We all know those gym buffs that carry around their protein shakes, rattling them after their workout and talking about their gains. We also understand that protein makes up muscle, so to build muscle we need to consume protein. That’s what they’re doing, right? That’s what they tell me anyway. It sounds simple and it makes sense, but do we really need to supplement proteins and amino acids to get the most from our workouts?
When you start researching about taking protein for your workout though, it gets a bit more complicated. You have whey protein and creatine and post-workout and pre-workout and amino acids and BCAAs and some you take at the gym and some you take at night and some that are fast proteins and others are slow proteins and so on and so on. And everyone seems to have a different opinion about what you should have and how and when to take it. So let’s break it down.
The Sciencey BitOkay, we’re going way back to the start here. Some of you will remember this from biology classes, but proteins are what your DNA ultimately makes. They are the parts of your cells that do things. Hormones, like insulin, are proteins; antibodies are proteins; haemoglobin, that carries oxygen in your red blood cells, is a protein; they’re responsible for making energy in your cells, breaking down your food and a whole host more. They’re pretty important. Each protein is made up of a combination of 21 (or 22 depending on your source) amino acids and the combination of these amino acids determines how the protein functions. But what’s this got to do with working out? Well…
When we digest protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids and then puts back together as new proteins that it needs. Our bodies then use the protein to make muscle, which is the most well known reason to take protein supplements. However, it also has many other uses. Proteins and amino acids make enzymes and hormones and aid our digestion system. They provide an energy source for our bodies and promote growth and repair of tissue. These things are all vital to being able to work out effectively and even just function efficiently from day to day. Without protein, our bodies wouldn’t be able to recover from the workouts we do and could end up causing damage rather than strengthening them with exercise.
Do You Actually Need To Supplement Proteins And Amino Acids?The best way to get proteins and amino acids into our bodies is through our food, but sometimes this is hard to do. Especially if you’re on a restricted diet like being vegan, or you work long hours and don’t have the time to prepare all of your meals. This is where proteins and amino acids supplements become handy and even necessary for those who exercise, especially those looking to put on muscle mass. Because a protein shake comes as a liquid form, our bodies digest it more quickly, so that can have some benefits too.
If you're just a casual gym goer, you probably don't need to supplement your protein. For example, if you just go a couple of times a week and do some cardio, you're probably not going to get much benefit from adding a protein shake to your routine if you already have a good diet. In fact, if you're able to get all of your protein need from your diet, then you don't need the shakes at all. However, if you're like me and you spend very little time in the kitchen or you just actually can't eat that much protein in a day (I need 173g but can only eat 1300 calories, ideally), then it's totally fine to supplement.
It Can Be Good To Supplement
When you do need protein, is if you're still growing, such as those of you who are lucky enough to still be teenager and are starting to work out. Your body is growing and changing and will need extra protein anyway.
When you start working out, a protein shake will do you some good then. It can be beneficial if you have a protein restricted diet, like if you're vegan. Since you've cut out a lot of the naturally occurring proteins like meat, dairy and eggs, you'll need to be a bit more aware of your protein intake to stay healthy. Extra protein is also important if you're just starting to lift weights or are amping up your workout and aim to build muscle. Lastly, it's important to take protein if you have an injury. Protein repairs many of the tissues in our body as well as manufactures components of our immune system so if you have an injury and can't exercise, still taking your protein shakes will do you some good.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
This depends on what it is you're aiming to do and your current state. If you're aiming to build muscle then you need more than if you're just aiming to maintain your current weight. Likewise, if you're building your big muscles to lose fat, then you need a different amount again. Bodybuilding.com have a good calculator that takes into account your age, height, weight, activity levels and goals to let you know how much you need in a day. Check it out here to find out your personalised intake recommendations.
Does It Matter Which Kind Of Proteins And Amino Acids We Take?This is a bit more complicated. There is a system out there that gives proteins a value based on the amount of nitrogen they replace per 100g of protein, how readily digested it is, etc. The general consensus is that a higher value indicates a better protein. This value is called the Biological Value (BV). Based on this, whey protein ranks the highest. However, beef has a pretty low BV, yet has long been considered an important protein source for athletes.
Basing your protein choice on BV alone doesn't seem to consider all of the factors involved in protein consumption. Even the studies done don't conclusively agree that BV is the best indicator. Whey protein is also made from milk extract, so isn't suitable for a vegan diet, so that value doesn't really help vegans much at all. The long and short of it is that picking "the best" protein is complicated. As long as you're getting enough, that's the important thing.
When To Take Protein
I’m sure you’ve seen those weight lifting dudes at the gym rushing to take their protein shakes as soon as they finish their workout. You hear them talking about “Dem Gains” as they drink it. I know my fair share of them too and I’ve learned a lot from them. However, there’s a lot of misinformation out there too.
Actually, taking your protein shake right after your workout doesn’t really matter. It does in terms of glycogen replenishment, but not really in terms of making muscle. In fact, after much study by Hoffman, et al. and Wycherley et al., it was found that when you take your protein makes no difference to your weight loss, strength gain or body composition as long as you do consume the right amount of protein. The only time it does matter is when you do fasted exercise, i.e. you're exercising before you eat. In this case, taking your protein within 3 hours of exercising shows some benefits. However, the best time to have protein in this case is actually before you work out. But then you're not really training fasted, so it's a bit of a catch 22.
How Do You Take Proteins?
Most protein shakes will say add XX scoops to XXml of cold water. This is totally fine to do, but it's a bit boring. I've had my shakes with water for the last week as I haven't organised myself enough to do the food shopping and it tastes, well, a bit watery. Normally I'll have a chocolate protein with hazelnut milk or a vanilla protein with coconut milk. Many people have their shakes with regular milk, but I gave up dairy 10 months ago and have found these alternatives to be pretty delicious.
I also add it to fruit smoothies when I get bored of straight protein shakes. In this case I usually add berries to it along with some soya yoghurt and milk. I have a few smoothie recipes that I've shared on another page along with protein pancakes that I really like. I've also added it to oats along with some raspberries or blueberries to have as breakfast. Just soak them overnight and microwave in the morning, especially cold and dark ones here in Scotland.
The answer to how do I take the protein? is basically, any way you want!
So What About The Amino Acids?Ah the amino acids! As if protein alone didn't pose enough questions! Amino acids, as we mentioned, are the building blocks of proteins. When you take them on their own, you're essentially providing your body with the pre-digested parts of the protein it needs to build up its required proteins. They aid recovery and synthesis if new muscle mass. However, amino acids are much more complex than this. Different ones do different things and should be taken at different times.
There are 9 essential amino acids. These are amino acids that are essential in our diet as our body doesn't make them itself. These are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Each of these amino acids has their own role in maintaining the body's optimum function. Some make up components of the immune system, some facilitate muscle repair and growth. Some aid digestion and some produce hormones like insulin and growth hormone. Amino acids actually should have a whole blog post on their own to explain it fully.
So basically, protein is good. If you can get it from your diet, then that's even better! But if you need a little bit more, feel free to supplement it in any for you want, at any time you want. The amount you take is the most important thing. Turns out, it's not so complicated after all.
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