NUTRIWAY - Health Articles - Protein
Find out why your body needs sufficient protein and the benefits of whey protein for athletes and older people.

Proteins are essential to human life and are found in all living cells. In fact, the typical 76kg man contains approximately 12kg of protein.

It is vital that we consume sufficient protein because our bodies continuously use protein for a number of processes that are necessary to sustain human life. Broadly speaking, proteins are used by the body to:

  • Continually build new structural tissues such as muscle, skin and blood
  • Generate a range of enzymes, hormones and other molecules required for the proper functioning of the metabolism
  • Provide some energy to the body

Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. When we eat food containing protein, our bodies digest the protein by breaking it into the individual amino acids which the body then reformats to make new proteins which can be used by the body to perform essential functions.

There are 20 different types of amino acids in food proteins. Some of these amino acids can be created by the body, but nine of the amino acids cannot be made by the body and must come from food. They are known as the essential amino acids and are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Proteins in the body are continually being broken down and re-made, because our bodies continually need new protein to keep these processes running, it is essential that sufficient protein is regularly included in everybody’s diets. Dairy and meat are probably the most well-known dietary protein sources, but plant foods such as pasta, rice, beans, lentils and nuts also provide protein.

Protein for athletes and benefits of whey protein
Adequate protein intake is important for everyone, but for athletes it is critical. The International Olympic Committee confirms that athletes require more protein than non-athletes. Detailed research shows that endurance athletes in heavy training require additional protein to assist in muscle repair and recovery. Resistance athletes in the early stages of their training can also benefit from additional protein. Consuming protein during exercise and within the first hour or so after exercise enhances the benefits to the muscles.

Not all proteins are equal. Whey protein is a popular supplement for sports people because it contains all nine essential amino acids required in the daily diet and is known as a ‘complete’ protein. Whey protein also contains the highest level of the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine and valine, of any protein. BCAA are the first amino acids the body uses to rebuild and repair muscle during periods of exercise and resistance training. Whey protein is a good source of the amino acid leucine which plays a key role in muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth. Whey supplements are made by removing other substances contained in cow’s milk. Although milk is highly nutritious, it contains only about 1% whey protein.

However, it is not just your typical, young athlete that can benefit from protein:

  • Between the ages of 50 and 75, an average person may lose 25% of their lean muscle mass. This condition is called sarcopenia. It can not only adversely affect mobility, but can also contribute to diabetes, osteoporosis and a poor immune system.
  • Research published in the Journal of American Medical Directors Association in 2010 concluded that consuming adequate protein slows the loss of muscle mass. However, increased protein intake from leucine-enriched balanced amino acids (such as whey protein), and combined with adequate exercise, may actually enhance muscle strength.

Although whey protein has been available for many years, intensive research in the last 10 to 15 years has at last been able to explain how taking whey supplements in addition to a healthy diet can benefit athletes and also benefit older people who are undertaking exercise programs to avoid muscle loss and enhance muscle strength.