Protein is essential for tissue repair (especially skeletal muscle).
Getting enough protein should be priority for the active individual to ensure proper recovery.
There are 20 different amino acids, and 9 considered essential that need to be aquired from the diet (isoleucine, leucine, valine, lysine, methionine, threonine, phenylalanine, histidine, and tryptophan), as they cannot be created by the body.
Given how important protein is, it’s important to note that protein quality varies between different sources.
High quality sources, often referred to as “complete” proteins, include all essential amino acids in optimal ratios.
High quality protein sources are usually animal sources, with the highest quality being whey, low-fat milk, egg whites, chicken, turkey, and fish.
Coming in second are red meats, other fatty meats, soy beans, soy milk, and soy protein.
Just a rung below in quality are hemp protein, wheat, oats, quinoa, and chia seeds.
Low quality proteins include most plant proteins (including most grains), and most vegetables and fruits.
For our purpose, it would be prudent to divide the macro nutrient most abundant from each source into neat categories.
Proteins: Low-fat milk, whey and casein powder, chicken, turkey, fish, egg whites.
Carbs: Grains, vegetables, fruits
Fats: Nut butters and oils.
Some foods won’t fit easily into these neat categories, such as whole milk, red meat, and eggs, which have just about as much fat as protein. Likewise, some grains, legumes, and beans contain high amounts of protein.
Why is Protein Quality Important?
Protein quality is important in that high quality protein sources offer the most protein in the optimal ratios for the least amount of calories, as they are mostly protein. The human body needs a certain ratio and amount of amino acids to start protein synthesis, therefore if you were to eat only lower quality protein sources, you would need to eat more (and thus eat more calories) to make up for the deficient amino acids. Also, low quality proteins will have much more calories as they will have more carbs and fat. This is especially important to consider while cutting when every calorie counts.
Combining proteins is often used by vegans or vegetarians. For example, if you take brown rice and combine it with beans, the two together provide a better amino acid profile than either one alone. This is due to the fact that brown rice is particularly low in lysine but high in methionine, while beans are somewhat high in lysine and low in methionine, to which they compliment each other.
Protein Quality Measurement Tools
Usually protein quality is measured by the Biological Value (BV) or the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). While both of these use science heavy complex processes to figure out the quality of protein, we pretty much know know which sources are best and we don’t really need to split hairs.
Note: Here’s a cool tool to check out if you’re interested in further exploring quality of protein sources.
So, to sum up, we can conclude that one should:
Eat a wide variety of foods groups, and mix up your protein sources.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, use protein combining (grains/legumes, etc.).
Don’t cut out one food group or mainly eat just one food group.
If you feel you’re not getting sufficient protein, consider supplementation with a high quality powder (like whey).
How Much Protein Do I need?
This varies based on the individual, but 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is the rule of thumb for most athletes, however this is a highly individual question, and you may need more or less depending on your training, lifestyle, sex, body type, whether cutting or bulking, and many other factors.
Protein range for the active individual:
0.6 – 1.2 grams per pound of body weight.
Example: a 180 lb male would need between 108 – 216 grams of protein per day.
Experiment and see what works best for you.
Also check out: What Type of Protein Should You Use Post-Training?