Most people can get adequate protein for their bodybuilding / muscle toning exercise regime from a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, it is very easy to adopt an unhealthy diet accidentally while in the pursuit of more protein, as often good protein source also contain higher fat levels.
It is also worth pointing out that for many people additional protein supplements in the form of protein shakes are not needed. Note also that by bodybuilding, we mean building stronger muscles for any purpose, including athletics, martial arts, NFL, basketball, etc.
Here we look at the best dietary sources of protein and also look at supplements and vegetarian options.
Benefits of Protein
Protein is required to build and repair muscle tissue. It is also a rich energy source (meaning it has more calories per gram than carbohydrates, although less than fats). Protein is found in just about all animal products and animal by products so a well-balanced diet provides a rich variety of protein.
There are several different types of protein and these all work in slightly different ways. Is there a best type of protein for fitness and strength training?
What Are the Best Sources of Protein?
Many nutritionists believe that the best source of protein is direct from a healthy diet. Protein supplements should only be taken when you cannot get enough protein from a diet without going over your daily calorie limit.
You should get as much of your protein as possible from meat, fish and seafood, eggs and poultry. Ideally you should eat organic, grass-fed and free range products too as these contain a “cleaner” source of proteins and fewer toxins and chemicals that may inhibit the effects of some proteins. However, all of these food types should be eaten as close to a raw state as is possible as proteins are harmed during the cooking process. Raw eggs and smoked fish are great sources of protein. Protein supplements are very useful for vegetarians and vegans that are trying to build some muscle.
Healthy Sources of Protein
Fish and Seafood
Fish is possibly the healthiest source of protein available for athletes and bodybuilders. Tinned tuna is a fantastic source of protein – however ensure that you only use tuna in water / brine and not tuna in oil. The best fish are generally the deep-sea fish, like mackerel, sardines, pilchards and also salmon and trout. Oily fish contain essential fatty acids as well as protein.
Chicken, Turkey and other Fowl
Chicken and turkey are also very good sources of protein, and also low in fat. The skin of birds is fatty, so this should be removed. Some bodybuilders recommend eating the skin to get more protein and nutrients, however, we suggest eating a greater variety of food generally.
Firstly, eggs are healthy. Do not worry about them being high in cholesterol, as the cholesterol in eggs is actually good for you. Egg whites are a great source of protein and is lower in calories than the yolk, which is why many bodybuilders just eat the whites. However, the yolks contain a greater variety of nutrients, so for overall health, just eat the whole egg – it is also much easier to prepare if whole. Our personal favorite is scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on wholemeal toast.
Low fat milk
If you drink a lot of milk, go for the low-fat types. Full fat milk is especially high in calories, which is why so many people who buy Lattes from coffee shops are so overweight!
Lean Beef and Lamb
Note, lean beef, not burgers. The leaner the meat, the more protein per pound. As burgers are made from poorer quality meat, they are higher in fat, and contain less protein, and also clog up your arteries and eventually kill you.
Like with the beef, pork is a good healthy source of protein, so long as it is of high quality and very lean. Sausages, hotdogs, wieners, bacon, salami etc are not good sources of protein.
You can get protein from all meat, but venison, lamb and rabbit are all good protein sources. Rabbits have a very high protein content.
Is cheese healthy? Is cheese bad for you? We are always hearing different points of view. Some people say cheese should be classed as junk food as it is so high in fat and relatively low in nutrition. However, there are some low-fat cheese, and cottage cheese is a good low-fat source of cheesy protein. Not everyone’s favorite cheese, but maybe the healthiest.
Although we suggested low-fat milk above, whole milk products are good sources of protein. Double cream is especially good. Bruce Lee used to suggest drinking double cream (he did not like milk himself, but understood the benefits of drinking milk for bodybuilders).
Diet Advice for Vegetarian Athletes and Bodybuilders
Vegetarians can have difficulty planning the right diet for their weight training and fitness needs. For general health and fitness a healthy and well-balanced vegetarian diet will provide enough protein.
However, for more serious athletes, martial artists and bodybuilders it is hard for vegetarians to get enough protein from their diet without some careful planning.
For vegetarians most protein comes from the following dietary sources:
- Tofu / Soy
- Pulses / Legumes
Soy beans are an excellent source of textured vegetable protein (TVP). Milk and yogurt will contain proteins too. One of the favourite protein sources for vegetarians is eggs. Eggs are very healthy and contain many essential vitamins in addition to protein.
Eggs have managed to get a bad reputation in recent decades due to a few health scares, such as salmonella, and also the misconception that as eggs contain cholesterol they must be bad for your heart. This is simple not the case though, blood cholesterol levels generally rise in response to a diet high in saturated fats.
Nuts, seeds and soy beans all make excellent snacks for the vegetarian athlete. Cashews and almonds are around 25% protein and soy beans are 40% protein. This makes them one of the riches natural sources of protein available.
You still need to ensure you are getting a lot of carbs as during weight training your muscles will require glucose from the blood as well as using their own glycogen stores. Carbohydrates are quickly metabolized to release glucose, so eating these before training reduces the pressure your muscles will place on the stores of glycogen in your muscles during training, which means it is less likely that the muscles protein will be broken down during exercise.
Muscles with a good supply of glycogen can exercise for longer without tiring, and this in turn can increase muscle bulk, and further increase the amount of glycogen you can store. So, for glycogen, eat plenty of healthy carbs.
However, note that glycogen loading of muscles only works if your increased carbohydrate consumption is accompanied by intensive training, otherwise the extra glycogen will be converted to fat. So make sure you balance your diet daily in accordance with your training routine.
Also, it is vital for bodybuilders and endurance athletes to consume plenty of carbohydrates after training. Many people think that protein is the most important macronutrient to consume after exercise, but if the body is depleted of its glucose reserves (i.e. all the glycogen has been broken down and all available sugar burned for energy) then it will start to break down lean muscle tissue and fat for energy. This is not what we want after exercising, so to prevent muscles being broken down for their sugar it is important to consume some carbohydrates after exercise, especially a long and intensive session.
Many vegetarians chose to take a protein supplement, usually a whey protein drink after exercising. Protein supplements generally contain sugars too which help to replenish glycogen stores after exercise. Some protein supplements such as whey isolates have reduced sugar (less lactose) for those who are cutting, so these are best avoided if you are trying to bulk up.
Do You Need Protein Powder / Protein Shakes to Build Muscle?
If you have been reading up on how to build muscle and get fit then the chances are you have seen adverts for protein supplements. If you have sought advice on forums then people may have even suggested to you that you need to increase the amount of protein in your diet to help build muscle. But, do you really need additional protein? If you do, what type of protein should you take? Whey protein, casein protein, proteins from meat, dairy, soya? Everyone has a different opinion and often opinions are very biased.
Protein Shakes and Supplements
Really supplements should be the last resort every time. So often we hear about celebrities consuming protein shakes and little else. When they are doing this they are always trying to lose fat and gain muscle very quickly under the careful guidance of a fitness instructor.
Protein shakes are still very useful though. The two most useful times of day to have a protein shake are:
- First thing in the morning – IF you are doing an early morning workout. If you do not have time to eat breakfast before your workout then a protein shake can be useful if you are doing a longer or intensive workout.
- Immediately after exercise – IF you will not be eating for a while. After exercising your muscles crave proteins to start the repair process and many fitness professionals believe that a protein shake in the first 30 minutes after exercising helps to boost muscle growth significantly.
What Type of Protein – Egg, Casein or Whey?
The best protein sources are egg and whey proteins. Many people avoid soy proteins because they are often from intensively farmed sources or genetically modified. Soy proteins are often cheap.
Casein protein contains an abundance of the amino acid glutamine which helps to preserve muscle mass. It also aids the immune system. Casein is digested slower than whey protein so helps to provide the body with a constant stream of proteins throughout the day. Having casein protein sources at meals times can be more beneficial. Many people also like to take a casein protein supplement before bed to keep the muscles growing well throughout the night.
The best way to get egg protein is from eating eggs – obvious really. There are egg protein supplements available but why not just eat eggs? Scrambled eggs and omelets for breakfast and boiled eggs in salads for lunch are a great way to eat eggs. Eggs are low in calories and the cholesterol in eggs is mostly of the healthy type, so do not fear eating eggs.
This is the most popular type of protein and is sourced from milk. It is absorbed much quicker than casein protein and is the type of protein that you should have immediately after exercising. Whey protein can also help boost the immune function, which helps ward of illness when you are training very hard. Whey protein is also a great source of amino acids that are vital for muscle growth.
Which Protein is Best?
Well, the answer is, all of them. Ideally you should have a well-balanced diet and take protein from a variety of sources and supplement when needed.
If there is something on this list that you are allergic to, that obviously would not be a good product for you. A food allergy test is recommended before you begin any supplementation program to determine if you have specific allergies and if there are particular substances your body has problems processing.
Also bear in mind that additional protein will not benefit you if your body is deprived of other nutrients, such as essential vitamins and minerals. For optimal health, make sure you consume enough protein, eat organic and supplement with a great multivitamin.
Do You Really Need Protein Shakes?
Just to recap, if you have a well-balanced diet then you may not need a protein shake to supplement your diet. If you do not have time to eat well before or after exercising then a protein shake may be advisable. Monitor your progress when exercising, if you are making strength and fitness gains without protein supplements then it is a good sign that you do not need them.