At this point it’s fair to assume that even your aunt has heard about the importance of protein in a gym junkie’s diet. But with the endless barrage of companies creating new high-protein products, it can be easy to lose sight of the fundamentals.
There’s a bit more to it than simply eating anything with protein on the label, so here’s a crash course in protein quality and when to consume it. And before we continue - no, there's no whey-based puns in this post. You're welcome.
Judging Protein Quality
All proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which your body can’t produce. So you’ve got to get these nine through the protein in your diet. A complete protein contains all nine of these essential amino acids while an incomplete protein does not.
Animal proteins like meat, fish, dairy and eggs have long been a go-to in the bodybuilding community because they are complete proteins. And even though you might not be aiming to build arms the size of oaks, when it comes to repairing muscle it’s safe to take a leaf out of their book.
Plant-based proteins are also a great option - nuts, beans, legumes and wholegrain carbs all pack good amounts of protein. There are a few complete plant-based proteins, such as quinoa, soy and Quorn. Most, though, lack one or more of the essential amino acids so are incomplete.
That’s not nearly as big of a deal as it sounds, because plant proteins have varied amino acid profiles. So as long as you eat a mix of plant proteins dieticians agree these differences will average out and you’ll get a good amount of all the essential amino acids.
Overall, protein quality is worth being aware of but not getting obsessed with. If you are eating a varied diet with plenty of complete proteins then you are giving your muscles quality recovery fuel.
If you don’t eat animal products you can still get all your essential amino acids, though if you want to consume lots of quality protein on a veggie or vegan diet you’ll need to be a little more strategic than non-vegetarians.
Protein Powder Quality
our kind of water cooler
Dairy proteins like whey and casein are popular because they are affordable and high-quality complete protein sources. Not to mention they come in all manner of flavours (including Roadside Lemonade... no, seriously).
Collagen protein, rice protein, pea protein and veggie derived protein powders are low in certain amino acids so are slightly lower quality. However, if you prefer a non-dairy protein source there are protein blends available. These blends cleverly balance different forms of veggie protein to form a complete protein powder with good amounts of all key amino acids.
When do you need protein?
Studies show that the overall amount of protein you eat during the course of a day is much more important than when you consume it. Even so, there are certain times of the day when your body is crying out for protein (though unfortunately you won’t feel it like you do with carb cravings!).
When you wake up?
Yes. Your body has just gone 7+ hours without food, so it’s important to give your muscles some quality, fast-acting protein. A whey protein shake is a good option but will not make a nutritious breakfast by itself so make sure to enjoy it alongside some real food.
Before your workout?
Your call. If you’ve eaten a meal in the 2 hours or so before your workout, you definitely don’t need protein. If it has been 3+ hours since you ate, you might want a protein supplement before your workout to keep you going. But that’s optional.
After your workout?
Yes. While the idea of a 30 minute window after a workout in which you need to consume protein is a myth, it is true that your muscles have (if you’re doing it right) just been put under a lot of stress. Post-workout protein is a good way to make sure you have enough nutrients to kick start recovery and growth.
Up to you. While it’s definitely not needed, research has shown pre-bed protein can help your fitness recovery. If you want it then pick a slow release protein such as casein (you can find it in powder, milk, cottage cheese and Greek yoghurt). This will give your body a steady supply of amino acids through the night.
The Lean Takeaway
The best way to make sure you are getting quality protein is to eat protein from a variety of complete protein sources. Animal proteins are the easiest option for this, but you can get enough quality complete protein from only veggie sources if you're smart about it.
There are better times of day to consume protein. But the most important part to get right is consuming the right amount of protein (and other macronutrients) each day. So make sure you've got that nailed down before you start thinking about timings.