In the court of Macronutrients, Protein is king. Whatever your athletic endeavor, be it banging weights, swimming, or pounding the pavement, protein is (or should be) the cornerstone of your nutrition. Chances are if you’re reading this, you already have a good understanding of just how important protein is in your everyday life, and how critical of a role it plays in your body’s structure, function, and overall health. Often referred to as the “building block” nutrient, protein is responsible for building and repairing tissue, producing enzymes and hormones, and supporting the immune system.
However, there’s more to it than simply getting enough protein. Bottom line: not all proteins are created equal, and protein quality is a crucial factor to consider when looking to optimize your performance.
Quality > Quantity
Protein quality refers to the extent to which a protein source provides all the essential amino acids that our body needs, in the right proportions. If you recall from freshman biology, amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and there are 20 (technically 22…but I digress) essential amino acids your body needs to function like the six-second car it is. Out of these 20, nine are considered essential. And why are they essential?
Because the only way you can get them is by eating them.
Our bodies are able to synthesize the other 11, but those special 9 are ones that we simply can’t make ourselves; they must be consumed from an outside source. These essential amino acids are vital for various physiological processes…particularly muscle growth and tissue repair.
Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are “complete” proteins; those that lack one or more essential amino acids are “incomplete” proteins.
Guess what type of protein is perfectly complete and contains all of those 9 beautifully essential amino acids? Hint: it rhymes with “animal based”.
Guess what type of protein does NOT contain all 9? That’s right, plant-based.
As we like to say at Power Athlete, flesh builds flesh. Now you have a rough understanding of the science behind why we say that. If your protein has a mother and a face, it’s a complete one. On the flip side, does that mean you can’t cobble together a meal from plant-based proteins that have all 9 essential amino acids? No – but it will require more planning, and will most likely come with more calories.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager a kobe beef tomahawk that your very next question, after reading the last section, was “Great! How do a measure quality?”
Good news – that’s already been taken care of. TWICE.
The two most common measures are the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), and the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS).
PDCAAS measures protein quality by accounting for how easily digestible the protein is, and amino acid profile of protein (what amino acids it contains and it what amounts). It’s a scale from 0-1, with 1 being the highest quality score. While 1 is the highest value given to any particular protein, some proteins can score higher than 1 due to their digestibility, but regardless of the absolute value, the score itself is capped at 1. For instance, egg proteins measure 120%, yet have a PDCAAS score of 1. There is a wider gap in protein quality and digestibility of egg protein (120%) compared to soy protein (91%) than the PDCAAS scores demonstrate because the PDCAAS only allows a max score of 1. The PDCAAS score of egg protein is 1.00 or 100% and soy protein is 91 or 91% (Medeiros & C., 2019).
DIAAS is a newer method, and is quickly gaining traction. It focuses on the digestibility of amino acids based on the amount absorbed by the small intestine. DIAAS allows for scores higher than 100%, so provides a more accurate comparison.
Take a look at this table that outlines the DIAAS % for some common proteins out there:
In terms of muscle growth and development, the body can be in one of two states: anabolic, meaning a growth state, or catabolic, meaning a breakdown state. Athletes, Power or otherwise, are in the business of building muscle, so being in an anabolic state is critical. To build muscle, you need protein – both in adequate quantity AND quality. Higher quality equates to higher circulating amino acids, to set the conditions needed for muscle protein synthesis – aka Anabolism.
Conversely, a lack of adequate protein quality and quantity can put us in a state of muscle wasting – aka Catabolic. And while cats are cool, this isn’t the place for one.
Just because a food says “high protein” (ex. Peanut Butter) doesn’t mean its high the proteins we need, nor does it mean that protein is easily digestible or has the amino acid profile we’re looking for. It’s not just what you eat – it’s what you can absorb.
If you need help getting your macro game on point, go to www.powerathletehq.com/nutrition to eliminate the guesswork, hire a coach to master your macros, and help you build the machine you want!
Coaching: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching
Education: Power Athlete Academy
Blog: Power Athlete Shoutout: Tim Biscoe by Adam Campbell
Medeiros, D. M., & C., W. R. E. (2019). Advanced human nutrition. Jones & Barlett Learning. Moghraby, J. (2020, July 4). 100% amino acid score. MondoScience. Retrieved April 27, 2023, from https://www.mondoscience.com/blog/2017/10/25/100-amino-acid-score
Rob has been in the fitness/strength and conditioning industry for 21+ years. For the last 12 years, he has owned and operated CrossFit West Houston. Through CrossFit, Rob found Power Athlete the methodology course and earning his Block One. Nutrition is a passion which lead him to currently pursuing a Masters program in Nutrition at Lamar University and Power Athlete Nutrition coach.
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