Protein 101: The building blocks of diet success

No longer just the realm of bodybuilders and elite athletes, a healthy, protein-rich diet can be beneficial for us all. We share everything you need to know about this essential building block and how to start building more protein into your diet.

Proteins are the main building blocks of the body. They are used to make muscles, organs, tendons and skin. We also use protein to make enzymes, hormones and lots of tiny molecules that make our bodies work. So, we really need protein to live.

Proteins are made up of amino acids, like beads on a string. Amino acids link together to form long chains. Our bodies can make some amino acids, but others we must get from diet. These are called the ‘essential’ amino acids.

When we eat food containing proteins they are broken down into amino acids, which are then delivered around your body. Some proteins are broken down faster than others. For example whey protein is quickly absorbed, while casein and egg proteins are absorbed more slowly. These slow proteins will provide raised levels of amino acids to our muscles for longer time. A combination of fast and slow proteins may be the most effective for building and keeping muscle.2-3

So how much protein should you eat every day?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had diets rich in meat. They ate perhaps nearly three times the protein found in a ‘modern’ diet.1

In terms of muscle recovery and repair, most of us only really need about 25g of pure protein in one hit.4-5 If we’re looking at meat – this is the amount of protein in an average chicken drumstick. And when protein hasn’t been used for functions like muscle repair, excess protein is still an energy source. This means, like any food we over-eat, it has the potential to be turned into glucose and then fat. Even though we need it, it’s important to realize you can’t just eat as much protein as you like.

If you are trying to gain muscle mass, most studies show that 0.8 – 1.0 grams per pound of your body weight per day will work best.6-7 For a 187 pound man, over one day, that’s about the amount of protein in five average chicken breasts.

Where is the best place to get my protein from?

There are plenty of processed foods out there calling themselves ‘high-protein’. But be wary, products like breads and cereals making these claims often have cheap plant proteins like soy added. These processed and added protein foods don’t come close to the real deal. Naturally protein-rich foods from animal sources really are unbeatable.

It may contain protein but but how much carbohydrate is in there too?

If you’re after high protein, without also adding a heap of carbohydrates, meat is the way to go. Combining any source of protein with a bunch of delicious green vegetables is going to make a truly great meal for your body.

Great high protein sources:

  1. Grass-fed beef and lamb
  2. Free range chicken and eggs
  3. Wild salmon and shellfish
  4. Natural yogurt and cheese
  5. Protein supplement

If you are wondering about number 5: Yes, whole foods are ideal, but we live in the real world. The benefits of protein in your diet are clear, adding a good quality protein supplement to your diet might be an option at times. This is particularly relevant if you're pushing your body physically, or needing a little help to stay on track each day in making good food choices.

More on protein:

The skinny on protein The real reasons why protein can help with effective weight loss and management.

Dr. Jackie Mills (B Phys Ed, MBCh B, Dip Obstetrics), a specialist in nutritional medicine, an obstetrician and general medical practitioner. Jackie completed her post-graduate studies in nutrition at the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM) and has practiced nutritional medicine for 25 years. As Les Mills’ Chief Creative Officer, Jackie is responsible for the development of all LES MILLS™ exercise programs.

Contributing editors: Diana Archer-Mills, Sarah Wakeman BSc. Biology PGDip. Food science, Kris Gunnars.

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