Understanding Protein

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When I joined the BCG, I started having conversations with people about nutrition and training, although it was probably less of a conversation and more me rambling at whoever was in earshot at the time.

One of the nicest things about the BCG is how it encourages beginners to get into training who maybe have never been in contact with a barbell before. I wrote this article originally for the BCG Facebook group to cover some of the basics of protein and how it relates to training, with the hope that it may be a nice and accessible intro for members who hadn’t had cause to think about nutrition before, and its relation their training, and also to cut through a lot of myths and misinformation that is present in so much training literature (protein powder companies being the worst for pushing this).

Why I bothered to learn about it

I’m a vegan. I haven’t always been and if I’m honest I struggled to fully adopt veganism at first. Again and again I failed and went back to being a full blown carnivore. It was a bit of a vicious cycle. I won’t take the time here to argue why I think veganism is the right thing to do; that’s up to the reader to decide for themselves. But for me it was something I really wanted to make stick, and I just couldn’t seem to do it.

It wasn’t until very recently that I clicked why this was:

I had bought into the propaganda around weightlifting nutrition.

So many resources you will find that talk about nutrition will sell you naturalistic fallacies that only meat is a suitable fuel for weight training, backed up with some random claim that “that’s how the cavemen did it”, so obviously we should do the same.

Now it’s really important to say, I think, that it’s entirely true that there is a lot of bad science around veganism, which leads people to make bad dietary choices, and at best they end up just surviving rather than thriving on a vegan diet. I think this is where a lot of the common misconceptions about veganism and weight lifting come from, vegans making bad dietary choices and end up underperforming. I bought into this alot, I have to admit; the idea that being a vegan weightlifter was impossible is something I read so much I had pretty much internalized it.

I wanted to make veganism work though, so I ended up doing a ton of research into nutrition and specifically protein, which seemed to be the major bean of contention (yes, that was a vegan pun). It was as a result of this research that I realised I was committed to the idea that meat was a requirement, rather than the facts. I soon found out that, planned properly, I could thrive as a vegan in the weight room and outside of it.

I hope this information will be of use to non-vegans as well. At the end of the day one of the most powerful pieces of information I learned was simply this: your body can’t tell the difference between a protein molecule from a piece of meat or a protein molecule from a lentil. It just sees protein and will use it as it needs it.

Why care about protein?

Working out is basically inflicting physical stress on our bodies, and post-training we rest and recover from that stress and adapt to it, so the next time we encounter it we have a chance of overcoming it.  The ‘recovery’ part of our training is actually the most important. Sleep, meditation or relaxation, emotional well-being, hydration and eating properly all have a big part to play in recovering from training.

Protein especially has a part to play, and can have a great effect on our energy and mood as well as helping build muscle. Protein more than the other macronutrients positively contributes to building new muscle when combined with resistance training. So eating foods that are high in protein can improve our recovery, and help our bodies adapt to our training.

Develop a healthy relationship with food first

This I think is actually more important than the technical aspects of nutrition; our relationship with our food. I would 100% always say that: if having to think about any of the below is making you feel anxious or stressed out about eating, simply don’t bother with it! The range of protein intakes that people thrive on is huge, and eating in a way that makes us happy is far more important than following any kind of strict guidelines.

What actually IS protein?

Protein is one of the so-called ‘macronutrients’, which are 3 very broad descriptions for the components of the food we eat. The other 2 macronutrients are carbohydrate and fat.

We measure the macronutrient content of a specific food stuff by the gram. So for example, a piece of bread is made up of 22 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat. Some foods only have ‘trace amounts’ of a certain macronutrient.

Other things like fibre, water and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, also contribute to the food we eat, but for the purposes of thinking about fuelling our bodies for working out, we only really need to worry about the 3 macronutrients.

The first thing that may come to mind when thinking about protein is animal sources, flesh, milk, eggs etc. However, nearly all whole foods contain protein in varying amounts. A medium sized head of broccoli can contain around 12g of protein, for example. As you can see in the above paragraphs, even a piece of white bread contains a small amount of protein.

Protein is used in the body for rebuilding tissue and building new tissues. Not just muscle, but also organ tissue, skin and hair. Protein itself is actually the name for a group of nutrients called amino acids. When the body digests protein from food, it slices the amino acids up into short ‘chains’ and partitions them off to the various parts of the body that require them.

Not all amino acids are used in the same way and the amino acids used exclusively for repairing and building muscle are known as the ‘branched chain amino acids’ or BCAA’s. You will sometimes see flashy and completely overpriced sports products talking about their BCAA content because of this.

While interesting academically, in reality you wouldn’t ever need to worry about specific amino acids in your food.

Although, you may have read at some point that vegans need to ‘combine protein’ sources. This is because most animal proteins will have similar amounts of each amino acid, while plant proteins may have a lower amount of a certain amino acid. For example, rice is very low in the amino acid lysine, while pulses are high in lysine but low in methionine, so it is said that eating these foods together makes up for the lack of the amino acids missing from each of them.

However, the body actually stores limited ‘pools’ of amino acids in the blood, so food-combining in a single meal is something of a myth – however it is important if you follow a vegan diet that you aim to eat as wide a variety of protein sources as possible (rarely if ever have I met someone who isn’t already doing this though!).

Protein Quantity

Protein quantity, how much we need per day, is a bit of a difficult thing to discuss at times, primarily because the studies done on protein and athletic performance have such varied results. Some studies show super high amounts of protein are required to build muscle, many others show that normal intakes as defined by the RDA are just fine.

You will see a lot of sources (incorrectly) saying that ridiculously high amounts of protein is needed to build muscle ‘optimally’ and a lot of sources saying the RDA is fine.

Most sensible studies done have only really agreed that the super high amounts while not being harmful, are unnecessary, but also that the RDA is possibly not sufficient. A figure somewhere in the middle is both safe and sustainable, while also helping us to recover from training better.

Protein requirements are calculated by multiplying a given number by a person’s current bodyweight. So immediately you can see that each person will have different protein requirements. In general, somewhere between 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a good amount of protein to eat per day. If you’re a vegan, be aware that plant protein doesn’t digest as well as animal protein, so you probably want to aim for 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

This may seem like a lot, but remember literally everything has protein in. You would never be able to eat enough spinach and broccoli in a single meal to rival the amount of protein in a steak, but that does not mean plant proteins don’t count at all.

What if I don’t like counting everything I eat?

Then don’t. Not being stressed about food is way more important. Stress and anxiety around eating will do more to hinder your training than not hitting arbitrary amounts of a nutrient.

Example High-Protein Vegan Meals

That said, here are some example meals that are pretty simple, and I hope demonstrate how easy it is to eat a lot of protein even when cutting out meat and dairy completely.

Cauliflower Pilaf, 33g of protein

  • ½ tin of kidney beans
  • 2 cups of cauliflower (about half a small head, when it loses water it shrinks a lot so don’t worry if this looks like a lot), grated or very finely chopped
  • ½ pack of green beans
  • ½ pack of tofu
  • 3 tbsp cashews
  • Stir fry all the above with some cumin and turmeric, add the cashews at the end.

Roast Veg and Lentils, 32g of protein

  • 1 heaped cup measure of cooked lentils
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • ½ red pepper
  • ½ courgette
  • 3 tbsp raw peanuts

Roast the veg together with a very small amount of olive oil. Mix whatever spices you fancy with the cooked lentils, and pour over the veg when they are cooked. Top with chopped peanuts

PrOatmeal, 32g of Protein

  • 1 cup of porridge oats
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 500ml of unsweetened soy milk

Make some oatmeal. Realise protein is in everything. Eat some oatmeal. Profit.