Summer is the time of year many of us care especially not just how we feel, but also how we look. We flock to the gym or spend our time exercising outdoors as the weather warms up.
We want the strength and stamina to work and play hard, and the confidence to enter a room and feel good about our appearance.
Though aerobic exercise and physical fitness are paramount, the food we eat to fuel such activity matters even more. A balanced diet helps with everyday health and function, but protein is the nutrient required for muscle maintenance and growth.
What is protein?
Proteins are complex molecules made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. All together, they make up a macronutrient that’s vital for cell growth and repair − working to improve function, structure and regulation of one’s organs and one’s body tissue.
Protein targets muscle tissue growth and development especially. “Amino acids are the main building block for muscle,” explains Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “Basically, our digestive system pulls apart the building blocks in the proteins that we eat, and our body reassembles these building blocks into muscle.”
Why does protein help with muscle growth?
Such growth occurs, in part, because muscle tissue “is made of protein fibers,” explains Loren Fishman, MD, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Columbia University and the medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He says when protein fibers slide past each other, they cause one’s muscles to contract. “The reason consuming protein in food is so important is because muscle contraction always damages these sliding protein fibers and you need to consume protein in your diet to repair and replace them,” he says. That repair and replacement can lead to muscle growth and expansion.
How much protein should I eat to gain muscle?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommended daily allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of one’s body weight. That means a person weighing 160 pounds should eat about 57 grams of protein each day.
But that amount should be higher when muscle growth and development is the goal. “We must consume about 10% of our calories as protein to maintain our muscles, and just a little bit more than this will be enough to gain muscle,” advises Willett. He says most people get adequate protein for muscle growth from a healthy diet because protein-rich foods are abundant. Protein is common in animal products such as beef, pork, chicken and fish, plus seeds and nuts, beans and lentils, and it is also present in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs.
Through regular consumption of such foods, “almost everyone gets enough protein to gain muscle,” explains Willett. “However, just eating more protein won’t lead to gains in muscle, we need to work for that.” Physical activities that contribute to muscle growth include resistance training such as weightlifting or the use of exercise bands, plus any repetitive movement that targets specific muscle groups. “Remember, we only add to the muscles that we use,” Willett says, “so climbing stairs or riding a bike will help build up our thighs but won’t do anything for muscles in our arms.”
In other words, “loading up on steak and cheese will give us lots of protein,” Willett says, but if we fail to also target a variety of muscle groups through proper workout routines and resistance training, we aren’t likely to achieve the results we’re seeking.
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