I lift a few weights now and again. I’m in to P90x and love bringing it to the workouts (my favourites are Legs & Back, which I am currently suffering DOMS from, and Back & Biceps). This week I was amazed by how strong my arms were. I’m also into body weight exercises – if someone said I could do only one strength-training exercise for the rest of my life, I would honestly choose push-ups. They are a bit of everything; arms, chest, shoulders, core, legs and butt. And nothing beats doing your first man press up!
So, with muscle strength in mind, do I need more protein in my diet?
Since the age of 11 I have been a vegetarian (with the exception of a genuine wrap mix-up in work one day. I worked in a catering company and the chefs would make things for us to try on Wednesdays. I tucked into wonderful salads and marvelous canapes. The next day the chefs would ask us how they went, and one guy approached me with the Hoisin Duck Wrap questionnaire. “Oh no”, said I, “I’m a vegetarian. There’s no way that questionnaire applies to me. I did eat the nice hummus roll though”. He explained that he’d seen me eating at least two, and that I’d seemed to enjoy them! Oops!)
In third year, I started to suffer from a range of problems which my doctor ascribed to being protein deficient. It was important to get more protein, and animal protein can be used by our bodies more quickly than plant proteins. Yes, plants contain sufficient proteins (called amino acids), but different amino acids are available over a variety of different vegetables. To get the most out of a vegetarian diet, you need to eat a range of veggies and often together, in order to boost absorption. Also you can have situations where protein is present, but not absorpable in that form. My body was having difficulty in absorbing the proteins from plants, and while optimising my food could help (for example, eating beans with cheese gives you the fats and calcium required to help absorb the range of amino acids in the beans), the quickest way to get a spectrum of protein into me was to eat meat. I chose fish, and decided that they would be sustainably caught and organic where possible.
We enjoy fish meals. Our favourites are probably salmon and tuna, the tuna being tuna steaks with a Peri Peri sauce (recipe coming soon!). We eat what I consider to be large portions of fish too, for example:
When my “Handy Guide” experiment (which you may read here) states that a portion is palm sized-and-thick.
Do I need more protein than that? I’m pleased to say that the medical reasons for more protein have gone and I’m satisfied that I’m getting enough protein for health needs, but what about fitness needs?
Protein is needed to repair muscle tissue and therefore grow muscles. I’m not out to become jacked, but I do want to get leaner and stronger.
Enter the whey powder.
Whey is a natural by-product of the cheese-making process. Milk contains two primary proteins: casein and whey. Whey composes about 20% of milk proteins, and casein comprises the remaining 80%. So when you drink a glass of milk, you are consuming both casein proteins and whey proteins.
During the cheese-making process, an enzyme called rennet is added to milk to curdle it. The curds are used to make cheese, and the remaining liquid is whey. (Hence Little Miss Muffet, eating her curds and whey).
Historically, this liquid was considered more-or-less useless. It’s not very energy rich and is only really a source of protein. As the diet and fitness industry has boomed, whey has come into the spotlight as a low-calorie high-protein wonderfood. However it is important to remember that it is a by-product of cheese, and is essentially a waste product. Is this an example of sustainability in action (turning “wastes” into resources), or is it clever marketing?
Whey is extremely rich is three milk proteins – specifically beta-lactoglobulin (~65%), alpha-lactalbumin (~25%), and serum albumin (~8%) — which are more easily digested by the body than any other protein, including the holy grail of protein, eggs. Easily digested protein makes bells go off in my head, because digestion is easy – it’s absorption that bodies have trouble with, taking up the proteins from the digestion process and effectively using them. If you can digest it, great; but if you can’t get it into your blood stream where you need it to use it, it’s useless.
Then I was pleased to see that whey protein has the highest absorption-rate of any protein food source. This is known as the Biological Value or BV, which is an indication of how much protein in a given food is actually available to the body to utilize.
Whole eggs have a BV of 93.7, and whey protein has a BV of 100 (the higher the BV, the better.) It’s important to remember that BV only measures the potential absorption of protein against other foods, not how much of the protein you will actually absorb, which is can be impacted by other foods that you consume with the protein, as well as how much protein is already pooled in your body from earlier meals (the body can only utilize a certain amount of protein at a time.)
Not only does the body potentially absorb more protein from whey, it digests whey more quickly than eggs, meat, or dairy. This makes it an ideal post-workout food, when it’s important to provide extra protein to the body to aid in recovery, especially after weight or resistance training. For these same reasons, whey makes a good addition to breakfast, since protein levels will typically be low after eight hours of sleep.
Sounds good. Really good. But, still, do I need it?
I do at least an hour of exercise 6 days a week. But I eat regular amounts of plant protein and fish. I eat waaaaay too many carbs however!
I think the key is to limit the carbs in my diet and get more protein in. If I can do that without being hungry that’s better, and protein is supposed to reduce hunger as well as it is more energy dense than carbs. I’ll boost my intake naturally for now, until I find some evidence why protein powders might be helpful to me.
Question: Do you take protein supplements? What are they and what do they do for you?