Most people into working out know that they need protein to build muscle. But what actually is protein and what exactly does it do? Let’s find out.
What Are Proteins?
Proteins are molecules that not only make up most of what you see as your muscles, that is only one of their functions. They also help forming bones, cartilage, skin and blood, build antibodies that defend against infections and a lot more. In essence, without proteins our bodies would be helpless little organic puddles.
From Amino Acid To Protein
The human body builds all the different kind of proteins it needs for these tasks by putting smaller molecules called “amino acids” into chains. Of those amino acids there are 20 different kinds and for each protein to be built the body puts them together in a specific sequence. This is similar to our alphabet, which has 26 letters and depending on how those 26 letters are strung together, you can form thousands of words, each with a unique meaning and function.
Essential Amino Acids
The tricky part about the amino acids is that 11 of them the body can build itself, while for the other nine it has to rely on food as source. Those nine are called “essential amino acids”. When food is digested, the proteins in it are broken down to their amino acids and the body uses them to build the proteins it needs itself. If the nine essentials are not in the food, the body can’t build certain proteins.
And, you might guess it, the amino acids responsible for building muscle are among the essential, which makes it pretty clear that people working out should make sure their nutrition gives them those.
The most convenient way to go about it is to include food in your diet that is classified as a “complete” protein source, meaning it contains all essential amino acids. Examples for complete sources would be meat, milk and eggs and of course the protein powders especially many bodybuilders use.
Vegans And Protein
For a vegan things become a bit trickier, because plant sources carry amino acids, but some are not complete or those that are may contain only very limited amounts of some amino acids. Vegans should combine different sources, like nuts, beans and soybeans to get the total coverage.
One word about soy: There is some evidence that soy may limit production of the male hormon testosterone, which plays an important part in building muscle. Scientific evidence if this really happens or not is still not conclusive, but it is a thing you should be on the lookout for.
You can find the second part of this article, where we look at the practical applications of protein in resistance training, right here.