It’s just as important for women! FACT – women NEED protein! To the former me, ‘protein’ was a scary word. I used to be afraid of it. The idea of consuming protein would conjure up images of bronzed bodybuilders in my head. I imagined that I’d instantly ‘bulk up’ if I ate a protein bar! Boy, how I was wrong! Protein is such an important part of our diets. It exists naturally within our foods, but we frequently aren’t consuming enough. It’s likely we need additional protein to help our bodies perform at their peak. So, let’s take a trip down memory lane to high school science. What is protein and why does our body need it? Put simply… Protein is one of the macronutrients required by our bodies to function.
Now, what is a macronutrient you ask?
There are three macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Each of these has a specific purpose and is required in relatively large quantities. Macronutrients give us the energy to help our bodies grow, repair and develop. By contrast, the body also requires micronutrients. These are our vitamins and minerals. As the name suggests, micronutrients are required in much smaller quantities. They ensure the correct functioning of the body’s metabolism, energy levels, cellular function, and physical and mental wellbeing.
So, back to the burning question – why does our body need protein?
Proteins are essentially building blocks within the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids which break down and then reassemble in different ways to create different types of cells; each with their own unique purpose.Protein is found within…Muscles – which help us move our bodies and also help our organs and heart to functionSkin, hair, and nails – these are comprised of protein (not enough protein makes for dull skin and hair and weak nails!)Collagen – providing strength within our connective tissuesAntibodies – helps to boost our immunity (fewer colds, yay!)Hormones – regulates the chemicals within our bodies (stability is a good thing!)Enzymes – to support food digestion, regulate insulin and generate energy to contract our musclesBlood – to transport oxygen around the bodyBeyond these nutritional aspects, protein can also: aid in fat loss through keeping us feeling fuller and boosting the metabolism; control blood sugar levels; and aid in maintaining lower blood pressure. Pretty great, huh! When we exercise, our muscles are damaged. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually how we become stronger. Training our muscles first breaks them down; the body then repairs and re-builds the muscles. This is where having enough protein is important. Without adequate protein (amino acids), the body cannot finish the ‘repair’ job and will only break the muscle down.
How much protein do we actually need?
This can be a bit of a tricky one to get right but if you follow this simple calculation you should pretty much nail it. A person who isn’t engaging in any form of exercise requires around 0.8g per kilogram of body weight. For a 60kg woman, this equates to 48g protein per day. Someone doing light-moderate cardio-based exercise, the amount should be between 1.2 and 1.5kg per kilogram of body weight. The same 60kg women would now require 72-90g protein per day. For weight-based exercises, strength training, and strenuous cardio, the amount of protein increases to around 2g per kilogram of body weight. This woman would need to consume 120g protein per day to fulfill her requirements. The reason for the increase in protein intake is due to strength training/intense cardio breaking down the muscle fibres at a greater rate and needing to repair these.
Ok great, now I know how much I need – When should we be consuming it?
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, the body is unable to store the amino acids in protein. We need to consume it daily to ensure we get enough of it. When you eat that protein-rich meal or consume a protein shake is important too! If you were to eat a protein heavy meal and then simply slump onto the couch, your body will take only the protein it requires (approximately 30g) and the remainder will be excreted as urea. Essentially, the excess protein is wasted and not stored for another time. Instead, we should supply our bodies with a steady stream of protein throughout the day. We should spread our protein intake throughout the day and include as part of every meal. This includes having protein-rich snacks too! After a sweat session at the gym (or Pilates or Yoga, which is more my jam!), it’s important to refuel our bodies correctly. Protein shakes can be a great way to meet these additional requirements and help with the re-building of muscles and re-bounding more easily after exercise.
I think I’ve got it… where is protein found?
Protein can be derived from several different sources. Animal protein is considered a “complete protein”, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can still consume your protein from other plant-based sources. However, you must keep in mind that most other sources of protein are “incomplete”. This means they don’t contain all the essential amino acids required by the body. To get around this, you can incorporate non-animal proteins from a variety of sources which provide the full complement of essential amino acids. For example consuming beans and lentils alongside grains such as rice will achieve this.
If I can’t get enough protein from my food, is there another source?
Another great source of protein is protein powder. Now, don’t worry, it’s not some strange artificial substance. Protein powder is actually just an isolated part (ie extracted from) of real food. There are so many types of protein powders on the market that it can seem overwhelming. They each serve a slightly different purpose and are absorbed differently by the body. Protein powders can be broken into these main types:
- Whey – which is a by-product of cheese (animal /complete protein) and is readily absorbed into the body. This makes for a great post-workout shake.
- Whey Isolate – this is the same protein but has undergone a further process to achieve a higher concentration of protein in a smaller quantity of powder. There are slightly fewer carbohydrates and sugars in this protein.
- Plant-based proteins – These days they come from a large number of sources – some popular ones include soy, chickpea, pea and rice. Remembering that most plant-based proteins have incomplete amino acid profiles, keep an eye out for protein powders derived from multiple sources which complement the other protein types and round-out that protein amino acid profile.
So there you have it. Women need protein just as much as men! Happy sweat session and here’s to a good recovery!