I want to take moment to talk to you about protein. I see a good deal of folks these days doing protein shakes, protein bars, and other kinds of supplements…and I don’t think folks really understand why protein is important, what our bodies need it for, and how much of it is necessary. Let me preface all of this with: I am not a doctor or nutritionist. While you will find arguments on both sides of the protein debate, the opinions expressed below are my own.
What is protein and why do we need it?
Well, proteins are molecules made up of amino acids, which are held together by peptide bonds. BUT this is not the Discovery Channel, so I’m not going to get all extra scientific on you…Protein is basically a very important nutrient that plays a role in our every day bodily functions. From forming muscle fibers to moving vitamins and minerals through our bodies, and yes even making our muscles move. Protein is a critical part of the human diet, so much so that you really cannot function without it. Naturally, the body produces protein on its own, but our bodies are not able to produce all of the different kinds of protein that we need to function. This is where dietary protein, the protein we find in foods, comes in.
Ok, so I need protein to live. But why do I need it for workouts?
When we workout, we are putting our muscles to work. The harder the workout, the more work are muscles are doing, and the more the muscle itself breaks down. Consuming protein either before or after a workout helps to speed up the recovery of those same muscles (remember, protein helps build muscles). A little bit of protein after a workout, like within the first hour following a workout, can be highly beneficial to your recovery and overall muscle growth.
So, protein is necessary and can help with general bodily functions and is a good workout partner as it aids in recovery. It can even help to BUILD muscle, which is why you’ll see a great deal of bodybuilders or folks who wish to ‘bulk up’ doing protein shakes or eating protein bars. But with everything related to fitness and health…you really have to take a look at your own INDIVIDUAL goals and assess what is and is not necessary.
How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein needed varies by gender, age, level of activity, and goal (weight loss vs weight gain/bulking) – it’s complicated stuff. There isn’t a set number that applies to everyone…it can vary greatly. But what I see happen very often, especially for folks who are relatively new to working out…is an overabundance of protein being digested. Nowadays you see just about everyone who considers themselves to be health conscious with a protein shake or a protein bar in hand. Now, protein shakes/bars can be great for meal replacements. Meal…REPLACEMENTS. Because if you take a look at your protein bar/shake or at the whey protein you’re putting in your shakes, you’ll notice that they are high in calories AND high in protein. Which, hey, is what they’re supposed to be, since they are supplements that are made to assist in muscle rebuilding and recovery…for very strenuous workouts. Key word, strenuous. Be careful with your protein intake, I see a lot of folks hit the gym and do 30 minutes on a treadmill then gulp a Muscle Milk afterwards.
Yea, you might as well have stayed home.
Taking in too much protein can add to weight gain. If you’re not doing a knock down drag out kinda workout, chances are you can get away with eating some protein after the work out is over and you’d be good to go. Protein drinks and shakes and bars and things are quick and easy ways to ingest a lot of protein in a relatively short period of time, without having to eat a lot of food. Remember I mentioned bodybuilders and bulking? Yea, those guys use protein to help them build up their mass, so you will see them digesting a lot of protein, usually in the form of shakes. For hardcore athletes like them and professional athletes, it makes total sense to get more protein into their system. Their workouts are far and above what an average person would do, and they need that extra for recovery. Then for those who are bodybuilding, the extra protein helps them get bigger. But for you and I? The extra isn’t necessary. Indeed, too much protein for the average person looking to lose weight can actually backfire…you can GAIN weight by eating too much protein. So, just watch it, will ya?
Besides…with a well balanced diet, you can get all the protein you might need without having to buy anything extra. Some sources of protein are:
- Meats & Poultry (lean cuts and white meat)
- Eggs, Milk, Yogurt, & Cheese
- Beans & Peas
- Seeds, Nuts, & Nut Butters
- Seafood & Shellfish
Lots of options out there! I’m a BIG fan of using chocolate milk as a post workout drink. Lots of studies have been done on the merits of chocolate milk vs regular milk as a post recovery drink, and I won’t bore you with those. But have at it if you like.
The bottom line is this…protein = great for body. Too much protein? Not so great if you are trying to lose weight. Just keep a balanced diet, make sure you’re eating the right things in their proper portions, and remember that you don’t NEED to have a protein shake or a bar to get fit. What you need is to make sure you are giving yourself the fuel necessary to do the workouts that you are doing. No more, no less.
- Health Myth: You Can Never Have Too Much Protein
- How Much Protein Do Women Really Need?
- How Much Protein Should You Be Eating?
- Center for Disease Control: Protein
- Good Protein Sources
- Protein & Exercise
- Why (and When) You Need More Protein
- The Best Protein for Runners