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Protein: The Basics

Protein is one of the main nutrients that makes up the foods that we eat. It is essential for everyone – especially athletes. It is fundamental for building and repairing the structure of muscle. Think of it like the timber used to build a house, but with additional functionality. Let’s look at why protein is so important for athletes.

Think of protein like the timber used to build a house, but with additional functionality. Sprinter, Larissa Dyke, Dunedin, New Zealand. Photo: Derek Morrison

Imagine this scenario: On the way out of the locker room, your coach says, “geez, did you look tired in training today”. You think to yourself, “well, I have been lacking energy and not feeling my best”.

We demand so much from our bodies at each training session and many of us are also growing. Therefore it is essential we are eating the right foods. What if I told you about a nutrient in foods that enhances recovery after exercise and helps build muscles? You might guess protein … and you would be correct.

What is protein and why do we need it? 

Protein is one of the main nutrients that makes up the foods that we eat. It is essential for anyone, especially athletes. Protein is in all our body’s cells and has many important functions. It is fundamental for building and repairing the structure of muscle. However, while muscle takes all the glory, did you know protein is also important for immune function, transporting nutrients around the body, making red blood cells, which carry oxygen as well as all of those enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters that make our body function?

Unlike the other macronutrients, fat and carbohydrate, we do not have a large reserve of protein in our body. Most of it is tied up in our cells and those important molecules. Instead we have a small pool of protein circulating in our bloodstream, which is continuously used up by our body and therefore needs to be constantly replenished.

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids. Eight of them are essential meaning our bodies cannot make them so we need to get them from food. The remaining are non-essential amino acids, which our body can usually make itself. Of these there are a few that can become essential under certain conditions, such as during periods of stress. The different combinations of these amino acids determines the specific shape, type and thereby function of the protein in our body.  

Where do we get protein from?

Protein is found in a variety of foods including both animal and plant sources such as:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas)
  • Wholegrains
 Animal vs plant proteins

There are several methods to compare the quality of protein sources. Biological value (BV) is one of them and refers to how efficient our body is at using the protein from certain food sources. A higher BV implies a greater quality protein food. It is influenced by several factors including how many of the essential amino acids are present in one food. Some foods deliver all eight essential amino acids in one hit. These are called “complete” proteins and tend to be mostly from animal sources. Where as plant foods are generally “incomplete” proteins as they are often missing one or two of the essential amino acids.

Does this mean animal sources of protein are superior? Not necessarily. It is important to look at the big picture here. We don’t have to, nor should we, try to get all of our essential amino acids from one food or one meal. We have many eating opportunities across the day and, as you will learn from the experts here at Fuel My Potential, eating a variety of protein foods across the day is the trick to making sure you are getting all of the different amino acids your body needs. 

Bottom line

When your coach talks to you about developing more strength and power, gaining more muscle, or expresses concerns that you are missing trainings due to illness, hopefully your thoughts turn to your diet. Think about the protein foods in your diet. Do you think you are having enough? Or, is your body telling you otherwise? Protein is an essential nutrient for all of us, especially those who are active and/or growing like you. Impress your coach with your knowledge on different protein sources and how they provide the nutrients we need to grow and get strong and fast. Protein is a source of energy, but most importantly it builds and repairs our muscles, which is critical for peak performance.

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