When my older sibling started going to the gym, I noticed two other behaviours arise. Firstly, the question of “how many grams of protein is in this?” popped up frequently. Secondly, protein shakes became a regular drink in the house.
This really got me thinking about the importance of protein. I had always heard that protein helps build muscle… but how? And how do they get it into shakes?
What is protein?
Protein is essentially long chains of amino acids. Therefore, when understanding what protein is, we should be looking at what amino acids are.
The building blocks of protein… and life. Amino acids are vital for survival. Numerous bodily functions rely on amino acids: hormone synthesis, tissue growth and repair, mineral absorption, and many more.
Amino acids are composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and a side chain group. This side chain group (also called the R group) determines the amino acid’s properties and varies from amino acid.
There are three types of amino acids: essential, non-essential, and conditional.
Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, therefore they must be gained through consumption. Essential amino acids affect many vital processes such as the nervous, productive, immune, and digestive system. Each essential amino acid contribute to specific functions. Some affected functions include: neurotransmitters (by regulating appetite, sleep and mood), muscles and tissues (by growth and regeneration), and nutrient absorption.
Non-essential amino acids are always available and produced by the body. Therefore, the body does not need to consume them.
Difference between essential and non-essential amino acids
One way to think of it is like baking cookies. Some ingredients may be readily available at home (such as flour, powders, etc), these would be like the non-essential amino acids. However, some ingredients (such as chocolate chips) may not be always present. Therefore, in order to make chocolate chip cookies, a trip to the store is required. In this way, chocolate chips are like essential amino acids, which must be gained externally (like food consumption).
Conditional amino acids are typically not essential except during times of distress or illness.
Many foods naturally contain protein. However, many people choose protein powder when desiring high amounts of complete proteins. Since milk contains two types of proteins, milk is often the base. The two type of proteins are whey and casein, which both contain all the essential amino acids.
Protein powder actually begins with yogurt or cheese making. During cheese/yogurt production, the whey part is drained off. Then the whey is filtered, dried, treated with flavours, and packaged. This processed whey results in a concentrated complete protein powder.
Through high protein consumption, it can aid muscle repair and growth. However, it is important to note that simply consuming more protein does not result in more muscle. Many people who consume protein shakes undergo intense exercise.
Muscle building process
With intense exercise, muscles undergo microscopic damage. The immune system then repairs the damaged muscles. The greater the damage, the more the body requires to repair. Our body adapts to these demands, resulting in stronger and bigger muscles. Since protein aids the muscle damage and repair cycle, protein powder can be an effective tool for athletes.
However, protein powders or supplements can also be useful during injury recovery or special diets. Since many animal products are rich in protein, vegans or vegetarians may use protein powder/supplements to reach their minimum protein amount (the amount needed to avoid nitrogen loss).