In Praise of Protein

By Christina Robilliard

Protein is found more abundantly in the body than any other substance except water; fifty percent of the dry weight of your body is protein. The haemoglobin that carries the oxygen in your blood is protein. The structure of your genes and your brain cells is totally protein. All bodily functions from the blink of any eye to the creation of new muscle are controlled by enzymes and all enzymes are proteins. Protein is crucial for good health. The deficiency of this substance can cause poor stamina, hormonal problems, poor immune system function, lowered resistance to disease and slower recovery from training. It is vital you get it right.

Essential amounts of protein will vary with individuals and your body needs will vary as your body goes through its natural cycle of building and cleansing, training and recovery. Your metabolic / body type and your constitution will also determine your protein requirements and whether your needs can be met via a vegetarian diet or whether more concentrated sources of protein are preferred.

As protein is digested it is broken down into amino acids. There are 22 different acids, all of which must be present in the body. However, 10 of these are essential for life and must be supplied by the diet. These amino acids are used in the structure of body tissues, hormones, enzymes and antibodies (hence chicken soup being a good cold remedy!) Protein sources that contain all the essential amino acids in abundance are fish, chicken, animal meats and eggs and are referred to as 'dense' proteins. Small amounts of one or more amino acids can be found in beans, rice, grains, cereals and soybeans. Consequently, these are not considered "high quality" sources of proteins (some even go so far as to consider them in the wrong ratios for human nutrition) and must be eaten in combination and in abundance. Rice for example, although it feeds more than half the world, will not maintain lean tissue, one reason why rice eaters are almost all small-boned, small-muscled people. If you do combine grains and legumes your body can get sufficient of each amino acid to maintain health. However, when fighting illness or training hard dense protein is usually the better choice. The demands of an athlete exceed the normal criteria for 'health'. During exercise, the body uses protein at a much faster rate. If you increase the intensity and duration of exercise protein needs increase even further. Tour de France cyclists require two and a half times the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances) to stay in protein balance (allowances which have little relevance to athletes to begin with).

What is little understood by athletes is the role of protein in the regulation of blood sugar, via the hormonal system. This is called 'glycaemic regulation' and involves eating small and frequent meals combining a balance of carbohydrate and protein at each meal or snack at approximately 2:1 (grams or calories). This way of eating is particularly useful for hormonal support by reducing the stimulation of cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone elevated by exercise, especially excessive training and contraindicated at continually high levels in the body.

Listen to your body. Is your body is telling you your protein needs to come from higher sources? If you are taking in enough protein, are you breaking it down (assimilating it)? One of the requirements of protein is to manufacture digestive enzymes needed for protein digestion. In clinical practice I find many athletes lacking in these enzymes. If your body is telling you your protein needs to come from higher sources and you have problems digesting it, you may require some digestive aid in the form of enzymes for a while.

Once you have chosen which protein you are going to eat, the quantity as well as the quality is important. Too small an intake will cause problems already mentioned and too much (especially if not digested properly) can stress the system. It is possible to overload the system with protein and this can lead to problems of excessive toxicity, whereby the body is unable to adequately remove dangerous wastes. Trial and error will help you decide your individual needs. The key is to match your protein intake to your training programme. Superior protein supplements for those that require them are now available. My preferred form is concentrated nutrients derived from prime quality lean white fish, harvested from deep unpolluted ocean waters i.e. natures way or 'food form'.

I believe that understanding how training and diet affect hormonal systems is the real key to achieving athletic performance. Athletes that compensate a low protein intake by taking in too much carbohydrate (especially refined carbohydrate) can expect constant hunger, difficulty losing body fat, decreased oxygen transport to muscle cells and decreased endurance. A profile I come across frequently in my practice. The truth is a high carbohydrate, low protein diet has adverse hormonal effects.

Think of food as a modulator of hormones and exercise and food go hand in hand. If the 2:1 protein to carbohydrate ratio is maintained for 5-7 days the body has the time period to make the appropriate hormonal adjustment. When your body is in balance you will experience exceptional health and peak performance. Food is not just a modulator of hunger – it is your medicine and your ticket to good health. The simple truth is that if the proteins you eat are poor quality then all the structures of your body will be poor quality. You need optimum levels of protein to build optimum structure and body proteins are not there forever, they die and need to be replaced.

Christina Robilliard is a former member of the Serpentine Running Club, and a registered nutritional therapist.