The Importance of Protein


Protein is a macro-nutrient found in many foods, both animal and vegetable, and is used in many different processes in our body and helps give us a feeling of being full (satiety). Protein produces new body tissues, primarily skeletal muscle mass, and can produce energy, glucose, ketone bodies, cholesterol, and fatty acids. Protein is made up of Amino Acids, and these Amino Acids are the bricks, mortar, and steel of your body. Protein is generally digested in the stomach and absorbed in the intestine, and the Amino Acids are then transported in the blood to the liver for metabolism. They are the Primary Building Blocks and are broken down into Contractile and Fibrous Proteins. Contractile proteins enable muscle to contract. Fibrous proteins are found in bone, teeth, skin, tendons, cartilage, vessels, hair, nails.
There are about 20(+) Amino Acids (AA) that build protein (proteinogenic), nine of which are Essential Amino Acids (EAA). This means you must consume them; your body cannot create them. These EAAs function to aid in-cell repair/turnover, nutrient uptake, protein synthesis and protect the mitochondria (cell powerhouses), which are responsible for generating ATP (energy). Three of them are Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA).
The nine are:
You may have heard that BCAA’s help your muscles, but the reality is that is only half the story. If you use BCAAs, you need the rest of the AAs to finish the job (all 6 of them)! Leucine is an important one when it comes to BCAA’s. You need it to stimulate mTor (a special protein that helps Muscle Protein Synthesis=MPS), so BCAA’s alone won’t stimulate MPS. The analogy I use often is Leucine will “flip the switch” on for Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS), but without the other EAA’s you won’t have “power”.
Likewise, if you have the AA’s without Leucine, you will have “power” but no way of “turning it on.
“Animal-based proteins are the best sources for complete EAA’s (barring pork rinds and collagen). Plant proteins are typically short on EAA’s, except for quinoa, pea protein, tofu, hemp & amaranth. If someone is Vegan, they may have a hard time getting in enough EAA’s to “flip that switch” unless they have a solid understanding of where the EAA’s are coming from in their food choices.
More is not better, either. EAA’s compete for absorption, so appropriate amounts of each are important, which is one of the main reasons supplementing with EAA’s isn’t recommended if you are eating your protein from animal sources.
What is the minimum amount of Leucine it takes to “flip that switch” for MPS? This is called the Leucine Threshold concept. Simply put, you may be able to put your finger on the switch (have Leucine in your meal), but unless you are strong enough (enough Leucine) to actually move it, you will not be successful in actually flipping the switch. If you were to “snack” or graze, you might not be getting enough Leucine to effectively DO anything except add calories to your day.
What is the minimal amount of animal protein (the macronutrient), on average, to stimulate MPS per meal? Taking into consideration proteinsources, age, activity level, and other factors.Somewhere between 25-40 grams per meal, which is about .24-.6gram/kg of body weight per meal. (1,2) Any additional protein in a meal will not go to waste; remember, this is a minimum per meal!
What does your body do with the amino acids from the protein you eat? Let’s define two words: Anabolism: the synthesis of complex molecules in living organisms from simpler ones together with the storage of energy; constructive metabolism. If something is “anabolic,” it is building something. Catabolism: the breakdown of complex molecules in living organisms to form simpler ones, together with the release of energy; destructive metabolism. If something is “catabolic,” it is destroying something.
The Catabolic Effect (breakdown and loss) of muscle happens due to age, nutrition, atrophy, etc. We have the ability to repair and rebuild that breakdown through MPS. MPS is the process of using amino acids from protein and building muscle after it has been broken down from resistance training (the stimulus). This is the muscular Anabolic Effect. This is a constant process, breaking down of muscle and the potential to rebuild it. If you want a bigger wall, you need to add more bricks. Muscle is the wall, andamino acids are those bricks. Now, the pace at which the building occurs depends on many things, such as the quantity and quality of those amino acids as well as a stimulus to the muscle. Ideally, you want to outpace the breakdown and loss with the MPS.
Now, let’s go back to the comment about Collagen and Pork Rinds. Many people work Collagen, as well as pork rinds, into their day, thinking it can be used as protein, without realizing it must be used in a specific way for it to benefit you. Collagen, as well as pork rinds, is an incomplete protein and requires another amino acid called tryptophan in order to be properly utilizedin the body. By not providing the needed amino acid in your meal, you are allocating stored tryptophan from your body to the collagen or pork rinds, possibly depleting your body’s amino acid pool of it. Tryptophan is necessary as a precursor to serotonin, so a deficiency may cause a foul mood! Serotonin is important and helps us to be calm, deal with stress, aid in sleep, and a sense of overall well-being. Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety, irritability, eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, poor sleep quality, and insomnia.
So, how can you integrate Collagen or Pork Rinds into your day to benefit you without affecting your goals or your mood? Add it to a meal that is already reaching your minimum protein amount for the meal. As long as it is being used as a supplement to a meal, not a standalone item, you will have adequate tryptophan in your system to be utilized. I would recommend not more than 10g of protein from collagen or pork rinds per day so that you are still getting the many benefits of whole foods.
you are what you eat
Now, knowing a little more about the importance of protein comes the fun stuff! Recipes! By making protein a primary focus for meals, you can start to utilize the science behind nutrition. All of the main dishes on my website and Recipe Guide eBook focus on getting a minimum amount of protein for each serving. Feel free to try out some recipes or download the eBook so you can start applying the Importance of Protein to your nutrition.
Written by:
Lisa Agens, Your Lean Life
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
ISSA Specialist in Fitness Nutrition & Precision Nutritional Coach
1)Moore DR, Churchward-Venne TA, Witard O, Breen L, Burd NA, Tipton KD, Phillips SMProtein ingestion to stimulate myofibrillar protein synthesis requires greater relative protein intakes in healthy older versus younger men Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. (2015 Jan)
2)Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SMNutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletalmuscle hypertrophyFront Physiol. (2015 Sep 3