Before getting started, let’s do a brief review of protein. Protein is one of the three macronutrients. The others are carbohydrates and fats. Protein comprises 20 amino acids which are the building blocks of muscle, bone, skin, and hair; they make the enzymes that execute many chemical reactions and support our immune system. Out of the 20 amino acids, nine are essential: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Essential amino acids can not be produced by our body, they can only be obtained from our diet.
Once the protein is digested and broken down into individual amino acids, they float around inside our cells. The individual amino acids come together when the body needs to make a particular protein.
Protein needs vary depending on life cycle stage, health status, and some health conditions. Watch this brilliant video! It will clearly explain proteins.
1. Protein Type Matters
Not all food sources of protein are created equal. High-quality protein contains amino acid profiles in the same pattern we do. Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts, making them a complete high-quality protein. Other factors that define high-quality protein are its biological value and digestible value. Simply put, biological value refers to how fast the protein can be absorbed and used in the body and digestible value refers to the proportion of amino acids available for use after digestion and absorption. To sum it up; high-quality protein is defined by the following:
- Amino acid composition, are all the essential ones included?
- Bio-availability, how efficiently your body digests, absorbs and uses a particular protein.
Visit this article for more on high-quality protein foods.
Soy foods are the only plant-based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. Visit this article to read more on protein sources for vegetarians and vegans.
Vegetarians will have to be selective and intentional with their meals to meet their requirements for adequate protein and all the essential amino acids. Plants are incomplete proteins, meaning they’re missing some critical amino acids. Here are two techniques to make an incomplete plant protein a complete protein.
Complementing Proteins: When you combine two vegetable proteins (each being deficient in critical amino acids) they will produce a complete protein. Some examples are rice and beans; peanut butter and bread.
Supplementing Proteins: This technique involves mixing a complete protein with an incomplete one. Examples are mac and cheese, and cereal with milk.
In the clip below, plant-based athlete Brendan Brazier and author of Thrive Energy Cookbook talks about lesser-known plant-based whole foods that deliver high nutrients for increased energy, reduced inflammation, and enhanced performance.
2. Branced Chain Amino Acids, What are they?
BCAAs are part of the nine essential amino acids. They are: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. They are unique in that they metabolize in your muscle rather than in the liver. This makes them a reliable source of energy during exercise. BCAAs have been shown to prevent muscle breakdown during exercise, which is excellent for endurance athletes. They also help you recover faster from training by preventing or decreasing muscle soreness.
BCAAs are noteworthy for those restricting calories for fat loss since it helps preserve lean muscle mass. Studies have shown that BCAAs could increase fat oxidation (using fats for fuel) when taken before a fasted exercise session. Check it out here, Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion.
Leucine is the star of the BCAAs, as it is the critical trigger for muscle protein synthesis, meaning it kickstarts the repair and building process of muscle. Leucine is the grandmaster that tells your muscles to start growing, and all the other amino acids come and pitch in. The general recommendation of leucine required daily ranges from 3-4 grams a day. This depends on a few factors; your activity level, age, and if you’re recovering from an injury. It’s easy to hit your leucine requirements if you’re eating a balanced diet filled with a variety of whole foods. Visit the link below and watch the video for more information on BCAAs.
3. Protein Needs As We Age
On average, after 35, we lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade; this is called sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). You must protect your lean muscle mass through weight training and consume adequate protein to remain strong and functional as you enter each decade.
There’s more. As we age, our bodies aren’t as efficient at utilizing the protein we eat, so we must consume more. Experts in protein and aging recommend a protein intake between 1.2 and 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight, per day, for adults 65 and over. Read more about it here.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for sedentary adults over 18 years old is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. As mentioned above, this will differ slightly for pregnant women, active individuals, and seniors. The recommendation for strength and endurance athletes is 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. If you’re into percentages, another form of measuring your protein intake is the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR), which recommends 10%-35% of your daily calories come from protein.
If you weight train or engage in strenuous exercise, you can optimize muscle rebuilding by consuming high-quality protein soon after your training session. Ideally, a protein meal within 30-60 minutes after weight training, generally 20-40 grams of high-quality protein. If you’re pressed for time, a protein shake will do. Ensure it contains all the essential amino acids and adequate amounts of BCAAs.
Here’s a protein calculator to determine your daily requirements based on specific factors.
Let’s look at practical ways to implement sufficient protein into our daily meals:
- Spread protein intake throughout your daily meals and snacks (as oppose to piling it on to one meal), 20 to 40 grams per meal; lower end for snacks.
- Protein and Carbohydrates work well together! The absorption of protein is supported with carbohydrates and vice versa. Salmon and quinoa anyone?
- Consider the entire protein package (its fat content, sodium, fiber, etc.), as in sirloin steak vs. salmon. I’ll take some omega-3s please (can you tell I like salmon?).
- Practical ways to portion out your protein throughout your meals: use the palm of your hand to measure protein serving, one serving for females, two for males; fill 1/3 of your plate with proteins.
There are many negative consequences that can stem from age-related muscle loss and inadequate nutrition, such as loss of functional strength, poor balance, obesity, and secondary diseases, such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. Resistance exercise and proper nutrition are key to remaining strong and functional throughout the decades!
I hope you have found this post useful and will implement some of these tips right away!
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