Protein Absorption and Efficiency: Why Does It Matter?

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Protein Absorption and Efficiency: Why Does It Matter?

fitness and nutrition to the point™

A recomp fitness and nutrition™ post

But first!  As goes anything in life, nothing comes easy.  Although supplements and techniques may aid you in your journey, nothing happens quick or overnight.  Hard work, dedication, and commitment to your goals and your life are the most important.

So as you read this and any of my posts, remember, your fitness and nutrition journey is a life style change and you get out what you put in.  The information I provide is based on sound industry standards, scientific research, and experience, and is there to aid you in speeding up your progress. 

The information contained in this post is not guaranteed to help you toward your goals as every person is different.  Seek medical advice before using any supplementation and/or starting any fitness program.

BUT FIRST, THE BASICS…

What is Protein and Why Do We Need It?

Protein is one of three macronutrients required by the body for survival.  Fats and carbohydrates being the other two, are referred to as macronutrients because they are required in large amounts by living organisms.  Macronutrients, unlike micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals, are energy providing substances.  Each macronutrient contains different amounts of energy and is used by the body for different purposes and at different rates.  Taking into account how the body metabolizes each macronutrient, carbohydrates and proteins contain about 4 calories per gram and fats contain about 9 calories per gram.  But let’s keep fats and carbohydrates for another post.

Proteins are needed by your body to build and repair hair, nails, and tissue.  Proteins are also utilized to make enzymes, hormones, bones, muscle, cartilage, skin, and blood.  Proteins are comprised of smaller units, or building blocks, called amino acids.  There are a total of 20 amino acids that can make up a protein; however, not all proteins contain all 20 amino acids.  In fact, most do not.  Your body utilizes these amino acids to build over 50,000 types of proteins that have different functions within the body.  To build these proteins, your body utilizes these 20 amino acids; however, your body can only manufacture 11 of the 20 amino acids on its own.  These are called non-essential amino acids.  The remaining 9 amino acids must come from the foods you eat and are called essential amino acids.  All 20 are listed below.

Sources of Protein

Both animal and plant based foods contain varying amounts of proteins.  Each type of protein contains a different amino acid profile when broken down by the body. Protein sources that contain all 9 of the essential amino acids are called complete proteins.  All animal based foods, and a few plant based foods, are complete proteins.  On the other hand, protein sources that do not contain all 9 essential amino acids are called incomplete proteins.  Most plant based foods are incomplete proteins.  The type of plant based food will determine the types of amino acids it has in the proteins it provides.  This is why those who consume all or mostly plant based food must ensure they pair their foods correctly so that they get all the essential amino acids in their diet.  Some good sources of proteins are listed below.

How Does the Body Absorb and Use Proteins?

In the simplest terms, protein is consumed, broken down into amino acids, absorbed by the body, and used to produce other proteins and compounds for a variety of bodily functions and repairs.  Of course, as with anything that relates to the body and nutrition, there is much more that goes into it.  Let’s break it down.

Once you consume a protein source, enzymes in the stomach, called pepsin, break the bonds that hold the protein molecule together.  This results in chains of amino acids that are linked together called polypeptides.  These amino acid chains move into the small intestine where pancreatic enzymes, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidase, further break down the amino acid chains into smaller units called peptides.  Peptides are two or more amino acids linked together.  Both polypeptides and peptides continue to be broken down into individual amino acids which can then be absorbed through the small intestine and into the blood stream where the body then uses them to make proteins and other compounds.

All proteins are broken down by the body in this process.  However, what becomes important to understand is how much of each protein sources is broken down and absorbed and how quickly compared to other protein sources.  This is especially important depending on your goals.  If you are in a caloric deficit, you want to ensure you have protein and amino acids in your blood stream as much as possible to minimize the breakdown of muscle tissue for protein and energy.

So let’s look at both protein absorption timing and efficiency.

Protein Absorption Timing

When we talk about protein absorption timing, we are referring to the rate at which the body breaks down proteins into amino acids so they can be absorbed and are available by the body for use.  The higher the absorption rate, the quicker your body can use the amino acids you consume.  The chart below gives you an idea of some common high protein sources and their absorption rate.

As you can see from the chart, whey and casein proteins, both from dairy sources, have the fastest absorption rate.  This is why most post-workout protein drinks are made of whey or whey and casein proteins.  On the other side of the spectrum, egg proteins are much more slowly absorbed and are better for sustaining protein in the blood stream longer and curbing hunger longer as well.

So why is this important?

The type of protein you consume should be based on your goals and needs.  As mentioned before, there are times you want a quick infusion of protein but not necessarily a long sustained release.  Other times you don’t need a large amount at once, but smaller amounts over a longer period of time.  Many protein supplements contain blends of proteins.  The most common is whey and casein or whey, casein, and egg.  These give your body a quick protein infusion from whey and longer release of protein from casein and/or egg.  Additionally, dairy sources of protein, like yogurt and milk, contain 20% whey and 80% casein which makes them an ideal protein source.

Below is a general guideline of the types of proteins and when you may consider consuming them.

Protein Efficiency

Protein absorption is a key concept to understand; however, just as important is protein efficiency or protein bioavailability.  When we talk about protein efficiency, we are referring to the amount of protein present in a protein source that your body actually utilizes.  Below is an example chart that provides the bioavailability of various protein sources.  The higher the index, the greater percentage of protein your body can use from that source.

As you can see from a quick glance at the chart above, whey, milk, and eggs, are at the top of the index.  Meats, fish, and casein have moderate indexes, and vegetarian sources, like rice, beans, and nuts, are lowest on the index.  This is key when looking at your goals and what types of protein you are looking to consume.  Just because you are consuming 10 grams of whey and 10 grams of soy protein, does not mean you will be getting 20 grams of protein.

This index should not be confused with the total amount of protein your body can absorb at one time.  This has been a debate in the fitness and nutrition industry for some time.  To avoid belaboring the concept, your body will absorb all of the protein available whether you consume 10 grams or 60 grams.  The difference is that your digestive system will slow down to ensure all of the protein is absorbed.  However, keep bioavailability in mind; your body may not absorb all 60 grams because of the protein source, not because your body is limited in the amount it can digest.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

So now that we understand what a protein is, why you need it, how your body absorbs it, and how much you really get from various protein sources, how much protein do you need in a day?

Well, I may sound like a broken record, but not only does it depend on your goals, but it is also highly debated in the fitness and nutrition industry.  Based on my research and experiences, I have summarized the amounts of protein you should get based on your goals.

You may be surprised to see you need more protein when cutting or in a caloric deficit than you do when bulking.  As mentioned before and in other posts, this is because your body uses more protein for energy in a caloric deficit and you need the additional protein in your blood stream to provide that energy as well as help reduce the amount of muscle your body breaks down.

What About Supplementation?

So what about it?  Do our bodies really need supplements to survive?  What about to thrive?

The answer to these questions is no and yes.  If you eat a proper diet and get the right nutrients in your body through clean eating of lean meats, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, your body can survive.  However, I’m sure you’re not reading this because you just want to be average and survive.  You want to thrive and change your life and your body and have lots more energy.  Thus supplementation.

When it comes to protein, most people do not get enough in their diets to meet their muscle building or fat loss goals.  When building muscle, you should take in 0.8 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.  If you are cutting you should consume more protein as being in a caloric deficit primes your body to use muscle for energy is protein is not readily available.  Read our Nutrition 101 post for more information.  For these goals consuming protein for breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner, and even bedtime is important to meeting your goals.  So who wants to down a steak before bed?  Not me, hence protein supplements.

Additionally, as discussed above, whey protein isolates and concentrates have 100%+ bioavailability so you get more protein for fewer calories!

For muscle building, you want to ensure you have enough protein to provide your body to ensure it will build muscle.  The types of protein and timing are also important, but for a great general muscle building stack protein, I go with Whey.  You can also use casein protein before bed as it is slow digesting and offers a sustained amount of protein to be absorbed at night.  Below is a quick summary of some of the different types of protein supplements.

Protein Blends: Protein blends consist of more than one type of protein and often contain other supplements like amino acids, creatine, and/or joint supplements.  Blends offer a longer period of protein absorption in the body as each protein type is absorbed at different rates; often giving you up to 8 hours of sustained protein release.
Whey Protein: Whey protein is derived from milk.  About 20% of the protein in milk and milk products is whey protein.  Whey digests the easiest in the stomach and therefore is delivered to your body the fastest.  Whey and Casein proteins are also delivered to the body at nearly 100% of what you ingest, as opposed to other protein sources.  Whey also comes in three forms.  Whey Protein Concentrate is the least pure form, up to 89%, of Whey but is the least expensive.  Whey Protein Isolates are more pure, greater than 90%, as they have been additionally refined to remove other ingredients found naturally in milk.  Hydrolysed Whey Protein Isolate is further refined into the purest form of Whey Protein.
Casein Protein: Casein protein is also derived from milk.  About 80% of the protein in milk and milk products is casein protein.  Because of the structure of casein protein on how it is digested in your body, casein is a slower digesting or slower released protein.  This is a great source of protein for longer periods between meals or at bedtime when you body can be provided a steady source of protein release. 
Egg Protein: Egg protein also scored very high on the percent protein absorbed per amount ingested.  Egg protein is high quality and releases even slower than casein protein.  Protein blends often contain a source of egg protein for its extended release qualities.  Egg protein is also a great alternative to Whey and Casein for those that are lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive.
Soy Protein: Soy protein, along with pea protein, are also great sources of quality protein.  Although the ratio of protein ingestion to absorption in the body is lower than animal derived proteins, these are great alternative for those on vegan or vegetarian diets.

Where Can You Find It?

Our Recomp Fitness and Nutrition store offers a variety of vitamins, supplements and fitness accessories from many great name brands.  Click below to browse our selection.

Additionally, we offer unique combinations of supplements and accessories in our various pre-designed stacks.  Our stack combines experience and science to give you the best combination of supplements and accessories to help you reach your goals.   Check out three of our many awesome stack below.

Recomp Fat Loss / Cutting Stack

 

Recomp Muscle Building Stack

 

Recomp Advanced Gym Stack

 

We can also design a stack specific to your needs, physical and time constraints, and fitness and nutrition goals!  Ask us how!

Check out our other blog posts and our monthly newsletter, as well as follow us on Twitter and Facebook, for more great information on fitness and nutrition so you can become a Fit Nut too!

 

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