Protein is a crucial nutrient when health and exercise are involved. It provides the human body with energy as well as excellent support for many metabolic processes. Consuming an adequate amount of protein should be a priority if you are working on that “summer bod” or just looking to improve overall health. While an adequate consumption of protein has many upsides, an inadequate consumption of protein can have many downsides. If left unchecked, inadequate consumption of protein can wreak havoc on your fitness goals. However, there are a number of ways to add more protein to your diet.
Protein is a macronutrient composed of organic compounds called amino acids. There are 20 known amino acids, of which 9 are considered “essential,” meaning that they can’t be synthesized in the body and must be supplied by the diet. These 20 amino acids combine into various proteins that ultimately become hormones, enzymes, hemoglobin, muscle, and other important tissues in your body (organs).¹
Based on the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), an adequate consumption of protein is 0.80 g/kg body weight in healthy adults.2 For example, an adult male weighing 65 kg would require 52 g of protein per day. It is important to note that protein requirements vary based on health status and needs.
Protein and exercise
Protein is involved in many structures, functions, and metabolic processes of the human body as mentioned above. So what is the relationship between proteins and exercise? It is important to know that our bodies are constantly degrading as part of the biological design. As such, muscle degradation, loss of strength, loss of endurance, etc. will occur naturally over time as we age.3
In contrast, exercise acts as a stimulus to help counteract the natural aging process and maintain a strong and healthy body. Our muscles go through phases of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to adapt to the demands caused by exercise. MPB is a chain of catabolic reactions that break down muscle tissue in response to resistance exercise, while MPS is comprised of anabolic reactions to synthesize muscle tissue.4 Proteins act as a direct contributor to MPB and MPS and help regulate the balance between the two pathways to increase muscle tissue.
Since exercise places a huge demand on the body and lean body mass (LBM) in general, more protein is required for those who exercise regularly. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg body weight is recommended for athletes, depending on their training needs.5
Inadequate protein consumption
- Muscle loss
- Based on the relationship between protein and exercise, it is safe to conclude that muscle mass and performance also correlate to adequate protein consumption. Increase in muscle mass can only occur if MPS is greater than MPB,6 so in turn, muscle loss will occur if MPB is greater than MPS.
- Decreased MPS can also affect recovery in individuals postexercise. Resistance training has been identified to trigger spikes in MPS at the rate of 2-5 times that of normal.6 A positive net balance of MPS to MPB is preferred for recovery when resistance training is performed regularly. As such, feeling sore or weak for an extended period after resistance training can be a red flag indicating inadequate consumption of protein.
- Inadequate nutrient intake
- Dietary proteins are also a great source vitamins and minerals. Consuming a variety of protein sources ensures an adequate supply along with a balanced nutrient profile. Protein sources include poultry, meat, fish, nuts, legumes, eggs, beans, soy products, and a variety of vegetables that include nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.7 Since dietary protein sources also often provide a variety of beneficial nutrients, inadequate consumption of dietary protein may go hand in hand with decreased consumption of these nutrients.
Ways to consume more protein
So how can you consume more protein in your diet? There are a number of ways to add more protein to your diet depending on what works for you. Here are a few tips to get you started:
One of the easiest ways to add more protein in your diet is to include protein in your meals more frequently. For example, if you eat three times a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner), add in snacks between meals to increase protein intake in your diet. Snacks can include protein bars, protein supplements, or high-protein foods like eggs and yogurt. Protein powders are a common snack for busy people and gym-goers. Simply add a scoop of a high-quality protein powder of your choice to 6 ounces of water (or milk/milk alternative) and shake or blend to enjoy!
If you are unable to eat more frequently (due to intermittent fasting, work restrictions etc.), eating bigger portions of protein at your meals is another simple way to get more protein in your diet. A typical portion for meat is 4 ounces for meals. If you prep your meals at home, simply add 1-2 ounces of additional protein to your meals. If you eat out more regularly, ordering extra protein at restaurants will work as well. Most restaurants nowadays have that option available.
Another reason you may not be getting enough protein in your diet is that your macronutrient ratio per meal might be higher in carbohydrates and/or fat. Ingredient customizing is a great way to modify this ratio toward higher protein intake. For example, a typical meal at a restaurant may consist of higher amounts of carbohydrates and fat with low to moderate protein. It is easy to make substitutions to change this ratio; for instance, swapping a lettuce wrap for a bun decreases the carbs and leaves room for more protein in the next meal and snack.