Why do I need protein to build muscle mass?
Did you know that your muscles are regularly rebuilt? This means that muscle protein is constantly broken down and built back up again: whenever you consume a meal containing protein, muscle protein synthesis (often abbreviated as MPS) will be stimulated, resulting in a positive net muscle protein balance. On the other hand, in between meals, your muscle protein will be broken down, resulting in a negative muscle protein balance. After your next meal, this process will go into reverse again. This breaking down and building back up will be at a dynamic equilibrium throughout the day, if you are a healthy, sedentary person and, of course, if you’re following a balanced nutrition.
On the other hand, if you are doing resistance training with the goal to gain muscle mass over time, you need to be in a positive net muscle protein balance, meaning that the muscle protein synthesis has to exceed the breakdown. Therefore, it is really important to consume protein after resistance training, in order to stimulate the release of specific hormones, which, again stimulate muscle growth. Furthermore, the ingestion of protein will cause an endogenous insulin release which can counteract muscle protein breakdown after exercising.
How much protein should I eat to build muscle mass?
Before we talk about the amount of protein you should consume in order to build muscles, we should first talk about the quality of protein. Many people underestimate this important factor. Only by eating high quality protein which helps you consume all essential amino acids, will you be able to build muscles. Here, especially the essential amino acid Leucine is important. It is one of the three famous branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) and is responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It is only when you reach a certain leucine threshold, namely 2.5 g of leucine, that you can maximize MPS.
If your protein comes mainly from plant sources, you should keep in mind that plants are lower in leucine, so you will need to eat more protein to reach the specific Leucine threshold.
Secondly. Needless to say, also the amount of protein is important. It is arguably the key nutritional factor (together with the essential amino acids) for the degree of post-exercise muscle protein synthesis response.
Different studies have proven that a meal containing around 0.3 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight (0.3 g/kg BW) per meal is enough to hit the Leucine threshold. For most people this will be somewhere between 20-30g of an absolute protein dose per meal.
However there are three cases where these recommendations differ slightly: First, older adults have to consume around 40g of protein per meal in order to effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Secondly, people who already have a high lean muscle mass like a 150kg bodybuilder needs more protein in order to get even more muscle mass. Women, on the other hand, need less protein than their male counterparts, because they have a lower muscle mass. (Yet, more research has to be conducted on female athletes in the future).
What is high quality protein?
A high quality protein source is rich in essential amino acids, vital for building muscle mass. The best protein sources for building muscle mass are animal products, like fish, meat and dairy products, due to their high branched-chain amino acid composition. Nevertheless, there are also really good plant-based protein sources. The only thing with plant-based protein sources is that you have to consume more to hit the required level of leucine. Good options are tofu, edamame, pulses, nuts, hemp seeds, hummus, chia seeds and spirulina.
Tip: By combining different plant proteins or combining them with animal proteins, you can increase the overall protein quality of your meal. For example, the combination of potatoes with one egg has a higher quality than one piece of meat.
Is it important to eat a protein source with each meal?
It depends. If you have a specific body composition goal then the answer is yes, but if you just exercise regularly three times a week and you are not into bodybuilding then the answer would be no. Still, the latest research has shown that an even distribution of protein throughout the day – e.g. through 4 evenly spaced meals – has a bigger effect on muscle protein synthesis than an uneven one. Keep that in mind
Why your muscles need more nutrients than just protein
Many people think it’s enough to down several protein shakes a day to effectively build muscle mass. Sure, protein is the key factor to build muscles, but there are also other nutrients which are essential for building muscles and improving overall muscle health.
For example, carbs give your muscles the power to perform a workout and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the regeneration of the muscles after your training.
But also many micronutrients like B- vitamins, Vitamin C and E or minerals like magnesium, are vital for your muscle health. Hence, a healthy balanced nutrition with veggies, fruits, healthy fats and carbs is key to building muscle mass efficiently and sustainably.