Updated: Aug 22, 2020
It doesn't matter whether you are an athlete, a weekend warrior or a novice lifter. If you train hard and often, you'll need to eat plenty of protein for optimal body composition and performance. Remember, muscle mass matters, even if you don't want to 'bulk up' (trust me ladies, you won't!)
First, amino acids (and particularly leucine) need to be around in adequate amounts to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is part of the reason why people who want to build a lean, muscular body tend to eat frequent small meals that include protein. But it doesn't necessarily mean that more is better - there is research to suggest that the body needs a break from constantly elevated amino acids in the blood to re-sensitise the system. So, you may actually be better off to eat a proper meal that contains protein every 3 or so hours, rather than sip on a protein shake all day.
Second, the extra protein helps to meet the energy demands of training. During exercise, your body will oxidise the amino acids in your blood for fuel at a faster rate. If you aren't active, your body has less need to burn available amino acids for energy.
Third, the extra protein helps to combat muscle protein break down and promote recovery and regeneration. Exercise, especially high intensity or high volume training, puts stress on the body and this causes your body to break down proteins at a faster rate and then resynthesise them. To combat this, a person who trains needs to consume additional dietary protein to tip the balance in favour of muscle building.
If you don't usually eat a lot of protein, it can be tricky to add protein foods to your diet. It's also easy to encounter 'food fatigue' if you eat the same thing day in, day out. For me, I meet most of my protein requirements from animal meats. Animal sources of protein are excellent because they tend to deliver all the amino acids our bodies need in the one package. Other protein sources, such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, can lack one or more essential amino acids. That's not a problem; it just means that if you don't eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products you'll need to eat a combination of different protein sources each day to obtain all the amino acids you need.
My top 6 tips on how I add protein to my meals
1. Make protein the base of each meal
Let's say you eat four meals a day. Each meal should include some protein, ideally in similar amounts.
2. Include a moderate amount of protein at each meal
This means that your body has a steady supply of protein in moderate amounts and enough across the day for it to digest and utilise, rather than a huge portion in a single sitting. Moderate and frequent portions of protein can help to put on muscle, or maintain muscle if your in an energy deficit.
3. Vary the protein source at each meal
Variety matters for optimal digestion and nutrient availability. This ensures that your body has all the amino acids that it needs to fuel its functions, and also to keep your body sensitive to different nutrients so that it can use them efficiently. One way I do this is to choose 2 or 3 different protein sources a week (for example, a chicken stir fry, lamb mince burgers and beef rump steak) and rotate them for different meals each day. This means that I change my protein sources each week, and I eat different protein sources at each meal in a day. Inevitably, we all tend to eat similar foods a lot of the time, and it can be tricky to include more variety. To do this, make it a priority to rotate cuts of meat (for example, I eat a lot of beef but I'll rotate cuts like rump steak, oyster blade slow cooks, and quality mince). Include plenty of eggs and dairy. Try non-animal proteins like beans. Keep an eye out and select different animal sources if you have the chance - if I'm at the market, I'll buy a whole snapper or barramundi because it looks really fresh and I don't normally eat it.
4. Eat your protein rather than drink it
Our bodies need to chew and digest food for optimal health. Aim to eat your protein most of the time, and only opt for shakes before or after training or if you truly don't have a moment to stop to eat.
5. Choose the best quality sources that your can
Find a butcher that sells grass fed and finished beef. Buy chicken that is labelled hormone free. Visit a deli that has fresh fish. Make sure you choose free range eggs, or locally made dairy products. The quality of the protein alters amino acid availability in the body. Basically, if you can't use it, you lose it. Not to mention that it's better to avoid foods that contain numbers, added sugars, nasty salts and other ominous chemicals that shouldn't be in the food or in your body.
6. Do your best
Sometimes a protein shake or a can of tinned tuna is the best you can do in the time available. And that's fine. It's better to meet your protein requirements for the day than to come up short. Aim to consume a variety of quality protein sources 80 % of the time.