When working out and trying to gain muscle, everyone always seems to talk about protein. This also underlies a lot of the eating habits of people, such as if they are vegetarian or a meat eater, as most people’s primary protein sources are beef, chicken, or fish. As I am trying to increase my muscle mass (gained 20 pounds of muscle in the last year), there are a lot of different things being said about protein. Some sources say eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, while other sources say that is too much. I’ve also wondered and have researched whether or not is is possible to gain muscle if you do not eat meat. In this article I am going to lay out everything I have learned about protein in my quest to gain muscle and better understand the human body.
I realized that for as much as I know about the topic, I didn’t even know exactly what defines a protein. The simple definition is that a protein that it is a large molecule that is made up chains of amino acids. The real question then becomes, what an amino acid? This is a bit more complicated, so I’m drawing the answer from a science for children website: Amino acids are the basic chemical building blocks needed for all organisms and they are used in every cell of your body to build the proteins you need to survive.
There are 20 amino acids that are used to make the proteins in your body. Out of those 20, there are only 9 that are defined as essential. The other 11 can be synthesized in an adult body. I bet you will never have heard of most of these, yet they play an important part in keeping you alive. The essentials are Histidine, Isolecuine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. The nonessential ones are Alanine, Arginine, Aspartate, Cysteine, Glutamate, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline, Serine, Tyrosine, Asparagine, and Selenocysteine. (You can read more about them here.)
There is a good explanation as to why you have probably never heard of these, which is because most protein that comes from animal foods like meats, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and milk are what are called complete proteins. This means they have all those essential amino acids in a proportion that is usable for biological functions in the body. The plant based proteins like legumes, grains, and vegetables, usually have less of one or more essential amino acids and so they are not considered essential. This doesn’t mean that a vegetarian cannot get all of their amino acids, it just means that they need to come from a wider variety of food sources. In fact, many traditional cultural dishes, such as Mexican corn and beans, Japanese soybeans and rice, and Cajun red beans and rice contain one ingredient that compensates for the lack of essential amino acids in the other, to make it a complete protein.
Some foods not only have all of the amino acids in them, but are sufficient on their own to quality as a complete protein. The examples of foods that are nearly perfect are gives a 1.0 on the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) and so they are the particular focus of this article now that you have learned what a protein is and how it is made up of amino acids.
The top rated amino acid sources, all scoring a 1.0, are casein, whey, egg white, and soy protein. Following in declining order, mycoprotein (.99), beef (.92), soybeans (.91), chickpeas (.78), fruits(.76), black beans(.75), vegetables (.73), other legumes (.70), cereals (.59), peanuts (.52), and whole wheat (.42).
Casein and whey are the two milk proteins, casein being insoluble and whey being soluble. Casein is commonly found in mammalian milk, and makes up over 80% of the proteins in cow milk and between 20% and 45% of the proteins in human milk. It is known for its ability to form a gel or clot in the stomach which means it is used up more slowly, and is able to give long lasting energy and sustained release of amino acids. Many body builders utilize this long lasting effect to have a protein source that lasts 8 hours. There is some on-going debate about whether or not Casein is completely healthy for the human body and the digestion tract, but it is widely used.
Whey, the other milk protein, and is very quickly absorbed into the blood stream and is known as one of the safest and best sources of protein available. Whey can also help reduce fat mass, while preserving lean mass on the body, especially for people who are not consuming enough protein. Whey protein should be taken 30 minutes prior to going to the gym and right after as well. This can increase strength and shorten recovery times. Of all the substances that are available to take, Whey is one of the ones I highly recommend that everyone take, there is really no reason not to take it, especially if you are looking to increase muscle mass.
To be continued:
How much protein is enough?