If you want to build muscle, you need to eat more protein, right? Actually, this is usually not the case! High protein diets are very popular these days, and certain health professionals (who often aren’t qualified to give nutrition advice) are pushing for people to try them no matter what their ailments or needs may be. People are consuming protein powders like never before and anything in the supermarket labelled ‘high protein’ is likely to sell better.
Don’t get me wrong – protein is very important for the nutritional needs of our bodies. In fact, it is essential that we get it from food. However, we need much less protein than people often think we do, and studies have found that Aussies are over-consuming it. Eating more protein than we need will just contribute to weight gain (as fat) rather than cause muscle growth, and the excess amino acids (the building blocks of protein that repair muscle) can’t be stored so get excreted in our urine. I talk more about the effect of high protein diets on weight in this blog.
Many people who exercise regularly are confused about their protein requirements. It is true that activity increases the amount of protein our bodies need in order to fuel our workouts and help repair our muscles. However, our bodies need more energy and carbohydrates too (and depending on the type of exercise, more so than protein). So, by simply eating more food we’re often able to meet all of our increased needs. Note that this applies more to higher intensity or longer workouts – something more mild like a 30 minute walk or jog usually will not warrant extra food intake if you’re eating enough throughout the day. For people doing intense strength training though, getting some (but not too much) extra protein can help to build and strengthen muscle. The stimulus for muscle growth is the training, not eating more protein. In the same way that you can’t grow a plant without water and sunshine, you can’t grow muscle without strength training, but fertilising the plant or eating a bit more protein will help the process.
A legitimate reason for needing more protein is if you have a serious disease that limits your food intake or your body’s ability to use food. It is practically impossible to have a protein deficiency if we’re eating enough food for our body’s energy needs. So unless you’re very ill, or serious about lifting weights, you’re probably not going to get much benefit out of drinking protein powders, eating large portions of meat at dinner or eating a high-protein food at every meal. In fact, eating a lot of protein (particularly in the form of meat) can be dangerous in the long run as it increases our risk of serious health conditions like kidney disease.
Here’s the bottom line: Healthy people can get more than enough protein in their diets simply by eating enough food rather than focusing on high-protein foods. Instead of choosing foods for their protein content, aim to eat more foods rich in nutrients that we often don’t get enough of, like fibre or calcium for example. We get plenty of protein from foods like meat, dairy, beans and vegetables (that’s right- plants have plenty of protein too! Gram for gram, beans have about the same amount of protein as beef). Plant sources of protein are preferable because they also come with fibre, good fats, and lots of vitamins and minerals.
If you’re confused about how much you should be eating for your individual needs or are in a situation where you think you may have higher protein requirements, call or visit the clinic and I’d be happy to discuss with you whether or not you might benefit from a dietetic consultation.