Protein, often thought of as the building block of muscle, is so much more complex than that. Protein is found in every cell of the human body. Protein is made up of amino acids that help to grow, maintain and repair different tissues in the body- including muscle. Although this macronutrient has earned it’s title as a building block of muscle, not all proteins are created equal in this quest.
Quantity VS Quality
The amount of protein we consume each day is very individualized. For example, as we age we require more protein intake to achieve the same level of performance as in our youth. In general, healthy adult athletes, whether tactical, first-responders or recreational athletes, require a higher amount of protein than the average person. We are constantly breaking down our muscle tissue through intense training, and protein and carbohydrates help to repair that muscle and increase it’s size and workload capacity.
To maintain and increase muscle mass, the amount of protein and the quality of protein both matter. Protein is made up of different amino acids. Amino acids can be essential and nonessential. Essential amino acids are the amino acids that your body cannot produce on it’s own. Non-essential amino acids are amino acids that your body can produce on it’s own. High quality protein, rich in essential amino acids, is the real key to building muscle.
The Essential Amino Acid Breakdown
Our bodies are constantly trying to achieve a state of balance. Protein balance or a positive net protein balance means that the body is maintaining and building muscle mass. To achieve balance or exceed balance and shift it in the positive direction, essential amino acids are needed. The essential amino acids trigger muscle protein synthesis, which is a fancy way of saying gains.
So now that you know that the real magic ingredient for increasing muscle mass is the essential amino acids found in protein, let’s talk about where you find them. Essential amino acids are in animal and plant based foods. Animal proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, while most plant based proteins do not contain all essential amino acids. The four plant based foods that contain all essential amino acids are amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, and soy.
The essential amino acid content varies in foods, which is why it is so important to vary your diet. We all know someone who has tried to survive off of chicken breast as the main source of protein for virtually every meal. Not only is this hella boring, but you aren’t getting a variety of nutrients. Chicken breast has about 4 grams of essential amino acids per one ounce. But foods like greek yogurt, eggs, cheese, salmon, beans, and nuts also have different amounts and types of essential amino acids our bodies crave.
We need enough protein, rich in essential amino acids, to meet our individual requirements in an effort to achieve protein balance. But what about timing? Does it matter?
To stimulate muscle growth, high-quality protein should be distributed across all meals and snacks. Studies showed that backloading protein at the end of the day meal doesn’t cut it. The human body can only absorb so many grams of protein at one time. Think of your body and metabolism as a furnace. To keep a steady burn, you have to fuel that fire and be consistent. Your body is the same way. Eating that high-quality protein throughout the day keeps your body in protein balance and triggers muscle building.
Protein quantity does not mean protein quality. Meeting your protein requirements with a variety of protein rich food throughout the day is the way to go to keep your body in protein balance. Essential amino acid types and amounts vary in different foods, which is why we need to keep our meals and snacks differing and exciting.