Why protein quality matters, why should you care, and what you need to know
There seems to be a bit of a learning curve where protein is concerned. You probably started off knowing you had to eat it and that’s about all. Then you went through something like this.
“Timing is important, I better have some after I train”
“I’m also supposed to eat it often, so I’ll go with 6 times a day”
“Wait, timing isn’t important. I just have to get my total in”
“Do I really have to have a shake straight after training?!!!”
“What, so I can eat one massive meal instead of 6?”
“Ok, hang on, it’s probably best to not just eat 1 meal. So what, 6 again then?”
“Ok fine, I should probably eat protein spread out over 3 to 5 meals and I don’t need to worry too much about timing”
“Oh, it looks like I should probably get about 25g of protein at a time too. This protein bar has got 18g in it. Does that not count?”
“Protein quality? What’s this now? There are quality proteins? I’m not sure if my proteins are quality or not! Have I been wasting my time?”
“LEUCINE WHAT?!!! Seriously, GTFO now”
The last part of the journey is protein quality. It seems confusing. This isn’t helped by supplement companies where a confused buyer is often a better buyer. But let’s make your life a bit more simple. Here, I’ll describe what protein quality is, why you should care, and what you should do with your new info.
Not only the amount
Just eat a gram per pound of protein and your good to go bro
It always seems like a good idea to be as reductionist as possible with nutrition. Distilling information down into bite-sized nuggets is helpful at times. Especially in an industry that profits from misinformation. But we’re talking about muscle gain and retention, sometimes, like actual nuggets, quality is important.
To understand why we need to have a little chat about protein.
Amino acids yawn alert
I’ve now attempted to write something about amino acids for you several times. I know you care about muscle gain and muscle retention. I know you care how protein quality affects both of those things. But, you don’t give two shits about nitrogen, essential and non-essential amino acids, or complete and incomplete proteins. So I’m going to put it into bullet points and let’s both move on with our lives ok?
- Amino acids are the building blocks of protein
- There are 20 of them lumped into 2 groups – essential and non-essential
- If a protein contains all 20 essential amino acids it’s a “complete protein”
If a protein has one or more essential amino acids missing it’s an “incomplete protein”
You want to get a protein source with a complete amino acid profile. Which you can do in a couple of ways:
- Eating mostly proteins from animal sources
- Combining incomplete proteins together
“Phew. So all I have to think about is where the protein comes from and I’m good right?”
Sadly not. There’s one last wrinkle in the protein quality story that we need to talk about. Leucine.
Bricks and builders
Leucine is an essential amino acid and is one of the things that helps signal your body to maximally stimulate protein synthesis. If the protein you eat contains the right amount of bricks, leucine is what tells the builders to get to work. But it’s not enough to get any old amount of leucine. The quantity, and thus the amount of total protein per meal is important.
For leucine to do it’s thing when you eat a meal, you’ll need a minimum amount. Researchers reckon about 2.5g to 3.5g is about right. The amount of protein needed to reach that level will depend on its quality. A relatively small amount of whey will get the job done. If you were trying to get the same amount from kidney beans, you’d have to stuff yourself. This is an important consideration for vegans. Hitting your protein solely from legumes might result in other problems…
Making it simple
Near the start of this post, I mentioned that sometimes you can’t distil information down into bite-sized nuggets. Well, I lied. That’s exactly what I’m going to try to do here. If you don’t take anything else away from this article, sticking roughly to this guide will solve most of your problems.
When eating a meal or at any protein feeding, concentrate on getting the minimum of:
- 0.3g/kg/BW protein from whey
- 0.4g – 0.5g/kg/BW protein from mixed meals
“My sandwich had a bit of protein in it, and I’ll still hit my target by the end of the day”
“These protein bars I like have about 20g protein in them”
Good enough right?
Well, maybe not.
Don’t freak out though. The world won’t end. If you work hard in the gym and try to eat a good diet, your still way ahead of the curve.
But paying a little bit of attention to getting 0.3g/kg/BW protein from whey or 0.4g – 0.5g/kg/BW protein from mixed meals might just take things up a tiny little notch.
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