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Protein - Natural Sources vs Supplementing

Posted by Florian Hosner on

What is protein?

As always, first a little chemistry! Don’t be scared, we will just scratch the surface of the protein biochemistry to give you a basic understanding. You must understand what proteins are and how they work if you want to make decisions about how much protein to consume, which foods to eat, or if you should supplement or not.

So let’s get started.

Protein, like Fats and polysaccharides (e.g. starch, cellulose) are big biomolecules, build up by small repeating units. In contrast to fat and polysaccharides protein molecules can form very complex structures that are feasible to perform complicated jobs in your body.

The smallest structures of protein molecules are amino acids, and there are only 21 amino acids that can build proteins. All 21 amino acids have two aspects in common. They have at least one amino group and at least one acid-group also called carboxyl-group. Amino-acid … Now who would have thought that? The next picture shows three different amino acids. Leucine is a rather simple structure. Lysine has a longer chain and a second amino-group, but the structure is still rather simple. The second amino-group. Tryptophan is a more complex structure with a heterocycle (the two rings on the left side). 

An Amino-group (or NH2-group) can be linked to a Carboxyl-group (or COOH-group) which makes it possible for amino acids to build chains or even three-dimensional structures. Both molecules link by splitting one water molecule off (H2O) This reaction is also called a “peptide bond” and it is one of the most important reactions for human life!

The peptide bond gives almost unlimited possibilities for the linking of amino acids. It is like a playground for nature. There are huge proteins with thousands of linked amino acids. Titin, for example, is a protein with 34.000 amino acids. It is the biggest known human protein and it is responsible for our muscle tension. It acts like a small elastic rubber band in our muscle, that stretches our muscle after contraction.

Proteins can do a lot of different important jobs in our bodies. Just to name a few:
- They build our muscle tissue and enable us to move
- They transport the oxygen, and important nutrients through our body
- They protect us against viruses and toxins

No protein, no human life. Do you see how important they are?

 Aprotinin - A rather simple protein! Carbon in grey, Nitrogen in purple, Oygen in red

Amino acids – Essential or not?

So you better get your amino acids, right?

We need the amino acids in our nutrition to build the proteins in our bodies. They can be found in animal or plant-based protein. We eat the protein, our body cuts it down and separates the different amino acids and then we build up the protein that we currently need in our body. Simple as that…

However, not all amino acids have the same priority for our bodies. In fact, we can produce most of the amino acids on our own, without adding them via nutrition. There are only 9 amino acids that we cannot produce in our bodies. These amino acids must be consumed with our nutrition. If we do not eat enough of them, we develop deficiencies and serious diseases. Our muscle, brain, or nervous system can stop working, our immune system breaks down, etc. System error! Period!

The nine essential amino acids are Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. These are the VIPs of amino acids. We need to make sure that we consume enough of them to make sure our body works properly. However, do not worry too much! We are talking about 0.3 – 2.7 g for an average person per day (or 300 – 2.700 mg).

Amino acid(s) WHO mg per kg body weight WHO mg per 70 kg
L Leucine 39 2730
K Lysine 30 2100
V Valine 26 1820
F Phenylalanine 25 1750
I Isoleucine 20 1400
M Methionine 15 1050
T Threonine 15 1050
H Histidine 10 700
W Tryptophan 4 280

 The recommendation for protein intake in total is 0.8 g per kg of bodyweight, which means 46g for an average woman or 56g for an average man. If you can meet the recommendation for protein, you should not have any issues getting enough of your essential amino acids.

Amino Acids - Acids with an atitude!

Healthy natural sources for protein & amino acids:

Now that we know why we need protein and what essential amino acids are crucial for our body we can go to have a look at the different sources for these compounds. We will show you 5 healthy protein sources that include all essential amino acids and we will give you an approximate composition list for each food.

1. Lean Chicken Breast

White meat is a great source of protein. You will find plenty of essential amino acids. If you have a medium-sized chicken breast as lunch, you will meet the major part of the daily needs for almost all essential amino acids. And keep in mind this is only one meal!

Lean chicken breast:
Amino acid g per 100g of food % of daily demand
Leucine 2.527 g 54.9%
Lysine 2.936 g 71.6%
Valine 1.581 g 63.2%
Phenylalanine 1.233 g 28.0%
Isoleucine 1.498 g 74.9%
Methionine 0.794 g 44.1%
Threonine 1.370 g 57.1%
Histidine 1.138 g 54.2%
Tryptophan 0.385 g 48.1%


2. Tuna Steak

Fish is another great source of protein. The concentration of essential amino acids is not as high as in chicken breast but almost in the same range. Moreover, fish is full of healthy unsaturated fatty acids and a very healthy choice of food.

Tuna steak:
Amino acid g per 100g of food % of daily demand
Leucine 1.514 g 32.9%
Lysine 1.711 g 41.7%
Valine 0.959 g 38.4%
Phenylalanine 0.727 g 16.5%
Isoleucine 0.858 g 42.9%
Methionine 0.551 g 30.6%
Threonine 0.817 g 34.0%
Histidine 0.548 g 26.1%
Tryptophan 0.209 g 26.1%

3. Tofu

For our vegan friends, don’t despair! There are also plant-based sources of protein. Tofu is a great choice. The concentration of essential amino acids is not as high as in meat or fish, but still in an acceptable range. It is not as easy to meet your daily needs for protein when you are a vegan, but still possible without supplementing. You just need to take more effort to plan your dishes accordingly.

Tofu:
Amino acid g per 100g of food % of daily demand
Leucine 0.619 g 13.5%
Lysine 0.537 g 13.1%
Valine 0.411 g 16.4%
Phenylalanine 0.397 g 9.0%
Isoleucine 0.404 g 20.2%
Methionine 0.104 g 5.8%
Threonine 0.332 g 13.8%
Histidine 0.237 g 11.3%
Tryptophan 0.127 g 15.9%


4. Lentils

Another great plant-based source of essential amino acids. Lentils, beans, and peas.

Lentils:
Amino acid g per 100g of food % of daily demand
Leucine 0.654 g 14.2%
Lysine 0.630 g 15.4%
Valine 0.448 g 17.9%
Phenylalanine 0.445 g 10.1%
Isoleucine 0.390 g 19.5%
Methionine 0.077 g 4.3%
Threonine 0.323 g 13.5%
Histidine 0.254 g 12.1%
Tryptophan 0.081 g 10.1%


5. Pumpkin seeds

A secret tip at the end! Seeds and nuts. Just have a look at these high concentrations of amino acids! However, keep in mind that seeds and nuts have also a lot of calories. You should not consider eating 300g of nuts every day, as long as you want to keep your dress size!

Pumpkin seeds:

Amino acid g per 100g of food % of daily demand
Leucine 2.419 g 52.6%
Lysine 1.236 g 30.1%
Valine 1.579 g 63.2%
Phenylalanine 1.733 g 39.4%
Isoleucine 1.281 g 64.1%
Methionine 0.603 g 33.5%
Threonine 0.998 g 41.6%
Histidine 0.780 g 37.1%
Tryptophan 0.576 g 72.0%

Some last words on protein sources: You have seen that you find a good distribution of essential amino acids in several foods. Many foods contain a lot of them. You should not only consider the amount of protein and the amino acid profile. Also consider what else you consume with your food. For example, red meat is also high in protein, but it contains a lot of unhealthy saturated fatty acids. When you eat fish you should always take care of high quality! Low quality fish can contain a lot of toxins due to its high amount of fat. Fish fat itself is healthy but it can store a lot of unhealthy stuff. So if you eat fish from a low water quality with industrial pollution you might consume many unhealthy chemicals. The same goes with low quality meat or eggs. You should always consider eating organic foods and pay more for a higher quality. Summarized, when it comes to protein your mantra should be “Quality first!”

Supplementing

Last but not least some words on supplementing. Can it make sense? Yes! If you want to build muscle fast and you are on a very intense strength training plan, then supplementing makes perfect sense. If you are a vegan and it is sometimes hard to get all of your protein, you can also consider supplementing.
However, is it necessary? No, it isn’t. If you plan your meals well and take care of sufficient protein from meat, fish, and plants you will be fine. Sometimes it might take some work to do it right, but it works. And if you are training 5 times a week … Chicken, chicken, chicken it is. I had it all!

Supplementing is no bad idea at all. If you do it, you should stay in a range of 20 – 50g of additional protein per day. Together with your food, you will have plenty of amino acids to build muscle. You do not need more. If you eat more, then your body will burn it for energy or store it as fat, and this does not make sense at all.

If you supplement for muscle gain, you should make sure that your supplement provides all essential amino acids! This is crucial. You need them all and if one is missing you will have a shortage and your muscle will grow slowly. For muscle gain, you can consider protein powders with some carbs and take them after training. This is the best time for supplementing because your muscle needs the protein the most.

Some fairy tales are going around, saying that high protein intake may damage your kidney function. However, there is no scientific proof that this is the case for people with healthy kidney function. Still, it makes no sense to supplement higher than 20-50g per day, as you simply do not need more protein in your body.

If you want to lose weight, it can also make sense to supplement with protein shakes. Protein is low in energy compared to carbohydrates and fat and the energy and satiety from protein stay longer compared to carbs. So if you supplement for weight loss you could have one shake in the evening instead of a snack. This can work very well. Just do not overdo it. Stay within a reasonable range of 20-50g per day.

You should also consider taking the right source of supplements. If you want to lose weight, don’t use protein powder with a lot of carbs! This makes no sense. There are shakes with 20-30% of added sugar. When you take these, you end up with a lot of calories and you will gain weight. These supplements can work great for muscle gain because you need some energy from the carbs after your training, but if your target is weight loss, please keep away from these. Go with 90% protein powders or 100% and if they taste like shit you can still add some fruit.

 

The Bottom Line

Protein is very important for our full body. All proteins consist of 21 different amino acids that are linked via peptide bonds. Tehy can form complex structures with thousands of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids, that cannot be built by our body and must be consumed with our nutrition. 

There are natural sources for protein like meat, fish, and several plants. It is possible to meet our daily demand without supplementing using these sources. When it comes to choosing the right protein source it is "quality first!".

It can make sense to supplement protein if you want to lose weight or you want to gain muscle fast. However, it is not necessary and you will get also good results using natural sources in both cases. You just need to have a good food plan!

If you want to supplement though, then keep in mind what your target is! If you want to lose weight you should use protein shakes without any added carbs or at least with 90% protein. If you want to gain muscle you can use protein with more added carbs, that gives you energy after training to build your muscle better. In both cases, you should take care to use protein with all 9 essential amino acids and you should not consume more than 20 - 50g per day.

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