There’s more to protein than big muscles

Whether you’re a fitness buff or simply looking to stay strong as you age, protein is as essential as exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

“Muscles are important, not just for being strong, but for staying healthy as we age and helping us keep a faster metabolism; muscles burn calories at rest,” says Toronto-based registered dietitian Jennifer Sygo. Muscles take two days to recover from exercise. If you ‘feed’ them protein, they’ll recover faster.

Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which can’t be manufactured in the body, so we need to get them from food, says Sygo. “A complete protein is a protein that contains all essential amino acids,” she says. “The foods that tend to be the best sources of high-quality protein are largely from animal sources.” That includes dairy-based proteins: milk, for example, is a ‘complete’ protein with all essential amino acids.

This is important for everyone, not just bodybuilders. “Almost every structure in your body is built from protein,” says Sygo. “Even the quality of your bones is partly dictated by the protein in your diet. It helps with a healthy immune system, it functions in every cell in every part of your body, even the integrity of your skin.”

There are three major ways that protein benefits the body: building and repairing muscle and bones, helping body tissue grow, and developing antibodies to boost the immune system.

1. Building and repairing muscle

Protein supplies the body with amino acids to build strong, lean muscle. Along with being physically active, getting enough protein in your diet helps build and repair muscle. It also helps to build healthy bones, along with bone-building nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

2. Repairing body tissue and building hormones

Proteins are part of every cell in your body. Aside from building and repairing muscle, they’re also needed to build and repair body tissue such as skin, nails and hair. Protein also helps to build hormones and enzymes.

3. Protecting against viruses and bacteria

A wide variety of proteins exist for numerous functions. Proteins exist as antibodies, for example, which are necessary for immunity against viruses and bacteria. They also exist as hormones to regulate body processes. If your diet lacks sufficient protein over time, many body processes slow down, eventually compromising your overall health.

Does that mean you should eat protein after a workout or eat larger portions of protein? Not necessarily, say experts. “Our muscles seem to be at their best when we eat protein regularly throughout the day,” says Sygo. “Even if you’re not working out or being active, the body uses protein. But there’s a limit to what we can use at once. We perform best with regular intervals of protein.”

Eating protein as part of a snack or meal about an hour or two before a workout helps to provide energy for that workout. But most of the time, it’s best to eat a balanced diet with some protein at each meal. “We want to aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal,” says Sygo. Since the body can use only so much protein at one time, eating extra protein at mealtime won’t give you extra muscle.

How much is 20 to 30 grams of protein? It translates to a couple of large eggs with shredded cheddar, a serving of 2 per cent Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit and nuts, oatmeal cooked with milk instead of water topped with slivered almonds, or a half-cup of cottage cheese spread on whole wheat toast.

Protein can also help you maintain your weight. “The evidence around protein being important for body weight is related to the feeling of fullness between meals,” says Sygo. “Eating a salad will make you feel full in the moment but you won’t feel satiated for long. Over your day, if you’re never feeling satiated, you’ll be reaching for foods you otherwise would not.” Simply adding quinoa, nuts or cubes of cheese or boiled egg to your salad, along with yogurt for dessert, will turn that salad into a satisfying meal.

Along with exercise and healthy lifestyle choices, dairy protein can support muscles by stimulating metabolism and promoting the growth of lean muscle, which is important for everyday well-being. And anyone can benefit — even those who don’t spend hours in the weight room every week.