All About Protein

by Ryan
, October 13th, 2008.

What are proteins?

Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids – the building blocks
of life. These amino acids are joined together by chemical bonds and then folded
in different ways to create three-dimensional structures that are important to
our body’s functioning.

A diagram of protein structures. For more reading on protein structure, check out Madison Technical College’s Lab Manual on Protein Structure here: Image from
A diagram of protein structures. Image source: Madison
Technical College’s Lab Manual on Protein Structure

There are two main categories of amino acids in the body. First, we’ve got
essential amino acids – those that the body can’t manufacture, and thus we must
consume in our diets. Some amino acids are conditionally essential, which means
that our bodies can’t always make as much as we need (for example, when we’re
under stress).
Next, kinda obviously, we’ve got nonessential amino acids – those that the
body can usually make for itself.

Essential amino
Conditionally essential amino acids Nonessential amino
Glutamic acid

Why is it important to get enough protein?

During digestion, the body breaks down the protein we eat into individual
amino acids, which contribute to the plasma pool of amino acids. This
pool is a storage reserve of amino acids that circulate in the blood. The amino
acid pool in the bloodstream readily trades with the amino acids and proteins in
our cells, provides a supply of amino acids as needed, and is continuously
replenished. (Think of it like a Vegas buffet of protein for the cells.)
Since our bodies need proteins and amino acids to produce important molecules
in our body – like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies –
without an adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function well at all.
Protein helps replace worn out cells, transports various substances throughout
the body, and aids in growth and repair.
Consuming protein can also increase levels of the hormone glucagon, and
glucagon can help to control body fat.1 Glucagon is released when
blood sugar levels go down.  This causes the liver to break down stored glycogen
into glucose for the body.  It can also help to liberate free fatty acids from
adipose tissue – another way to get fuel for cells and make that bodyfat do
something useful with itself instead of hanging lazily around your

How much protein do you need?

How much protein you need depends on a few factors, but one of the most
important is your activity level.
The basic recommendation for protein intake
is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 g per pound) of body mass in
untrained, generally healthy adults. For instance, a 150 lb (68 kg) person would
consume around 54 grams a day.
However, this amount is only to prevent protein deficiency. It’s not
necessarily optimal, particularly for people such as athletes who train
regularly and hard.
For people doing high intensity training, protein needs might go up to about
1.4-2.0 g/kg (or around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of body mass.2 Our
hypothetical 150 lb (68 kg) person would thus need about 95-135 g of protein per
These suggested protein intakes are what’s necessary for basic protein
(in other words, the creation of new proteins from individual
building blocks). The most we need to consume throughout the day for protein
synthesis probably isn’t more than 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg.
But wait – there’s more! Beyond the basics of preventing deficiency and
ensuring a baseline of protein synthesis, we may need even more protein in our
diets for optimal functioning, including good immune function, metabolism,
satiety, weight management and performance.3 In other words, we need
a small amount of protein to survive, but we need a lot more to thrive.
We can only store so much protein at one time. As the graph below shows, the
body’s protein stores fluctuate over the course of a day. Notice how the upper
limit never increases; the amount of protein in the body just cycles up and down
as we eat or fast.

From Millward
Image source: DJ Millward, The Metabolic Basis of Amino
Acid Requirements.

The take-home here is that you can’t simply eat a 16-pound steak (a la Homer
Simpson consuming “Sirloin A Lot”) once and be done with it. The body needs its
protein stores to be continually replenished, which means that you should
consume moderate amounts of protein at regular intervals – which just happens to
be an important Precision Nutrition guideline.
Consuming more protein may help maintain an optimal body composition (in
other words, help you stay leaner and more muscular) and a strong immune system,
good athletic performance, and a healthy metabolism. It may promote satiety
(i.e. make you feel full longer) and consequently help you manage your body
weight. Indeed, physique athletes such as bodybuilders have long relied on the
rule of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight – or 150 g per day for a 150
lb individual.

For extra credit

When you eat protein is just as important as how much. After resistance
exercise (RE) such as weight training, the body synthesizes proteins for up to
48 hours after training.4 Interestingly, during and immediately after
RE, protein breakdown is increased as well. In fact, for a brief period, the
rate of breakdown exceeds the rate of building. The body actually drops into a
short-term wasting or catabolic state. However, taking in enough protein during
the pre- and post-exercise period can offset catabolism. (Check out the Precision Nutrition guide for more
on nutrition timing.)
The graph below shows that as the blood concentration of essential amino
acids (EAA) increases, so too does protein synthesis.

Image source:

The graph below shows how amino acid (and amino acid + carbohydrate)
consumption after exercise results in a positive muscle protein balance (in
other words, helping muscles rebuild, which is a good thing), while the intake
of no nutrients can result in a negative muscle protein balance.

Image source: GSSI

Which protein is best? In general it’s your choice – both protein from plant
sources and animal sources seem to work equally well in increasing muscle
protein synthesis as a result of exercise.5 The amino acid leucine
seems to act as a major stimulus for protein synthesis; good sources of leucine
include spirulina, soy protein, egg white, milk, fish, poultry, and meat.

Can I eat too much protein?

If you overeat protein, this extra protein can be converted into sugar or fat
in the body. However, protein isn’t as easily or quickly converted as
carbohydrates or fat, because the thermic effect (the amount of energy
require to digest, absorb, transport and store protein) is a lot higher than
that of carbohydrates and fat. While 30% of the protein’s energy goes toward
digestion, absorption, and assimilation, only 8% of carbohydrate’s energy and 3%
of fat’s energy do the same.
You might have heard the statement that a high protein intake harms the
kidneys. This is a myth. In healthy people, normal protein intakes pose little
to no health risk. Indeed, even a fairly high protein intake – up to 2.8 g/kg
(1.2 g/lb) – does not seem to impair kidney status and renal function in people
with healthy kidneys.6 In particular, plant proteins appear to be
especially safe.7
Here’s additional reading on this topic:

Dear Mom and

Protein Debate

Summary and recommendations

  • For basic protein synthesis, you don’t need to consume more than 1.4 to 2.0
    g/kg (around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of protein per day.
  • Nevertheless, consuming higher levels of protein (upwards of 1g per pound of
    body weight) may help you feel satisfied after eating as well as maintain a
    healthy body composition and good immune function.
  • You should consume some protein before and after training to ensure adequate


  1. Flatt JP 1978; Tappy L, 1996; Blom WA et al., 2006; Latner JD, Schwartz M,
  2. Lemon et al 1981; Tarnopolsky et al 1988; Tarnopolsky et al 1991.
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    2003; Schwartz M, 1999; Tangney CC, et al. 2005; Kishino Y & Moriguchi S
    1992; Marcos A, et al 2003.
  4. Dreyer et al 2006; Koopman et al 2006; Biolo et al 1995; Phillips et al
    1997; Norton et al 2006; MacDougall et al 1995.
  5. Brown et al 2004; Anthony et al 2007; Kalman et al 2007.
  6. Poortmans JR & Dellalieux O 2000.
  7. Am Diet Assoc 2003; Millward DJ 1999.


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body composition and sex hormones. JISSN 2007;4:4.
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Nutritional factors and cellular immune responses. Nutr Health
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Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA,
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MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ,
Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE. Can J Appl Physiol
Marcos A, Nova E, Montero A.
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Reeds PJ. Dispensable and
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About dkpilates

Pilates Instructor, Yoga Instructor, Personnel trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Don teaches Contemporary and the Authentic forms of Pilates, in the later 90's, Don began his study of Yoga. His study of Yoga includes the Hatha, Iyengar, Bikram, and Astanga disciplines. His other areas of interest in fitness include Martial Arts, Spin, Boot Camp Training, and Weight Training. Don has extensive training and certifications from AFFA, IDEA, MadDog, B-Fit and Polestar. Don Continues his of Pilates education with Michelle Larson in Santa Fe New Mexico. His personal philosophy related to fitness is to aid students in a personalized balance of strength, stamina and flexibility. He is dedicated to design a program specifically for his students independent of the season of their life to create functional movement and help them reach their fitness goals.
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  1. Pingback: All About Recovery | The Core Matrix

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