Most of the fitness experts in the world are in agreement that high protein diets can be an integral part of meeting your fitness goals. Whether you want to lose weight, bulk up, maintain muscle mass as you age or have some other fitness goal, upping your protein intake can move you in that direction.
In this article, we'll examine why protein matters in your fitness plan, how to adjust your diet safely, and some of the pros and cons of a high protein diet.
Why Protein Matters
The three big macronutrients of everyone's diet are carbohydrates, fats and protein. Protein consists of 22 separate amino acids. Nine of those are "essential" amino acids; you cannot get those by any other means than consuming them in food.
When you digest protein, it does several important things in your body:
Enzymes: Thousands of chemical reactions are taking place inside your body at the micro level at all times. Enzymes are critical for these reactions -- and most proteins are enzymes. See the connection?
Hormones: Proteins help to carry "messages" hormonally between cells in the body.
Body Repair: Your bones, hair, skin and muscles are made up of proteins. The body is constantly using new proteins for cellular replacement and to repair these tissues.
Molecular Delivery: Proteins help to carry certain molecules from one location in the body to another. For example, hemoglobin is like a miniature transportation system that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's cells.
Types of Protein
The two types of food proteins that we're talking about are animal-based proteins and plant-based proteins. You can base a high protein diet entirely on one or the other (animal or plant), but most people settle on a combination of the two for a well-rounded mix of protein.
Animal-based proteins are referred to as "complete" protein sources. This means that they have all of the essential amino acids that the body needs, with nothing else needed to supplement the amoungs. Foods like lean beef, chicken, pork, fish, dairy and eggs fall into this category.
No single plant has all of the essential amino acids, so a vegan diet would require a mixture of different types of "incomplete" protein sources to create a true protein increase. Some examples of high protein plant foods include beans, soy, nuts and legumes.
The types of protein that you consume can be important for reaching your fitness goals. However, the factor that is even more important is how much protein you are consuming.
How Much Protein for Achieving Fitness Goals?
Under the current dietary guidelines from the US Department of Agriculture, the breakdown of the three macronutrients in your diet should fall within these ranges in terms of calorie intake:
Protein: 10 to 35 percent
Fats: 20 to 35 percent
Carbs: 45 to 65 percent
For a diet to be considered "high protein," your calorie intake should be in the 20 to 35 percent range. This means that you must reduce the percentage of calories you're ingesting through fats and carbohydrates, in order to maintain the proper balance.
For example, if you bump your protein calories all the way up to 35 percent, your remaining calorie intake should be 20 percent from fats and 45 percent from carbs (to reach 100 percent).
Benefits of Higher Protein Intake for Fitness Goals
Here's an overview of some of the specific ways that a high protein diet can help you achieve your fitness goals.
Muscle Growth and Maintenance
The equation is pretty simple if muscle growth or maintenance is one of your fitness goals: Your body needs more protein if you want to grow more muscle. Protein also helps your body repair tissues that are broken down by intense workouts.
As we age, we naturally start to lose muscle mass. (Happens to all of us.) In order to maintain strength, people in their 50s or older often need to take in more protein, just so they don't lose too much muscle mass.
Appetite Control and Weight Loss
Hormones regulate when the body starts to feel hungry, and when the body is full after a satisfying meal. Protein helps the body create the hormones that make the body feel satiated (full) after a good-sized meal -- and reduces production of hunger hormones.
A higher protein intake makes you less likely to "overeat," which has obvious advantages if weight loss is one of your fitness goals.
Increased Energy Rate
Protein has been proven in multiple studies to provide a better metabolic boost than fats or carbohydrates. You'll have more energy on a high protein diet, which helps you power through more intensive workouts as part of your fitness plan.
Risks of High Protein Diets
There are a few risks associated with a high protein diet. Proteins are the most difficult nutrient for the kidneys to break down. There is a slight risk of developing kidney disease from a prolonged high protein diet. This shouldn't be a concern for most people under the age of 50, but folks over that age should consult with their doctor before switching to a high protein diet.
Too much protein in your diet can also contribute to nutritional deficiencies, especially if you're not getting enough carbs in the form of fiber. Plus, people with diabetes are recommended to avoid high protein diets, due to the way proteins convert to glucose in the body.
The main thing to keep in mind with a high protein diet is balance. Working with a nutritionist to strike the proper balance can give you the added guidance you need, to ensure that your diet is balanced properly toward achieving your fitness goals.