Protein Needs and Guidelines

by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen

Protein Needs and Guidelines

Picture the scene, if you will….trainer and client, hand-in-hand, running through a meadow, muscles rippling, smiles on faces, all is right with the world.  They are running to their three day a week picnic, and the client is ready to whip out the food journal that he/she brings religiously to each picnic =;)  Upon handing the journal to the trainer, the client boasts, “I’ve been doing great with my nutrition.”  “Oh, really?  Hand it over.” Says trainer.  The trainer looks closely at the journal, and most aspects seem to be in order.  There seems to be one glaring problem, however, as the trainer detects a potential deficiency in protein intake.  “You need more protein.” Says the trainer.  “What do you mean?  I had a huge piece of chicken for dinner last night!” replies the client.

Sound familiar?  If you are training at Fitness Together, odds are your trainer has advised you at one point or another to increase your protein intake.  What does this mean?  For starters, it might help if each of you had a clear understanding of what protein is and the essential role that it plays in the body, especially for athletes.  Yes, each of you is an athlete, whether you believe it or not.  Protein is the subject of much controversy, especially as it relates to exercise and performance.  Some traditionalists within the nutritional community argue that protein intake for individuals should be on the conservative side.  Recent research in the exercise realm indicates that athletes (you) may require up to 2 times the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of protein.

Protein is the primary nutrient used in the formation of all body tissues, providing a framework, if you will.  Protein’s main function, though it has many, is to build and repair tissues, hormones, enzymes, and other body compounds.  For our purposes here, we will refer only to muscle tissue.  Proteins are comprised of tiny subunits called amino acids.  There are 22 biologically important amino acids, 9 of which are essential (meaning an individual cannot live without them).  Proteins from animal sources provide all of the essential amino acids.  Vegetarians and vegans may obtain all of the essential amino acids through combinations of plant sources including grains and legumes.

So, your trainer told you to consume more protein, but what does that mean?  First and foremost, as you all have been taught, it is essential to consume lean protein with every meal, and with sensible proportions.  The human body needs a constant supply of protein to preserve lean body mass (muscle).  That means satisfying your protein needs by consuming some with every meal, every 3-4 hours.  Utilize the fist-sized portion theory if you are not weighing ounces or counting calories.  For those of you who are more into the numbers game, or may have plateaued with your training routine and need to take a closer look at the specifics of your nutrition plan, here’s the formula……

Take your lean body weight in pounds and multiply it by your need factor to get your daily protein requirement in grams…LBW (lbs) X need factor= daily protein in grams.  The reason for factoring only lean body weight is because fat tissue does not require a protein supply.

Here is a list of need factors for different activity levels:

•    .5- Sedentary person, no sports training
•    .6- Jogger or light fitness training
•    .7- Sports participation or moderate training 3X week
•    .8- Moderate daily weight training or aerobic training
•    .9- Heavy weight training daily
•    1.0 – Heavy daily weight training and sports training (2X day)

Most Fitness Together clients fall within the .7-.8 range of activity level, depending on what you are doing at home.

Now, you have a basic understanding of the quantity of protein needed by an active individual, but what about the quality of protein?  There is no shortage of protein sources on the market today, including whole food sources and supplements.  There are a few ways to determine if a protein source is quality, and the main one is the protein efficiency ratio scale, or PER.  PER refers to the amount of body weight gained versus the protein ingested.  For example, egg protein has a PER of 3.92, which means that 3.92 grams of body weight is gained for every gram of egg protein consumed.  Why is this scale important to us?  When we are training to build lean muscle mass (our #1 fat fighter), the more protein that is assimilated (taken up and used by the body) the more muscle we build and maintain.  Here is a list of some PER’s of our favorite foods:

•    Egg- 3.92 (Found in your local chicken, tastes great in an omelet)
•    Whey- 3.6-3.9 (Found in your local vitamin store, tastes great with milk)
•    Fish- 3.55 (Found in nets at your local port, tastes great with a pinot noir)
•    Lactalbumin- 3.43 (Found in milk)
•    Whole Milk- 3.09 (Found in the dairy case, don’t drink this)
•    Casein- 2.86 (Primary protein found in milk)
•    Soy Meal- 2.30 (Controversial)
•    Beef- 2.30 (Lower than you might think)
•    Oatmeal- 2.25 (Yep, it has some, but you can’t have two servings and claim it’s a starch and a protein)
•    Rice- 2.18 (Eastern staple, great with sushi-be sure to stick with brown)

To conclude, I would like to make some other points to take into account when determining how much and what type of protein to ingest.  First, diets too high in protein can be just as counterproductive as diets that are too low.  Excess protein can be stored as fat in the body.  Second, though athletes do need more protein than the average sedentary individual, there is no need to invest hundreds of dollars in protein supplements, especially if you are not bodybuilding for competition.  Most people can get adequate protein intake from an overall increase in caloric intake.  Lastly, inadequate protein consumption can result in the body breaking down muscle tissue for metabolic needs.  For those of you who wish to reduce your body fat percentage, this is devastating as maintaining lean muscle mass is essential for fat loss.  Unless you are stranded on a camel in the middle of the Sahara or driving back from the Florida Panhandle on Sunday and Chik-Fil-A is closed, there is no excuse for skimping on a frequent, ample supply of protein intake.  Now go eat your bison burger on a whole wheat bun with spinach!