Protein Foods

Protein: the building blocks of muscle

My personal training clients in London often always ask me, particularly those looking to gain muscle mass, "How much protein should I eat, and how often?" Another question I'm often asked is "Why do I need protein in my diet?" Well, the short answer is that it enables growth and maintenance and repair, not only for your muscles but for almost every structure and function of your body, and it's best to eat it every 3 hours for optimum absorbtion. Don't underestimate the value of eating good quality protein with every single meal and snack.

Some of the best sources of protein: lean free-range chicken breast, lean turkey breast, salmon, tuna, skimmed milk, low fat plain natural yoghurt, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, eggs (eat the whole egg, not just the egg whites), lean red meat (rump steak, fillet steak, sirloin steak), beans, lentils, quinoa (a Peruvian grain which is a 'complete protein', ie - with all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantity and balance to enable the body to make all the non-essential amino acids).

Which protein foods should you avoid? Steer clear of the following: meat pies, salami, bacon, sausages, pepperoni, high-fat cheeses, cream. They're way too high in saturated fat, sugar, salt, and the quality of the protein in processed meats is dubious.

An increasingly popular low fat source of protein in the UK is buffalo. It tastes like beef, and it's delicious in casseroles. If you've tried buffalo and like your supplier, get in touch and tell me where you got it, so I can share your story with other followers of Fitness4London.com. Where can I buy buffalo meat in London? That is the question, and I want your answers!

Quinoa - gold of the Incas - a great source of complete protein for vegetarians

What is quinoa? Most people haven't even heard of it. Pronounced 'keen-wah', quinoa is the richest non-meat non-dairy source of protein. It is the only strict-vegetarian/vegan source of 'complete protein', which means it contains all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantity and proportion to make all the non-essential amino acids.  Amino acids are the building-blocks of protein. 'Essential' in this context means 'only available from food', and 'non essential' means that the body can manufacture these amino acids from the essential ones. Quinoa was introduced to me about a decade ago by a personal trainer in central London who is a strict vegetarian, and she explained that it's her best source of protein, and extremely versatile.

Native to Peru, and heralded as 'the gold of the Incas', quinoa is a grain-like food (although technically it's a seed) similar to cous cous or bulgar wheat, but different in taste and texture. It's a fair bit more expensive than brown rice or bulgar wheat, but it's a richer source of protein, so you're getting good value for money. And it takes less time to cook than brown rice, so it's ideal if you're in a rush.

Quinoa is particularly rich in the amino acid lysine, essential for tissue growth and repair. Quinoa is also a powerhouse of minerals and vitamins, such as magnesium (relaxes blood vessels, and thus helps relieve migraines), manganese, copper (these two minerals help with antioxidant protection), iron (good for the blood), and vitamin B2 (vital for cellular energy production). All in all, a valuable food, and a fantastic source of protein for vegetarians. Can be eaten hot like rice or cous cous, or cooled down and served cold in salads.

How much protein should I eat each day and how frequently?

If you're exercising regularly, and want to build muscle, eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, spread evenly through the day. So if you're a 180 lb male, eat 6 separate meals/snacks that each contain 30g protein. This will ensure you get enough protein for growth and repair of muscle tissue. Some personal trainers advocate eating even more protein, but this just puts excessive strain on the liver and kidneys, and any more than around 30g per serving (for the average male) is just flushed out by the body as excess that cannot be absorbed in one go. However if you are training with heavy weights and your physique demands it, you can utilise more than 30g protein per sitting.

I had a personal trainer in north London who ate huge quantities of protein, but he was a bodybuilder who worked out with very heavy weights, so his needs were different. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that more protein is always better. It depends on a range of factors. The key is to eat protein at every meal/snack, but the optimum amount varies from person to person.

If your aim is to lose weight, protein your friend (as long as it's low in saturated fat), as it is a high 'thermogenic' food, ie you burn lots of calories just digesting it. And it keeps you feeling full for longer, so you're less tempted to snack on unhealthy foods.

Protein Shakes

There are many brands to choose from, but I'm a fan of Maximuscle, particularly Progain (a combination of carbs and protein), and Progain flapjack (tasty and nutritious snack between meals).

For incredible value whey protein (without any carbs), check out Impact Whey Protein by Myprotein.com, a growing rival to Maximuscle. It comes in 1kg bags, so you're getting good value in bulk.

Eggs

There's a big myth about eggs. Many people still think that their cholesterol content is bad for you. Not true! High blood cholesterol (the bad LDL cholesterol which harms your health) is the result of excess saturated fat in your diet, not from cholesterol in food. So eating eggs will not raise your cholesterol levels.

The worst thing you can do is just eat the egg whites and throw away the yolks. The yolks are rich in micronutrients such as omega 3, lutein (a powerful antioxidant), and panthothenic acid (vitamin B5, which helps metabolise proteins, fats, and carbs). It also combines with the egg whites to make a 'complete protein'. Whites alone are not complete protein, as the amino acid profile is insufficient for the body to manufacture the non-essential amino acids.

Remember, good cholesterol (HDL) is a vital substance in the body, and egg yolks raise your levels of good cholesterol. Eggs are good for you!

If you want to build muscle, eggs are a great source of high quality protein, one of the best.

Make sure you eat free range eggs, which are far higher in nutrients, and far less risk of salmonella. Don't eat raw eggs, but poach them lightly. Poached is better than scrambled/omlettes, because scrambling reduces the digestibility of the eggs. Soft poached (or soft boiled, so that the yolk is still runny) is best.

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