What comes to mind when you think of protein? “Bigger, leaner muscles” is usually the first thing we imagine when talking about protein and nutrition. After all, protein is a major ingredient in any sports nutrition plan. But while protein is crucial to lean muscle growth, it does a lot more than get you ripped. Here’s a quick overview of protein’s role in men’s nutrition.
What is nutritional protein?
Protein is one of three essential macronutrients (carbs and fats being the others) that your body needs to function properly. In fact, you’ll find proteins in every cell, organ and muscle in your body. Protein is composed of chemical compounds known as amino acids; there are 20 amino acids that make up different proteins in your body. Nine of these 20 amino acids can’t be produced by our bodies so they must come from our diet. You need all of these essential amino acids if you want to grow muscle. Think of amino acids as building blocks – if you’re missing even one, you’re in trouble.
Why is protein important?
Your body needs protein for cell growth, repair and maintenance. When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids, which are then used to replace proteins throughout the body. Proteins are also used for a number of metabolic processes like digestion, hormone production and – of course — muscle growth.
Your body breaks down protein when you exercise, so pre-workout nutrition and post-workout nutrition are crucial in order to repair and increase muscle mass. Protein, when used in conjunction with other nutrients such as branched-chained amino acids (BCAAs), leucine and taurine, can help improve workout recovery and get you the results you desire.
How much protein do I need?
Your protein intake depends on your lifestyle. If you spend most of your day at a desk job and don’t work out regularly, you’re going to require less protein than an athlete or bodybuilder. The American College of Sports Medicine provides the following recommendations:
If you have a sedentary lifestyle and occasionally work out: about .4 grams per pound of body weight (e.g. 160-pound male = 64 grams)
If you regularly do any sort of endurance training like running, swimming, biking, etc.: 0.6-0.8 grams per pound of body weight (e.g. 160-pound male = 96-128 grams)
If you regularly lift weights or do other resistance training: 0.8-0.9 grams per pound of body weight (e.g. 160-pound male = 128-144)
The bottom line is this: If you’re in any way active, you need more protein than the average adult (64 grams) – not just for muscle growth but for energy and recovery as well.
Can protein help me lose weight?
Yes, when combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise. One way protein helps you lose weight is by keeping you full longer, helping you avoid overeating; high-protein foods and shakes provide a higher degree of satiety than those with high amounts of fat or carbs. Protein also has fewer calories than carbs and fat (4 calories compared to 9 calories), which helps limit calorie intake. Another advantage: Because protein boosts muscle growth, you burn more calories since muscles require more energy to maintain than fat. Check out “10 Quick Tips to Build Muscle” for advice on gaining muscle mass.
Are high-protein diets effective for weight loss?
High-protein diets can help you lose weight, but ultimately calories are what count. If you eat more calories than you burn, you’re going to gain weight even if all you consume are high-protein foods and supplements. With that said, protein can help you burn fat for the reasons we listed above. The only issue is that high-protein diets tend to limit carbohydrates or eliminate them altogether. Your body needs carbs to function, so it’s important to find the right ratio of carbs/protein to help you lose weight without sacrificing energy and muscle.
Whey vs. Casein – What’s the Difference?
There are two types of protein you hear a lot about in the sports nutrition world: whey and casein. You’ll find them in protein supplements like powders, and both of them can help you easily reach your protein goals. In fact, whey protein powdersand casein protein powders for men have several advantages over whole food sources. Powders tend to contain a high amount of protein and minimal fat and carbohydrates, giving them a caloric advantage. They also require very little preparation.
But while each of these proteins helps build and repair muscle, but there are significant differences between the two. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision:
Whey Protein – Whey protein is one of the fastest-absorbing proteins available and is considered a complete protein (a protein that contains all essential amino acids); whey protein consumption results in a higher peak amino acid concentration than other proteins like casein. This fast absorption allows it to quickly replenish muscles and improve recovery between workouts. Whey protein is also a great source of leucine, an amino acid crucial to protein synthesis.
Casein Protein – Unlike whey protein, casein is a slow-absorbing protein that feeds your muscle over the course of several hours. The slow rate of absorption allows for a steady stream of amino acids in your body, long after whey protein finishes its job. As a result, casein delays catabolism (muscle loss) and preserves lean muscle mass. Casein is commonly known as a “pre-bedtime protein” because many people consume it prior to sleeping; since your body will be fasting all night, you need something in your stomach to prevent your body from using muscle as fuel. For more information on the best times to take supplements, check out “Your Guide to Nutrient Timing.”
High-Protein Foods for Protein is also abundant in a lot of our favorite foods, but you have to look out for things like saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Here’s a brief rundown of the best whole-food protein sources for
Meat & Poultry – Meat and poultry are great sources of protein for men, but they can be loaded with unhealthy saturated fat. Choose lean cuts of beef like tenderloin and chuck and make sure you’re eating chicken without the skin. Some examples of lean cuts include chicken breast (3.5-oz. serving: 30 grams); sirloin steak (6-oz. serving: 48 grams) and pork tenderloin (4-oz. serving: 29 grams).
Dairy – Milk, cheese and yogurts are great sources of whey and casein protein (more on those later). Unfortunately, dairy products are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol. When it comes to selecting dairy products, opt for reduced-fat and low-fat options to maximize protein intake and minimize fat intake. Some good examples of dairy protein sources include 2% milk (1 cup: 8 grams); Greek yogurt (6-oz. serving:13 grams); and American cheese (1 slice: 3 grams).
Fish – Tuna, salmon and other fish are known for their good fat content – they’re packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. But aside from containing healthy fats, they’re also loaded with protein. Top choices include chunk light tuna in water (5-oz. serving: 20 grams); salmon (1 filet: 22 grams); and halibut (3.5-oz. serving: 27 grams).
Nuts – Nuts are a nutrient powerhouse, containing an assortment of vitamins and minerals – not to mention fiber and protein. A handful of nuts a day has been shown to possibly improve heart health and maintain a healthy immune system. The most nutritious nuts for men include almonds (22 nuts: 6 grams); pistachios (49 nuts: 6 grams); and cashews (18 nuts: 4 grams).