Protein - are you getting enough?

Protein - are you getting enough?

Protein - are you getting enough?

Written By: SportsShoes

Protein - are you getting enough?

As a runner you're probably pretty good at calculating your carbohydrate needs, but with more research highlighting the importance of protein for recovery and body composition, it's smart to check you're getting enough of this muscle building nutrient.

Protein 101

Proteins are made up of amino acids - we can think of these as protein building blocks. We need proteins to provide our bodies with the raw materials they need to turnover new tissue, muscle, hormones, blood cells and enzymes.

There are 20 different amino acids - 9 of which are essential because our bodies can't make them. The remaining 11 can be synthesised from other proteins, so are 'non-essential'. There are also some amino acids that have been linked to specific sporting benefits. For example, 'branch chain amino acids' (found naturally in eggs, cottage cheese, tuna, chicken and whey) have muscle-building effects when consumed in the recovery period, and may reduce muscle damage and soreness.

Meat or veggie?

Food proteins are made up of various combinations of amino acids. Proteins with all the essential amino acids are known as 'complete proteins', and all animal foods (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) come under this category.

Foods containing some but not all of the essential amino acids are known as incomplete proteins. Most plant foods are incomplete proteins, with the exception of soy and quinoa, which are complete, earning them a valuable role in vegetarian and vegan diets.

How much protein do you need?

The recommended intake of protein is hotly debated, but in the UK, the current guidelines suggest 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which works out to 56 grams for a 70-kilo adult.

If you consider that a chicken breast contains 30 grams of protein, you can argue that we're all eating enough. However, this level is simply what's needed to avoid deficiency - and it might not be the best amount if you're looking to increase muscle mass, reduce body fat or even boost your recovery. So where should your intake lie?

Protein intake for weight loss

Not only does protein have the biggest effect on satiety (meaning it keeps us fuller for longer, and with fewer calories), it helps to protect lean muscle tissue during dieting, helping to maximise fat loss. Maintaining lean mass is vital for sports performance because it gives you power.

To test the benefits of a higher protein diet, researchers from Birmingham University enrolled 20 young healthy resistance trained adults and asked them to follow a calorie controlled diet containing 15% or 35% of calories from protein for two weeks alongside their normal training schedule. Interestingly performance was not affected, although those in the higher protein group did report they felt slightly more fatigued.

The good news is that you don't need to turn into an Atkins or Dukan devotee to benefit, as even small increases in protein intake (from 0.8 to 1.2 grams per kilogram for example) have been shown to boost weight loss and help regulate appetite. In particular, swapping a breakfast of cereal for one with eggs can reduce levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) for longer.

Protein and muscle building

If you want to get bigger muscles you need two things - exercise and protein. Both these stimulate muscle-building pathways and provide raw materials for new muscle growth.

When you eat protein, new muscle growth is increased for several hours. It's boosted even more when protein is eaten after exercise, revealing the strong relationship between the two. Put simply, protein intake can enhance the adaptive response to strength training, which means better improvements in body composition.

Protein and recovery

Most of us know that protein plays a vital role in recovery but it's not just muscle repair - consuming protein with carbs can actually help your body refill its glycogen (stored carbohydrate) levels more quickly. There's no need to go overboard - consuming 20-25 grams of a high-quality protein after finishing exercise is enough max out the response.

It's not just the quantity of protein that counts though- protein eaten directly after exercise results in higher rates of muscle growth than when it is consumed several hours later. This means eating a meal or snack containing protein within an hour or two of finishing a run. If you don't have time to eat, try a whey protein supplement or milk - 1 pint contains 20 grams of protein.

Practical protein

It's all well and good talking protein, but how do you know if you're getting enough? The first step is to do some basic math and work out your protein needs and average intake to gauge whether you're getting enough.

Protein requirements

Recommended daily intake for adults:0.8g/kg per day
Endurance athletes1.2-1.8g/kg per day
To protect lean mass during weight loss:1.8-2g/kg per day
To support recovery:20 grams after exercise

The easiest way to check your intake is to use a food-tracking app like My Fitness Pal, or use the list below to get an idea of your average intake. Once you get used to the levels of protein in various foods, you'll be able to eyeball your diet and know whether you're consuming enough. Don't worry about getting it right to the last gram - most recommendations come as a range.

As a last tip, bear in mind that recommendations are moving away from a daily total towards a meal based approach; so aiming for 20-30 grams of protein with your breakfast, lunch and dinner is better than consuming most of your protein at dinner, both for appetite control and new muscle growth.

Protein math

This meal plan provides 105 grams of protein - hitting 1.5 grams of protein per kg body weight for a 70kg adult

Breakfast: power shake containing 1 scoop whey protein, banana, berries and ½ pint milk (30 grams)
Lunch: 3-egg spinach Omelette with toast and 170 gram pot of total Greek yoghurt (35 grams)
Dinner: 140 gram salmon fillet, roasted vegetables and pasta (34 grams)
Snacks: fruit and 25-gram handful almonds (6 grams)
= 105 grams

Protein power for veggies: eggs, milk, cheese, quinoa, soybeans, tofu, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds


Protein in grams

25 grams nuts 5
Matchbox cheddar cheese 7
50 grams quinoa (dry weight)7
75 grams tofu8
150 grams lentils 10
2 small eggs10
200g baked beans10
50 grams nuts 10
300ml soya milk 10
50 grams peanut butter10
Peanut bounce ball 14
200 grams cottage cheese20
1 scoop whey protein 20
1 pint milk20
200 grams total yoghurt 20
100 grams tuna 27
Salmon fillet (150g)27
100 grams beef fillet 27
100 grams chicken 30

Laura Tilt is a registered Dietitian, specialising in weight loss and mindful eating, sports nutrition and the  low FODMAP diet  for IBS.

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