Protein: A Comprehensive Guide
Protein guide for optimized muscle growth and recovery
Protein as Amino Acids
Protein is an essential nutrient for building muscle. It is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle tissue. There are 20 amino acids in our food supply, 8 of which are considered essential while the remaining 12 are considered inessential. A good protein source for building muscle is one that contains all of the essential amino acids (EAAs). Essential amino acids are a group of amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own and must be obtained through the diet.
These amino acids are essential for the growth, repair and maintenance of muscle tissue, as well as for the proper functioning of enzymes, hormones, and other body processes. They also play essential roles in the formation of red blood cells, the production of neurotransmitters, and the regulation of the immune system.
Protein Quality: Complete vs. Incomplete Protein Sources
A food that contains all of the essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Animal-based foods such as eggs, meat, fish, and dairy products are complete proteins, while most plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, meaning they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. This is why it is crucial for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet to consume a variety of plant-based foods to ensure they get all the essential amino acids.
It's important to include a variety of protein sources in your diet to ensure that you are getting all the essential amino acids. It is worth noting that the body doesn't store essential amino acids like it does with non-essential amino acids, so you need a regular supply of them from your diet to support your body's functions and muscle growth.
Examples of complete protein sources include animal-based foods such as eggs, lean meats, and lean fish like tilapia and cod. These foods are also a good source of other essential nutrients such as iron and B vitamins. In contrast, incomplete protein sources, such as beans and rice, do not contain all of the essential amino acids and should be combined with other foods to form a complete protein.
It’s common to hear that protein is the most satiating macronutrient but what does this mean? "Satiating", or satiety, refers to the ability to make someone feel full or satisfied. So, when it is said that protein is the most satiating macro, it means that it has the ability to make one feel full or satisfied more than the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats). But how accurate are the claims that protein is the most filling macronutrient?
It has been suggested (1) that protein has a satiating effect, but long-term effects on satiety are less clear. Increasing protein intake can lead to habituation to the satiety-promoting effect of a given increase in protein intake. In other words, if you keep increasing the amount of protein you eat, your body will eventually get used to it and it will no longer have the same effect of making you feel full or satisfied.
Dietary management of hunger is more complex than total protein intake alone, and factors such as fiber and water content, energy density, and palatability play a role in satiety. If you're struggling with hunger, it's recommended to avoid hyper-palatable (very tasty) meals and structure your meals with high protein, fiber, and water content, low energy density, and plenty of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. On the other hand, if you've lost your appetite and are struggling to gain weight, it's suggested to do the opposite.
Protein Prioritization of Importance
It can be easy to get lost when faced with a lot of new information on the topic of protein and can be hard to know where to start. This section is to help you rank the importance of protein intake as we move forward with the topics. Listed below is how you should prioritize your protein intake.
How much protein per day
Most important is reaching your daily protein intake goal. In theory, protein quality matters but in practice, it’s been shown that those who reach their daily target protein intake goals show little difference between how each person reached it. It’s not recommended to throw all else to the wind, but reaching this goal stands out by far as the most important factor with protein intake.
Spreading out your protein throughout the day is the second most important factor concerning protein intake. Evenly spread meals vs skewed feeding are important factors when consuming protein throughout the day, second only (by a great margin) to total daily protein intake.
Finally, the least “important” of the three concerns is protein timing. How one strategically plans their protein consumption (around training, post-training, pre-bed etc.) is worthy of consideration primarily to those who eat very few meals per day.
How Much Protein Per Day?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults consume a minimum of 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.36 grams per lb body weight). What is noteworthy about these figures is that these recommendations are based on the average sedentary adult and that individuals who are more physically active or have higher muscle mass may require more protein. So where does that lead us bodybuilders?
Bodybuilders typically aim to consume between 0.7-1.2 gram of protein per lb of body weight depending on the goal. When bulking, you can typically take in slightly less protein per lb of bodyweight than on a cut. This is because when on a cut, the more calories consumed by protein, the more thermogenic the breakdown of nutrients.
Protein is thermogenic, meaning that it generates heat and energy when it is metabolized by the body. This thermogenic effect of protein is known as the "thermic effect of food" (TEF). The TEF of protein is higher than that of carbohydrates or fat, which means that the body burns more calories digesting, absorbing and metabolizing protein than it does when processing other macronutrients.
When protein is consumed, the body has to work harder to break it down and digest it, this process requires energy and generates heat, which increases metabolism. This process requires more energy and generates more heat than the process of breaking down and digesting carbohydrates and fats.
The TEF of protein is about 20-30%, which means that 20-30% of the calories from protein are burned during digestion. In comparison, the TEF of carbohydrates is about 5-10% and the TEF of fat is about 0-3%.
Lean Body Mass vs. Higher Body Fat
For individuals with lean body mass, who are looking to build muscle and gain weight, protein intake may be higher. They may aim for a higher protein intake, such as 1.6 grams per lb of body weight per day, to support muscle growth and recovery. This is because lean individuals have less stored energy in the form of body fat and rely more on protein and carbohydrates for energy.
On the other hand, for individuals with higher body fat, who are looking to lose weight and decrease body fat, protein intake may be slightly lower. They may aim for a moderate protein intake, such as 1.2 grams of protein per lb of body weight per day, to maintain muscle mass while losing body fat. This is because individuals with higher body fat have more stored energy in the form of body fat and may not need as much protein to support muscle growth and recovery.
Protein Distribution & Absorption
Recent research have effectively debunked the long held notion that there is a cap of 20-25 grams of protein per meal to reach a maximal anabolic response. This was found to be untrue after a series of research which revealed mixed macronutrient meals with up to 70 grams of protein will result greater MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis) than 35 grams as reported Park and colleagues(2).
The idea came from research which examined the effects of protein as an isolated macronutrient instead of a more real-world scenario in which other macronutrients are typically consumed. Mixed meals consisting of carbohydrates, fats, and protein increase the anabolic ceiling of protein. The extent to which this concept can be taken to its extremes, such as in the case of one meal in which all dietary protein consumption occurs, is still an area of debate. However, it is generally accepted as an optimum strategy to consume 4 meals at roughly 0.4-0.55 g/kg protein per meal.
Fast Digesting Protein
When it comes to fast-digesting proteins, whey protein is the best option. Fast-digesting protein sources are particularly beneficial for post-workout nutrition because they provide the body with a rapid spike in amino acid levels, which can help to support muscle recovery and growth. They are also beneficial for those who want to increase their protein intake throughout the day. However, It's essential to remember that consuming fast-digesting protein sources all the time might not be the best strategy. It's important to have a balance in your protein intake, consuming a mix of fast and slow-digesting protein sources to provide your body with a steady supply of amino acids throughout the day, as well as to avoid blood sugar spikes, hunger, lack of balance, and insufficient supply of amino acids.
Slow Digesting Protein
Slow-digesting proteins are proteins that are absorbed more slowly by the body and provide a steady stream of amino acids over a longer period of time. They have several benefits for muscle growth and recovery, as well as for overall health.
Slow-digesting proteins are absorbed more slowly by the body, providing a sustained supply of amino acids over a longer period of time. This can be beneficial for muscle growth and recovery, as it allows the body to have a steady supply of amino acids to repair and build muscle tissue. Slower absorption can leave you feeling full and satisfied for a longer period of time, which can be beneficial for weight management.
Slow-digesting proteins are absorbed more slowly by the body and do not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels, which can be beneficial for those who are sensitive to blood sugar spikes and help to prevent diabetes. Additionally, slow-digesting proteins may promote muscle protein synthesis better than fast-digesting proteins which can be beneficial for muscle growth and recovery.
Some examples of slow-digesting protein sources include:
Casein: Casein is a slow-digesting protein found in milk. It forms a gel in the stomach, slowing down the rate at which it is digested.
Cottage cheese: Cottage cheese is a slow-digesting protein that is high in casein.
Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt is a slow-digesting protein that is high in casein and also contains probiotics that benefit gut health.
Finally, slow-digesting protein sources are rich in the essential amino acids, and the slow digestion rate can provide a steady supply of amino acids to the muscles throughout the night. It's key to remember that it's not just the type of protein that is important, but also the timing of the protein intake. Eating a slow-digesting protein source before bed can help to maximize muscle growth and recovery.
Moderate Digesting Protein
It is worth mentioning that the digestion rate of a protein source can also vary depending on the individual and other factors such as the presence of other macronutrients, the cooking method, and the physical form of the food.
Examples of moderate-digesting protein sources include:
Milk protein: Milk protein, which includes casein and whey, is considered a moderate-digesting protein source. It is absorbed at a rate between fast and slow digesting protein sources.
Whole eggs: Whole eggs are considered a moderate-digesting protein source, as the yolk of the egg contains fats which slow down the digestion of the protein.
Cheese: Cheese, particularly hard cheese, is considered a moderate-digesting protein source due to its high casein content, which slows down digestion.
Meat and poultry: Meat and poultry are moderate-digesting protein sources because they contain both fast-digesting and slow-digesting proteins.
Fish: Fish is a moderate-digesting protein source. The amount of fat it contains can affect the digestion rate and make it closer to the slow-digesting protein sources.
Lentils: Lentils are considered a moderate-digesting protein source, they are also a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
A personal favorite dairy protein source is kefir. In terms of digestion rate, kefir can be considered as a moderate digesting protein source. It is absorbed by the body at a rate between fast and slow digesting protein sources. The fermentation process that kefir goes through, breaks down some of the lactose and proteins in the milk which can make it easier to digest than regular milk.
Kefir has been shown to have a positive effect on muscle recovery, however, it is not considered as a direct slow-digesting protein source like casein, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. The fermentation process that kefir goes through, can make the proteins more bioavailable, but it's not the same as the prolonged release of amino acids that are provided by slow-digesting protein sources.
Fast/Slow Blends - Whey/Casein
A whey/casein blend is a combination of two different types of protein that have distinct absorption and digestion kinetics. Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein that is quickly absorbed by the body. This makes it an ideal choice for post-workout nutrition, as it can rapidly deliver amino acids to the muscles to support recovery and growth.
Casein protein, on the other hand, is a slow-digesting protein that is gradually absorbed by the body. This makes it a good choice for between-meals or before bed, as it can help to maintain a positive protein balance throughout the day by providing a steady stream of amino acids to the muscles.
When combined, whey and casein protein can provide a balance of fast and slow-digesting proteins, allowing for a sustained release of amino acids to the muscles. This can help to optimize muscle growth and recovery by providing the body with a constant supply of the nutrients it needs to repair and build muscle tissue. Additionally, casein protein has been shown to have a greater satiating effect than whey protein and can help in appetite control.
Protein Timing - When To Have Each Type Of Protein
To optimize muscle growth and recovery, it's important to have a balance of fast-digesting and slow-digesting protein sources throughout the day, including around workout sessions. Here's an example of how you might organize your protein intake throughout the day:
Breakfast: Start the day with a moderate-digesting protein source such as eggs or Greek yogurt. These will provide a steady supply of amino acids to the body throughout the morning.
Pre-workout: 30-60 minutes before your workout, consume a fast-digesting protein source such as whey protein. This will provide a rapid spike in amino acid levels, which can help to support muscle recovery and growth during your workout.
Post-workout: Immediately after your workout, consume a fast-digesting protein source such as whey protein or a EAA (essential amino acids) supplement. This will provide the body with the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild muscle tissue.
Lunch and Dinner: Consume a moderate-digesting protein source such as chicken or fish for lunch and dinner. These will provide a steady supply of amino acids to the body throughout the afternoon and evening.
Before bed: Consume a slow-digesting protein source such as casein or Greek yogurt before bed. This will provide a sustained supply of amino acids to the body throughout the night and help to reduce muscle breakdown (catabolism) during the night.
It's essential to remember that consuming adequate calories and macronutrients, as well as getting enough sleep and hydration are also important factors in muscle growth and recovery.
Around pre and post-workout meals you’ll want to high carb, low fat meals. Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy and consuming high carb, low fat meals before and after workouts can help to ensure that you have enough energy to perform at your best during your workout.
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, which is used as a source of energy during intense exercise. Consuming high carb, low fat meals before and after workouts can help to replenish glycogen stores, which can improve performance and recovery. Additionally, consuming high carb, low fat meals before and after workouts can help to increase insulin sensitivity, which can help to optimize the delivery of nutrients to the muscles and support muscle growth and recovery.
Carbohydrates are easily digested and converted into glucose, which is the primary energy source for the body. This can be beneficial for people who have a workout close to their meal time and want to avoid feeling sluggish during their workout.
Creatine in Protein
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in small amounts in certain foods, primarily in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, and eggs. It is also available as a dietary supplement and is commonly used by athletes and bodybuilders to improve muscle strength and power.
Creatine plays an important role in the body's energy metabolism, particularly in the muscles. It works by increasing the body's stores of phosphocreatine, which is a high-energy compound that helps to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy currency of the body. This increase in phosphocreatine levels allows muscles to produce more ATP, which can lead to improved muscle strength, power, and endurance.
The best food sources of creatine include:
Meat: Meat, particularly red meat, is one of the best sources of creatine. Beef, pork, and lamb are all high in creatine.
Fish: Fish is also a good source of creatine. Tuna, salmon, and halibut are all high in creatine.
Eggs: Eggs are also a good source of creatine.
It's relevant to remember that while these foods are good sources of creatine, they are not as concentrated as creatine supplements. To get the full benefits of creatine, it's typically recommended to take a creatine supplement in addition to consuming creatine-rich foods.
Note: that creatine has been shown to be safe and effective for most people.
Protein Powder by Granite comes highly recommended but typically will cost a little more than your average protein powder. Granite protein is a high-quality supplement with macronutrient profile with only 120 calories per serving. It is low in fat, carbohydrates, and sugar, while being (of course) high in protein. The powder features a unique blend of five different protein sources including whey protein concentrate, micellar casein, whey protein isolate, beef protein isolate, and egg white protein. This combination of fast and slow digesting protein sources increases muscle protein synthesis and helps keep it elevated for hours afterwards.
Inexpensive Meats is an article I’ve written up about the less expensive meat products and how you may prepare and store them for future use. Additionally, a warehouse club membership comes highly recommended for all your food shopping needs.
Protein is an essential macronutrient for muscle growth and recovery. The amount of protein required can vary depending on an individual's body composition, muscle mass and activity level. Bodybuilders typically aim to consume a higher amount of protein than the general population. However, the best protein intake for you will depend on your individual needs and goals. It's important to pay attention to your total calorie and macronutrient intake for the day and make sure you are consuming enough to support muscle growth and recovery.
1 Kohanmoo A, Faghih S, Akhlaghi M. Effect of short- and long-term protein consumption on appetite and appetite-regulating gastrointestinal hormones, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Physiol Behav. 2020 Nov 1;226:113123. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2020.113123. Epub 2020 Aug 5. PMID: 32768415.
2 Park S, Jang J, Choi MD, et al. The anabolic response to dietary protein is not limited by the maximal stimulation of protein synthesis in healthy older adults: a randomized crossover trial. Nutrients. Oct 2020;12(11):3276. doi:10.3390/nu12113276