By Katie Kelly
We’ve seen protein in all forms at this stage; protein powders, protein shakes, protein bars and protein milks. For many gym-goers, such products have become an addition to their gym bag that are deemed as essential as their towel or runners. But are these all really necessary? And what about the protein we are already getting from our food? Trying to separate what is really needed from clever marketing techniques can be a difficult task at the best of times.
To bring things back to basics, protein is one of three macronutrients that our bodies need, along with carbohydrates and fats. Protein is needed to synthesise muscle in our bodies (hence the association with its consumption after gym sessions), but is also required for the many other functions, such as the synthesis of hair, skin, enzymes, antibodies and neurotransmitters in our bodies. The average protein requirement for Irish adults is 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which is met or exceeded by the majority of people quite easily from a balanced diet.
To put this into context, an adult weighing 60 kilograms would require approximately 45 grams of protein per day. Protein is present in a wide variety of foods at varying concentrations. These amounts add up pretty quickly throughout the day in a balanced diet to meet the requirements of the majority of people. For example, one small chicken breast contains approximately 30 grams of protein, while an average egg contains approximately 7 grams. Other examples of good sources of protein include meat, dairy, fish, beans, pulses, whole grains, nuts, tofu and lentils.
So, why is there such a demand for protein supplements nowadays? Many consumers are aware that exercise increases energy and protein requirements and that protein is needed for muscle synthesis in response to exercise. While consuming lots of protein does not automatically build your muscles for you, having an adequate supply from your diet may help with muscle synthesis, provided that the right exercise is being carried out. In recent times, manufacturers of protein supplements and related products have used this awareness to their advantage in marketing such products towards the general public to take after exercise.
However, what consumers are probably less aware of is that these requirements are only increased to about 1.2-2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes who are regularly participating in extensive strength or endurance training. The increase in requirements caused by exercise for the average Joe Bloggs who is going to the gym every so often would be far smaller than this. So, in most cases, it is unlikely that protein supplements would actually be required.
In addition to this, muscle protein synthesis continues to happen for 24 hours in response to a single session of exercise, and sensitivity to protein intake is increased during this time. So, the idea that a protein shake needs to be consumed within a few minutes of finishing a training session is not a very accurate one. Something as simple as having a glass of milk, scrambled eggs on toast or some yogurt with granola or fruit when you get home from the gym may be just as effective at meeting your requirements and may save you a lot of money in the long run.
In general, a food-first approach is often the best approach to take when it comes to nutrition. For the vast majority of people, protein requirements can be met through a balanced diet and supplemental protein is only required when this cannot be achieved. So, before reaching for a protein shake the next time you’re exiting the Mardyke, it might be worth stopping to consider whether it’s really necessary.