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: