The Importance of PROTEIN

The word "protein" is derived from the Greek word "protos", which means "first", respectively "proteion", which means " the first place". Proteins rightfully deserve this name, as they are the most fundamental components of all living cells. Consisting of chains of amino acids, proteins are a necessary part of the human diet and are supplied especially by such foods as meat, milk, eggs and legumes.

Proteins make up nearly half of the dry weight of the human body and are constantly being replaced. With the exception of the water component, protein represents 98% - 99% of the skeletal muscles. Research indicates that exercise of either long duration, high volume or high-intensity increases the protein requirements of athletes; in fact athletes may require between 23 and 178 percent more protein than average people ! The longer or harder an athlete trains, the more important dietary protein becomes to maximizing the muscles' repair and building process. As training breaks down muscle proteins, muscles require protein intake to be used for repair and rebuilding. When there is not sufficient protein available for these processes, exercise will keep continuously breaking down muscle tissue, and the athlete will end up losing valuable muscle rather than building it! This known as being in a "catabolic state."

Weight-training athletes who considerably increased their intake of dietary protein were able to improve strength, muscular hardness and percentage of lean body mass. This increase of lean mass brings about an increase in the body's metabolism, which is the most important aspect in achieving and maintaining a healthy, lean physique. After all, bigger muscles burn more calories all day long than little muscles, whether during exercise or at rest!

Endurance athletes are also well advised to increase their protein intake, as prolonged aerobic exercise can burn amino acids after the body uses up its stored glycogen (gluconeogenesis). In the event that there are not enough amino acids derived from dietary proteins circulating in the blood, the body has no other choice than acquiring the needed amino acids through breaking down muscle tissue, thus cannibalizing itself.

Dietary protein is, however, not only vital for the repair of existing tissue levels, the synthesis of new tissue and used as an alternative source of energy during periods of intense stress, injury and caloric deficiency. The amino acids, derived from ingested dietary proteins, are in fact also essential for the synthesis of other amino acids as well as hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes and other biochemicals and -last, but not least - also of utmost importance for the optimal functioning of the immune system!!!

Protein deficient athletes can expect such conditions as tiredness, reduced energy, weakness, mental depression, lowered resistance to infections and disease, slower healing of injuries and prolonged recovery from exercise. As whole-food sources of protein are often high in fat and additionally place high demands on the digestive system, it is important to understand that it is virtually impossible for any athlete to make optimum progress without the steady use of a quality protein supplement.

The current RDA (recommended Dietary Allowance) is only approximately 0.8 g protein per kg of body-weight for adults, but this figure does not take the increased protein needs of athletes versus sedentary individuals into account. While the protein requirement of 0.8 g per kg of body-weight of inactive individuals is not difficult to meet by merely consuming whole food sources of protein, it becomes quite hard for individuals with an active to satisy their higher protein needs without some form of supplementation.

How much protein such a person actually needs depends on the level of activity and the intensity of training. Experiments have shown that the actual protein needs of most athletes are at least between 1.6 and 1.8 g per kg of body-weight per day. Competitive bodybuilders, especially when training intensely under the influence of anabolic agents, may even benefit from protein intakes of more than 2.5 kg per kg of body-weight per day.

Although there is no official scientific evidence that you can't meet all your protein needs for muscle growth through food, this is certainly no easy task. Being serious about your work-out and your physical development means you have to eat a meal every three hours; each of these meals must contain a complete protein such as egg-whites, lean meat, chicken or dairy products. While it may not be completely impossible to ingest the necessary amounts of protein in the form of whole food, it certainly takes careful meal planning and quite some time and effort to prepare all these meals and eat them! It is certainly much easier to prepare and drink a protein shake than cook and eat poultry, fish or egg whites every three hours. Not to forget, the stress that protein foods like these cause to the digestive system. It takes several hours to digest beef or chicken, which means that your muscles and all your other physiological systems need to wait that long for the urgently needed amino acids to fulfill their vital functions.

A high-quality protein shake, on the other hand, provides all important amino acids to your body only minutes after consumption. Whey protein supplements ( 80 - 90 % whey protein concentrate/isolate mixtures are best ) are called "fast -acting," as they excel in providing high amounts of branched chain amino acids to your muscles faster than any other protein supplement. The fast supply of amino acids is of particular importance immediately after an intense work-out session. By then the blood flow to your muscles is still high and your muscles are especially receptive to nutrients; supplying them with the necessary amino acids right then ensures optimum recovery and growth.

Another disadvantage of getting all your protein from whole food sources is that you can't help ingesting a certain amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, which any serious athlete must try to avoid. (The dietary fat intake of athletes should exclusively consist of unsaturated fats like olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sunflower oil.) A high-quality protein shake on the other hand usually contains up to 90-95 % protein in its purest form and only little (if any) fat, cholesterol or lactose! Thus it allows you to get your necessary protein without the fat and unwanted calories, and the absence of lactose makes it an ideal source of protein for lactose intolerant people.

Last, but not least, it is important to realize that intact dietary proteins from whole foods are generally less bio-available ( bio-availability refers to how much protein of a certain food our body can actually utilize ) than quality protein supplements, even though both may contain the same amounts of amino acids. Therefore a diet based on traditional sources of protein may provide an adequate intake, but may yet not be as effective as one that includes a quality protein supplement like a whey concentrate/isolate or soy isolate.

Other quality protein supplements include casein-based protein powders ( the "other" milk protein aside from whey ) and protein powders manufactured from egg whites. Unfortunately casein has a negative effect on one's cholesterol profile and egg white protein does not only taste badly, but also contains about 10% carbohydrates.

Christoph Klueppel

Master of Fitness Sciences
Specialist in Performance Nutrition