Is protein just protein and how much do you need?
Author: Ninni Kjaer
I would say that the question of whether protein is just protein is a general concern, especially amongst people, whether they are seeking to optimise their health, or are just interested in nutrition. Proteins are of particular interest for vegans or vegetarians; people are often questioning how vegans and vegetarians get enough protein, and if the quality is equal to that of animal protein?
This article will try to answer some of these questions, and furthermore look into what type of protein you should go for, if you are looking to supplement.
What is protein?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that we categorise our foods in; fats, carbohydrates and proteins. When it comes to building muscle mass, proteins are essential. Zooming in on a protein, you will find that its composed of organic compounds. These are called amino acids, and consists of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen or sulphur.
Where does protein come from?
When asking where proteins come from, you will most likely first think of a steak, or the meat of an animal. Then maybe dairy, and some would even go as far as mentioning the plant based sources such as tofu, tempeh, beans and lentils. But nuts and even veggies are also sources of protein. I find there is still a lack of information and knowledge in this area.
Did you know that 100kcal from broccoli (11g/protein) contains more protein than 100kcal from beef (9g/protein)? OH yes, that is true.
Why do we need protein?
All of our cells contain protein, and therefore protein is an important component in the building and repairing of tissues. So, in every process of the body where there is a need for building, repairing or growing something, proteins are needed. This could be in the process of “growing up”, repairing bruises on the skin, or building up muscle mass (I believe it’s called ‘bulking’ in the fitness world).
How much protein do we need?
The amount of protein that we need vary from individual to individual.
Most recommendations are set to be around 0,8g – 1g pr. kg of bodyweight. That means if you weigh 60kg you need approx. 48g – 60g of protein pr. day.
It is well established that individuals who are building muscle mass, or have elevated physical activity require more protein. Higher protein intake in these individuals is shown to support performance adaptations, sustain lean body mass and improve body composition.
When being physically active you could benefit from getting 1,3g – 1,6g of protein pr. kg bodyweight, depending on your goal, type of training and your measurements. Also some studies suggest that if you are on a weight loss programme, it can be beneficial to keep proteins in mind due to the lower intake of calories.
If you are eating a balanced diet and getting enough calories, it is not difficult to meet the recommended intake. Even a regular daily intake (about 2000kcal) that consists of only rice and broccoli will give you approx. 150g of protein.
It is important to state that it’s not recommended to only eat two sources of food in a day – I just wanted to make my point.
Maybe you have heard it before, maybe not. But quality is central to the discussion around protein. It’s not only about protein intake, it’s also about what type of protein you are getting. The quality is determined by the ability to meet the demand for amino acids whilst considering its digestibility and utilization in the body. So how do you recognize if a protein is of high quality? In terms of resistance training, you will go for one that consists of essential amino acids (EAA), the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) and leucine to increase the muscle protein synthesis. Using high quality protein when it comes to resistance training, has been shown to have an impact on training adaptation.
It’s worth noting, our body is able to mix and match from the sources we get, so you don’t have to go around on an everyday basis and making sure to eat one veggie with another to get all the essential amino acids to add up, you will get that by eating a varied diet. This is something related to supplementing.
Is there a difference between animal and plant protein supplement?
Protein supplement is the most commonly used diet supplement worldwide and the most frequently used source is whey protein.
Whey is a high quality protein, it’s rich in leucine that promotes muscle protein synthesis and has a rapid digestibility. It is therefore a common choice.
Newer studies show that a plant source of protein has similar effect on muscle gains, performance, body composition and strength, namely pea protein. Pea protein is also a complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids.
So what to choose, when it comes to supplementing?
The question is an easy answer for vegans of course, since pea protein is of course animal free. So if you want to have a more plant based diet, or you have lactose intolerance or sensitivity, pea is a good choice.
Furthermore, there is another thing that is worthy to mention about pea protein. Pea protein also contains an additional amino acid; arginine. The concentration of Arginine in pea protein is three times that of whey protein. It has been shown that Arginine is essential to building muscle, since it is boosting the growth hormone response and thereby increasing muscle mass.
Protein in the diet
Proteins from plant sources are packed with nutrients and fibres, which makes them a lot healthier gram for gram. Fibres are essential for a healthy lifestyle. Nowadays, where there has been a focus on eating a high protein diet, it seems like we tend to overlook the importance of fibre. Fibre aids digestion, acts as fuel (prebiotics) for the gut bacteria and thereby promotes a healthy gut microbiome, whilst also helping the digestive tract flowing by keeping soft and regular bowel movements and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, when it comes to weight loss or - maintenance, fibres are again very important, since they prolong the satiety.
What do I think?
For the ones who follow my blogs, Instagram, Facebook or knows me irl, they know that I promote a plant based diet. I would always promote balance and ‘everything in moderation’, so choose what you prefer. Just keep in mind, that good quality is important if you have meat in your diet. Please choose a healthy source, so you don’t allow all the antibiotics and other toxins to enter your body. Maybe ask yourself if you eat it because you need it, or because you love it and wouldn’t be without it?
When supplementing, I would always recommend a plant based source. Not only because of my own health, but also because of sustainability and animal welfare.
By the way, where do you think the cows get their muscles from?