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The role of protein: how does it help with movement?

Emily Foster

Written byEmily Foster

heeral-patel-bio

Reviewed byHeeral Patel

Two women walking through park with smiling expressions
Protein messaging is everywhere right now, but with that can come misinformation and confusion. So, we’re here to dispel those myths and give you the right information when it comes to protein. We’ll talk about who needs protein (which is everyone, but in differing amounts), the benefits of protein, and how protein can help your joints, bones, and muscles.

What is protein?

Proteins – also known as the building blocks of life – can be found throughout the entire body, in vital structures including muscles, bones, skin and hair.1,2 Proteins play essential roles in facilitating physiological processes necessary for everyday life, such as the formation of hormones, enzymes, and components of the immune system. Plus, they play a pivotal role in muscle repair, maintenance, and growth.1

Proteins consist of more than 20 building blocks called amino acids. Of these, nine are classified as essential, signifying they need to be consumed via our diet, as our bodies are unable to make them naturally.1,2 Amino acids undergo a cycle of repair and replacement; so, we must consume enough dietary protein to replenish and sustain the body’s amino acid demands.1

Who needs protein?

The amount of dietary protein you need depends on things like weight, age, and activity level. Although the UK recommended dietary allowance (RDA) sets a baseline of 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (i.e. if you weigh 70 kilograms, you will need to consume at least 0.75 x 70 = 52.5 grams of protein per day), research suggests that people who are physically active or older, may benefit from higher protein diets.3,4

What happens if we don’t get enough protein?

Not enough protein intake can present challenges to the body, resulting in muscle weakness, fatigue, decreased bone density, and compromised joint function. This deficiency may lead to osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, or sarcopenia – a condition that causes progressive loss of muscle mass, particularly in older adults. Research indicates that between the ages of 40 and 80, individuals typically experience a 30-50% decline in muscle mass, highlighting the importance of protein intake throughout all stages of life.5,6

How much protein do you need for exercise?

For physically active individuals, the RDA for protein increases to 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (i.e. if you weigh 70 kilograms, you will need to consume at least 1.4 x 70 = 98 grams of protein per day).3 The stress and strain of endurance and resistance exercise causes muscle damage by creating micro-tears in muscle fibres. However, there’s good news: protein helps to repair and rebuild these fibres.

This also means that not enough protein can affect the repair and rebuild of muscle post-exercise.

Some research indicates that the body’s capacity to utilise protein reaches a plateau when consuming more than 0.25-0.30 grams of protein per kilogram body weight in a single meal, suggesting that larger protein servings may not add additional benefits.5 To optimise protein utilisation, consume dietary protein in 20–25-gram portions (0.25-0.30 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight) spread evenly throughout the day.6
For example:
  • breakfast – yoghurt and granola bowl – 200 grams of 5% Greek yoghurt (20 grams of protein) with mixed berries, Bio&Me granola and one tbsp of honey 
  • mid-morning snack – protein smoothie – 1 scoop of PE protein powder (20-25 grams of protein), almond milk, ½ banana and a handful of fresh or frozen spinach 
  • lunch – grilled chicken or Quorn quinoa salad – one chicken breast (20-25 grams of protein), 160g of Quorn pieces (22g protein) quinoa, salad leaves, cucumber, tomatoes, avocado and olive oil salad dressing 
  • afternoon snack – two hard-boiled eggs (12 grams of protein) 
  • dinner – salmon with steamed vegetables – one salmon fillet (20 grams of protein), steamed vegetables and brown rice 
  • evening snack (optional) – a handful of nuts (eight grams of protein), PE protein bar (15-20 grams of protein) or 170 grams of 5% Greek yoghurt (15 grams of protein) and one tbsp of nut butter (four grams of protein)
Exercise stimulates muscle breakdown and rebuilding, making the immediate post-exercise period the best time for muscle building.2 So, after endurance and resistance exercise, it’s ideal to have an easily digestible protein snack, such as a protein shake. Research also suggests that consuming a slow-digesting protein, like casein protein, think Greek yoghurt or a casein protein powder before sleep.2

Here's some myth busting on protein

Myth: Dietary protein is only important for men, not women
Fact: Good protein intake is important for everyone!

We all need sufficient protein for muscle maintenance and growth, and to support various vital functions. It’s as crucial for women, as it is for men, to ensure they meet their RDA of dietary protein to prevent deficiency and support overall health.2,4

Myth: You can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet
Fact: A well-balanced plant-based diet offers a number of protein-rich options

There’s a common misconception that you can’t get sufficient protein and therefore all essential amino acids on a plant-based diet. While animal protein may be more protein-dense than some plant-based proteins, this doesn’t mean you can’t get protein from plant-based foods.

Some plant-based protein-rich foods include:
  • tofu 
  • tempeh 
  • seitan 
  • peas 
  • beans 
  • lentils 
  • chickpeas 
  • quinoa 
  • Mycoprotein (found in Quorn products) 
  • nuts 
  • seeds 
  • fortified foods 
  • protein powders
While certain plant-based foods may lack essential amino acids, pairing them with other protein-rich foods can ensure all amino acid requirements are met, as different plant-based foods are high in different essential amino acids. For example, rice is rich in methionine but lacks lysine and thiamine, while beans are rich in lysine and thiamine but lack methionine. Combining beans with rice provides complementary amino acids, ensuring essential amino acid requirements are met.1

Myth: All protein-rich foods are healthy
Fact: Whilst protein is crucial for the reasons we’ve discussed above, not all protein sources are equally nutritious.

Consuming lots of fatty cuts of red meat and processed meat have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to plant-based protein sources. This is because plant-based protein sources often contain more unsaturated (“good”) fats, which are beneficial for heart health. Additionally, consuming poultry, legumes, and nuts is related to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, whilst eating more red meat relates to a higher risk.2

The final say

So, to recap: when choosing dietary protein sources, we suggest opting for more plant-based protein, poultry, and fish, and less red and processed meat where possible.2

Sources

1. Eufic. What are Proteins and What is Their Function in the Body? [Internet]. Eufic.org. 2019. Available from: https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/what-are-proteins-and-what-is-their-function-in-the-body
2. Boston 677 HA, Ma 02115 +1495‑1000. Protein [Internet]. The Nutrition Source. 2012. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/#what-is-protein
3. Carbone JW, Pasiakos SM. Dietary protein and muscle mass: Translating science to application and health benefit. Nutrients [Internet]. 2019 May 22;11(5):1136. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566799/
4. British nutrition foundation. Protein - British Nutrition Foundation [Internet]. www.nutrition.org.uk. 2021. Available from: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthy-sustainable-diets/protein/?level=Health%20professional#:~:text=The%20Reference%20Nutrient%20Intake%20(RNI)%20for%20protein%20for%20adults%20is  ‌
5. 1.Arentson-Lantz E, Clairmont S, Paddon-Jones D, Tremblay A, Elango R. Protein: A nutrient in focus. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2015 Aug;40(8):755–61. Available from: https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/apnm-2014-0530‌
6. Lonnie M, Hooker E, Brunstrom J, Corfe B, Green M, Watson A, et al. Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults. Nutrients [Internet]. 2018 Mar 16;10(3):360. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5872778/
 

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