The ABCs of protein

Is processed protein all it’s cracked up to be or is it just the newest in a line of marketing concepts that food companies are profiting from? BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSc Nut Med) investigates…

Picture this: You’ve just completed a workout. You’re feeling good – jacked, buff, muscly, ripped, cut – and are in the throes of the phenomenon Arnold Schwarzenegger famously christened “the pump”. The next step, according to locker-room lore, is to grab a protein supplement and let its precious grams flow through your body like nutritional opium, in order to repair microtears in muscle and maximise gains in strength and mass. But who wins in the world of protein obsession? Here, I dive into the world of all things protein to determine where the myths and marketing end and the scientific study remains – yes, these are my A.B.Cs of capital P.

Currently, on lifestyle-sharing site Pinterest you can now choose ‘protein’ as one of your interests in life, along with ‘cute animals’ and ‘inspirational quotes’, you can head to your local grocery store for protein noodles, protein bagels and protein water (because normal water isn’t ‘healthy enough?) and every Insta-influencer worth their #fitspo salt is spruking some form of revolutionary powdered supplement ‘proven’ to miraculously transform that bloated beer belly into a sexy six-pack overnight. So, before we allow ourselves to buy into the protein hype…


As a part of literally every cell in the human body, this macronutrient is the major component of all skeletal muscles, giving size and function, and the basis of the structural function of all other body organs, hair, skin and nails. It’s also necessary for various bodily functions from blood clotting and hormone production to immune system response.

On a molecular level, all dietary protein is made up of tiny organic compounds called amino acids. When we eat protein, it gets broken down into singular amino acid building blocks, and then recombined as necessary to perform various jobs throughout the body. So, while a chicken breast and a bowl of lentils may look a little different to the trained eye, at a chemical level the protein they provide is made of the same basic units. Simply put, biochemically, by the time you’ve eaten and absorbed one of these amino acids, it doesn’t matter whether it came from a plant or animal – the result is the same.


The 20 different amino acids that naturally exist can be divided into two main groups: essential and non-essential. The nine essential ones are the ones the body can’t make on its own, so it’s essential that we get them from foods we eat. The other 11, the non-essential ones, our bodies can produce. This is where the composition of plant and animal proteins begins to look dissimilar. All animal proteins are complete proteins (this includes both muscle tissue from animals, as well as products derived from them, like eggs and dairy).

Plant proteins on the other hand – like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains – are almost all incomplete. Only a few plant proteins pass the complete test: quinoa and soy products like edamame and tofu. Previously, it was thought that the answer to a complete plant protein was through food combination: together rice and beans have a complete amino acid profile so must be eaten together, but like most scientific notions of the ’50s, this has been determined a complete and utter construction designed to sell food items. The Mad Men ad team at it again!

Science here has prevailed, and now we know that you do not need to eat these proteins in pairs for them to work effectively, and instead, what matters is your whole diet over the course of 24 hours. If you get all essential amino acids over this time, you will have reached adequate levels of protein – regardless of whether you are a green-juiced vegan or a steak-heavy cowboy. Mexican bean burritos be gone!


The amount of protein you should be getting each day varies based on factors like age, sex, health and activity level, but as a general rule the recommended dietary allowance of protein is 0.8grams per kilogram of body weight per day. However, if you are looking to build muscle mass, become stronger, more powerful or trying to maintain muscle mass while training for an endurance event, there is only one number to remember: 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. In 2017, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine published an analysis of 49 international studies into the effect of protein on muscle strength and muscle size when combined with resistance training. It concluded that protein supplementation greater than 1.6 gm/kg/day does not further contribute to resistance-training-induced gains in fat-free muscle (to put this in perspective, if you’re an 80kg man, you need 128g of protein per day based on these findings).

Interestingly, even if you favour endurance exercise over strength and resistance training, protein requirements only drop slightly to between 1.2 to 1.4gm/kg a day. Unlike in resistance training where the increased protein intake is it induce muscular hypertrophy, in endurance training it is recommended to protect muscles and repair breakdown. In food terms, a 100g serving of chicken contains around 20g of protein; a 100g serving of eggs (a little more than 2 eggs) has 13.6g; a 100g serving (1/2 cup) of black beans has 22g; and a 100g (1/2 cup) serving of lentils has 9 grams.


Nope. The good news is the old idea that you only have a two-hour window post-workout to get protein into your system has been debunked, as proven by a study analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In reality, your body builds muscle from a pool of amino acids which lasts 3-5 hours after you’ve consumed the protein, In fact, the analysis found that you’re better off consuming a pre-exercise protein-and-carb shake one or two hours before strength training, as the rate of digestion allows this to act as both pre-workout fuel and post-workout muscle recovery.

That said, if you work out first thing in the morning, consume your protein ASAP after hitting the shower. The one time that two-hour post-workout window does apply is if you’re working out in a fasted state, according the same study. A further review determined that while compelling evidence exists showing muscle is sensitised to protein ingestion following training, the increased sensitivity to protein ingestion might be greatest in the first five hours following exercise. In short, protein ideally should be evenly distributed, every 3-4 hours, across the day to maintain the amino acid pool that maximises any kind of activity. As long as you’re hitting the magical ratio each day of protein to kg, a post-workout drink won’t change anything.

Also of note, however, are recent studies that recommend using protein-rich beverages 30min prior to sleep and two hours after the last meal (dinner), siting that this pre-sleep protein is particularly advantageous to muscle protein synthesis, muscle recovery and overall metabolism in both acute and long-term studies. Results from several investigations indicate that 30-40g of casein protein ingested 30min prior to sleep increased overnight muscle protein synthesis in both young and old men. Likewise, 30g of whey protein, 30g of casein protein and 33g of carbohydrate consumed 30 minutes before sleep resulted in an elevated morning resting metabolic rate in young fit men compared to a non-caloric placebo.

Another retrospective epidemiological study using NHANES data (1999-2002) showed that participants consuming 20, 25 or 30g of protein in the evening had greater leg lean mass compared to subjects consuming protein in the afternoon. Thus, it appears that protein consumption in the evening before sleep might be an underutilised time to take advantage of a metabolic process that can potentially improve body composition and performance. Now that’s a productive snooze!


Putting on muscle is simple in theory: lift weights and chug protein shakes. But in reality it’s an arduous process. And, to put it bluntly, there’s a limit to the amount of muscle mass that you can naturally grow. Interestingly, you will grow the most in your first year of serious training, with diminishing returns after that.

With a serious training regime, here is a rough breakdown of the rate of muscle growth the average person can expect if they do everything right:

* Beginner: 1 – 1.5% of body weight per month

* Novice: 0.75 – 1.25% of body weight per month

* Intermediate: 0.5 – 0.75% of body weight per month

* Advanced: Less than 0.5% of body weight per month

However, several factors determine whether we grow muscle as quickly as our genetic potential should allow:

* Genetics and drug use

* Calorie Intake

* Enough training stimulus to force adaptation

* Sufficent protein intake

* Enough sleep

* Management and minimisation of stress

* Body-fat percentage

* Everything else (fat-carb macronutrient intake, micronutrients, meal timing and frequency, supplements)


In short, yes – and experts think it’s down to two reasons. Many studies show that increasing daily protein intake through a combination of food and supplementation to levels above the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), while restricting energy intake (by 30-40%) has been demonstrated to maximise the loss of fat tissue while also promoting the maintenance of fat-free mass. Another study from the medical journal Obesity found the effects of consuming traditional (<15%) versus higher (>35%) protein intake were impressive – total body fat, abdominal body fat, body weight and fasting biomarkers were all reduced in the high protein group.

From a biological point, researchers also believe that humans, like other animals, have a ‘dominant appetite’ for protein. That is, when given access to a diet low in protein and high in carbs and fats, humans will binge, in an attempt to extract the protein they need. Following this theory, if many of us overeat, it could be partly because our bodies are desperately seeking out nourishing protein in a food environment flooded with wheat and sugar. In other words, obesity may just be protein hunger hiding in plain view. Food for thought, as they say?


The truth is that, at the end of the day, you can get your protein from plants, animals or both and have a crappy or fantastic diet; neither is mutually exclusive or guaranteed. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analysed data about the dietary patterns and body composition of 2986 men and women (aged 19 to 72) over the course of three years. Researchers put people in six groups based on whether they got most of their protein from one of various animal sources (fish, chicken, red meat etc) or plants (legumes, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables, and cereals and grains).

They found that the source of protein made no difference to lean muscle mass or quadricep strength over the time period. Another study compared the effect of supplementing a high dose (48g/day) of whey or rice protein in experienced resistance-trained subjects during an 8-week resistance training program. The investigators concluded that gains in strength, muscle thickness and body composition were similar between the two protein groups.

However, it is important to note that animal protein may have a slight edge when it comes to muscle repair due to rates of absorption. In plant proteins, a lower proportion of the amino acids are digested, absorbed, and utilised for things like rebuilding. That said, plant proteins have their own unique advantages. They contain high amounts of fibre and phytochemicals that studies suggest may be linked to lower risk of chronic disease like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Meat also comes with additional components that are harmful to our health, including antibiotic residue, hormones, saturated fat, trans-fats, endotoxins and contaminants such as copper and arsenic – for this reason, all animal protein sources should be grass-fed, organic, wild and or utmost quality, which can be expensive.

Another difference? Carb-ratio. When it comes to plants, all plant proteins contain some carbs; animal proteins are virtually carb-free. On the fat-front, plant protein remains triumphant due to lower levels of saturated fats. Remember, saturated fats have been shown in clinical trials to damage blood cells and vessels, causing them to become stiff, inflamed and paralysed, impairing the flow of blood. In fact, after a single meal of meat, eggs and dairy, normal blood flow can be significantly reduced by up to 50%, and this result lasts for up to 5-6 hours after ingestion. Blood flow is necessary for muscle repair and recovery so this may present a problem for those who swear by a high animal protein diet. If you don’t believe me, watch ‘The Gamechangers’ on Netflix.


Whether or not you need a protein powder really depends of what your diet consists of. For the average person who is pretty athletic and eating a balanced, diverse diet, you are probably reaching adequate protein intake. People who are more likely to struggle with getting enough protein include competitive athletes, older adults, people recovering from surgery or illness, and people on vegan diets. However, if you’re finding it hard to get enough protein from food, a clean protein powder (free from excipients and sugars) can come in handy.

Let’s be honest, you just can’t overstate the convenience factor of the chuggable, portable, lightweight, takes-two-seconds-to-make shake. But if you decide to go down the powdered path, just remember to add other nutrients to your smoothie to boost fibre and nutrient profile – Inulin, berries, coconut water and spinach are all great additions the daily protein shake and can only benefit your body in a multitude of ways. And remember, there are other quick and easy protein options out there (it’s not all about grass-fed whey and pea protein anymore) – Spirulina is a great option. With a protein content of 70% it also contains minerals like B12, iron and vitamin A, and can be found in both powdered and tablet form.

Spirulina and other microalgae such as chlorella, are an efficient and earth-friendly means of protein consumption, and will benefit your brain, liver and heart while building your biceps. Regardless of where you stand on the protein-mania spectrum, think outside the processed and marketing-fluff-filled square to reap the rewards of clean, effortless protein.

Put simply, protein is good. You probably get enough of it. If you’re worried you don’t, there are a multitude of supplement options out there – some healthy, some not. Either way, spread your protein intake throughout the day. And if you get more than you need, you’ll pee it out. But should you go down to the corner store and invest in a Snickers with ‘added protein’? Not today, not ever.

For the full article grab the March 2020 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

Karina Lege

Maddy Maya