Eat Muscle to Build Muscle? A Primer on Protein

Introduction to the Series

This series of articles will serve as an introduction to key nutrition principles. It is intended to cover the basics; specific health conditions will not be addressed. Your goal is to incorporate these recommendations, one step at a time. Once you are consistently following this first step (optimising your protein intake), you can then move onto the next.

I’d recommend that you make it a goal to meet these recommendations each day. Write down this goal, put it somewhere you will see it frequently and review it every day. Once you have met these recommendations for 7 consecutive days, you can then introduce the next habit.

Incorporating these habits in this manner will breed further success and ensure that you can continue to implement them going forward. Always remember, the best way is to eat is the healthiest diet that you can sustain in the long-run!

If you’ve any questions then please don’t hesitate to ask!

With that aside, today’s article is all about protein. Without further ado, let’s get to the meat of the matter!

Protein Power: What are Proteins and Why Care?

Proteins are large biological molecules comprised of small, nitrogenous ‘amino acids’. They perform many functions, with involvement in metabolic reactions, molecular transport, structure, and much more. If you’re like most people reading this, you’re probably also interested in improving body composition. This entails maximising the mass of lean tissues such as bone, muscle and tendon and minimising unsightly fat mass. This may not only improve appearance but also many markers of health as, among other things, muscle is the body’s largest metabolically active organ.

To accomplish this, we are interested in the ‘net protein balance’ of these lean tissues, calculated as:

Protein synthesis – protein break down

Exercise like strength training increases both muscle protein synthesis and break down, but the elevation in protein synthesis is far greater, creating the potential for muscle growth if the individual is fed appropriately. To increase the mass of lean tissues like muscle, we must build (synthesise) more proteins than we degrade (break down). This additional requirement for building can come from proteins in the diet, increasing protein requirements in comparison to sedentary people.

Endurance athletes will be interested to hear that protein is important to the synthesis of new ‘mitochondria’ – ‘organelles’ in cells that are crucial to energy production and therefore endurance performance.

Dietary protein has many other effects that may interest you. Carbohydrate, fat and protein are collectively known as ‘macronutrients’. Of these macronutrients, protein has the highest ‘thermic effect of feeding’. This simply means that it requires more energy to digest protein than an equivalent amount of carbohydrate or fat, and this means that a higher protein diet may increase your energy expenditure each day which could reduce your fat mass over time. Furthermore, protein is the most ‘satiating’ of the macronutrients mentioned, meaning that it is more ‘filling’ than equivalent amounts of carbohydrate or fat, leaving you likely to eat less of other foods after consuming it.

Adequate protein consumption is crucial to supporting brain function and is needed to synthesise neurotransmitters – chemicals that transmit signals between cells in the brain and other organs. Thus, eating protein will help support optimal brain function. Finally, protein will slow gastric (stomach) emptying, or the rate at which food leaves your stomach. This means that nutrients such as glucose (a type of sugar) reach your circulation at a slower rate, keeping your energy levels even.

The distribution of your protein intake is important if you want to improve your body composition. Contrary to popular belief, more frequent meals beyond a certain point are unlikely to be optimal. Without boring you with biochemistry, there is a phenomenon named the ‘muscle full effect’. All that this means is that after an appropriate meal that maximally stimulates muscle protein synthesis, muscle protein synthesis cannot be further stimulated by feeding more protein for a period of time after the meal. Therefore, consuming adequate amounts of high-quality protein foods every three to four hours is a good rule of thumb for most.

Some Determinants of Protein Requirements

When determining how much protein you need, several factors need to be considered. Some of these are summarised below:

  1. The higher the quality of protein you ingest, the less you will require. Several measures of protein quality exist, but generally speaking proteins from animal foods such as dairy, eggs, fish, meat and seafood are of higher quality than proteins in plant foods like beans, nuts. This is principally because they contain higher amounts of the essential amino acids which our bodies cannot synthesise and therefore must come from the diet. It follows that vegans may have higher protein requirements and a need to include multiple complementary protein sources (e.g. beans and rice) at each meal to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
  2. The higher an individual’s energy (calorie) intake, the more protein they are likely to ingest; therefore, athletes consuming a lot of food typically meet or exceed their requirements without trying to consume extra protein.
  3. Protein requirements are higher when attempting to shed body fat, both in absolute and relative terms. Carbohydrate and fat are ‘protein-sparing’, meaning that they reduce protein breakdown when compared to when no food is provided. When attempting to shed fat, it is generally necessary to reduce carbohydrate and/or fat intake. Therefore, there is less of this protein-sparing, increasing protein needs. A higher protein intake will also generally reduce hunger and help retain lean tissue mass, making your efforts easier and more productive.
  4. Protein requirements may vary with age. Elderly individuals display ‘anabolic resistance’ to resistance exercise and protein ingestion. In comparison to younger individuals, the elderly may require larger volumes of resistance exercise and higher intakes of protein to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
  5. Protein requirements may be higher at the onset of a new exercise programme and slightly higher in less experienced athletes than in highly trained athletes on a given exercise programme.
  6. Protein requirements are generally higher with greater work loads of exercise.

Meaty Misconceptions

One last thing that I’d like to address is the notion that ‘your body can only ‘use’ about 20 grams of protein at each meal’. I think this stems from a study showing that about this amount of a high-quality protein maximised muscle protein synthesis after a strength training exercise bout in young men. Consuming more than this is unlikely to be detrimental; it just means that muscle protein synthesis would not have increased significantly more with higher intakes. When you consume protein about your requirements all that will happen is that the surplus will be ‘oxidised’, or used to produce energy. If you consume very large quantities of protein at one meal, the food will simply take longer to be digested. If you couldn’t digest more than about 20 grams of protein at a meal, the food would come out the other end of you in the same form that it went in!

A Cautionary Note

I will also add that there is a minority of individuals in which high protein intakes may not be appropriate and could even be harmful. For example, those with certain kidney diseases would be wise to watch their intakes. Furthermore, even some high-quality protein sources may not be a good option for all. For example, some have allergies or intolerances to certain dairy proteins. As always, monitor how you feel in response to eating!

From Principles to Practice: Protein Recommendations

Based on this brief overview of information, I’d generally recommend that following guidelines as a starting point:

  1. Young, hard training individuals looking to optimise body composition should consume 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily divided evenly between 4 to 5 meals. For example, a 70 kilogram individual would eat about 90 to 125 grams of protein, or perhaps 4 to 5 meals of 20 to 30 grams of protein. What does this equate to in food terms and how much are you currently consuming? Check out to give you a rough idea!
  2. Those looking to shed fat should consume about 1.8 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily divided evenly between 4 to 5 meals.
  3. Elderly, hard training individuals and hard training vegans should increase their intakes to slightly higher levels than the above two recommendations. (e.g. 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily divided evenly between 4 to 5 meals for the first scenario and 2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily divided evenly between 4 to 5 meals for the second scenario).
  4. Protein sources should come from whole foods whenever possible, with animal foods being the best options. ‘Whole foods’ does not mean protein powders with nasty additives or processed meats. A greater variety of foods is always preferable, as each has varying quantities of many essential nutrients. Some protein powders are sometimes useful, but I’ll cover this in an upcoming article.

Wrap Up

Optimising your protein intake is essential to being as healthy as possible and maximising the beneficial effects of your training. Embrace the recommendations above, track your adherence to them, and you may just reap the rewards of improved health and a better physique!

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