muscle protein synthesis or synthesis of new tissue it still gets used in the body, it still gets absorbed, it still gets digested.
What happens is that protein oxidation increases, so we see a greater breakdown and it being used for potentially production of glucose or other energy sources in the body. And there’s no data that suggests this 20 to 30 grams but it’s likely based upon some early research which basically looked at digestion rates, absorption rates of different sources of protein. So they had whey and casein, it showed over three hours, and they measured after three hours and it was like 8 to 10 grams per hour which roughly equates this 20 to 30 grams. But we know that you continue to digest and absorb protein way after this. So the fact that you can only digest and absorb 20 to 30 grams of protein is a myth.
You’ve probably heard that too much protein will damage kidneys, if you’ve ever had a protein shake at home maybe your friends or your family told you about the damage that you’re doing to your kidneys or even your doctor has told you this and it’s making lots of headlines and you will often see this.
Where did it come from? It’s likely due to the fact that individuals who have renal disease or this kind of kidney dysfunction. While having issues with kidneys, reducing or having a lower protein intake can be beneficial. People have related this to individuals who have normal kidney function is just not correct.
We know there’s lots of research showing that kind of moderate changes in dietary protein intake causes adaptive alterations in renal size and functions without implications or adverse effect. What this means is that your kidneys can increase in size but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we go to the gym and our muscles start to grow that’s what we want, it’s adapting to be able to kind of to be functional to process the protein but that’s not a negative effect and the researchers show this is not an adverse effect.
And there is more research showing protein intake, quite high intakes, just under 2.8 grams per kilogram does not impair renal function in well-trained athletes. Even more research and resistance strength men can consume a high protein intake from 2.5 all the way up to 3.3 for a whole year and showed there was no harmful effects of measures of blood lipids as well as liver and kidney functions. That’s research from Jose Antonio who’s done lots of research in this area. But if individuals have issues with their kidneys then obviously potentially speaking to a dietician about protein intake is good, but for anyone who has at least one fully functional kidney we know they can deal with moderate to high protein intakes.
There’s more protein in broccoli than steak and maybe it’s true. So let’s look at it. Broccoli has 9 grams per 100 calories in comparison with a rib eye steak which only has 7 grams per 100 calories. So potentially there is more protein in broccoli than steak. However, if we think about this practically then to get 20 grams of protein you would need to consume 770 grams of broccoli, that’s like think it works out about 20 servings of broccoli in comparison with a rib eye steak which you need 160 grams. So this equates to 2.6 grams of protein per 100 grams for broccoli and 12 .5 grams of protein per 100 grams for rib eye steak. So this is just an example of someone basically trying to prove their bias potentially and it’s just bad science, it’s using numbers to influence people’s decisions.
Finally a note on whey protein. Whey protein is dairy but it is considered to be a supplement and quite often we potentially might have issues with recommendations of whey protein shakes because individuals have a negative perception of supplementation. However, we like to consider it as a performance food. The reason for this is because of how whey is made. Whey is made in the process of making cheese. What happens is that there are two milk proteins, there is casein which is the slow-digesting protein and then there’s whey. What happens is that these are separated and casein begins to coagulate and basically forms the basis of cheese, and then the milky fluid which gets left behind is our whey which gets dried out and turns to whey protein powder.
So if you’re going to call whey a supplement then you probably should call cheese supplement because they’re made in the same process.
And whey is really useful because it’s low calorie high protein option, it’s beneficial for weight loss, it’s also beneficial for elderly. So it’s an amazing way to kind of beat that anabolic resistance because you can have a large bowl of protein without a high or large amount of calories. And then for athletes, a post training session protein shake is good. And finally, ‘if you ever go to see anyone in hospital and to be nice then rather than take them grapes take them a tub of whey protein powder because the benefits it has towards recovery’.
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Abhinav Malhotra is an award-winning personal trainer, coach and sports nutritionist in Dubai, UAE. He also offers online services to clients around the world. A personal trainer par excellence, Abhi has worked with the world’s leading fitness chains, supplement brands and founded his own fitness academy in India. He has achieved successes for many clients from all backgrounds and has trained the Indian Army Rugby Team. He is the first International Kettlebell Sport athlete from India.