An easy and simple beginners guide to protein and nutrition

Whether you’re trying to gain muscle or simply tone up, when you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, it can be tough to know exactly what you should and shouldn’t be eating to reach your goals.

This is particularly important when you’re including protein in the mix — which is why our expert personal trainers at Fitness First have answered the most important questions about protein and gym nutrition to help you on your fitness journey. 

1. What does protein do?  

Protein is an important component of a healthy diet and is often an essential building block to muscle growth. 

“Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which the body uses for building and repairing bones and muscle fibres and acts as carriers of nutrients and oxygen in your bloodstream.”

“It’s responsible for the foundation of trillions of cells that the human body is made up of, with one of the three macronutrients being used as an energy source. They also act as messengers in the form of enzymes that aid biochemical reactions such as digestion, muscle contraction, and energy production.”


2. Why is protein important?

Not only does eating protein help prevent muscle breakdown, but it can also help to build muscle too. When you combine regular activity and exercise with protein intake, you’ll find that it aids in promoting muscle growth. 

Another great reason why protein is important is that “without protein, our body doesn't repair, rebuild or layer as effectively as we would want it to”. Because protein is made up of amino acids, it’s important to make sure your body is getting enough as it acts like a building block for your development. 


3. What is the best source of protein?

When it comes to making protein choices in your diet, quality is just as important as quantity. 

“You should generally always try to get your protein from food, but this can be relative to each individual. Meat is ideal, but if you’re vegan, it could be from plant sources such as legumes and nuts.”

“You can also supplement with protein — for those who don’t consume dairy, vegan or whey protein is a great alternative.”


4. How much protein do I need to build muscle?

If you’re looking to build muscle, it can be hard to know exactly how much protein you should be consuming to make gains. How much you need can vary depending on a range of factors:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Training history
  • Body composition

Generally speaking, you should be consuming “between 1.5g-2g of protein per kg of lean body weight. This is also assuming that the person is undertaking period resistance-based hypertrophy training”.


5. Is protein better for endurance athletes or weight lifters?

Protein is necessary for all athletes but it’s largely more important for weight lifters. “This is due to the breakdown of muscle fibres endured during resistance exercise.”

“Endurance athletes will still require significant amounts of protein in their diet due to training demands and muscle breakdown” but it won’t nearly be as much as what a person who is weight training would need.”

If you’re looking for a great place to weight train, come and experience one of our Fitness First classes


6. What’s better for you; protein supplements or protein-rich foods?

“Protein-rich foods should always take precedence over-supplementation. They have a much more complete amino acid profile and are more nutrient-rich and bioavailable compared to protein supplements” 

Remember, supplements should only be used to aid intake, not replace it!


7. Can I still take protein supplements if I have dietary requirements?

Dietary requirements can come in all shapes and sizes, so knowing if you can still take protein supplements is crucial information. If you’re lactose intolerant, for example, “you should avoid whey protein as it’s a dairy product” and can leave you feeling worse for wear. In this instance, vegan protein powder would be a suitable substitute that won’t aggravate your intolerance. 

“Make sure to consult your doctor or a nutritionist depending on your dietary requirements. Some disorders require low protein to ease pressure on the kidneys” so a vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free option might be a better option to explore. 


8. What are the best muscle-building foods?

If you’re wanting to gain muscle, both physical activity and the right nutrition are critical. If you do one without the other, your progress will stall. 

Some of the best muscle-building foods for gaining lean muscle are:

    • Eggs — Eggs contain high-quality protein, healthy fats and other important nutrients like vitamin B and choline. Eggs also contain a large number of amino acids, which proteins are made up of. 
    • Chicken breast — There’s a reason why chicken breasts are considered a staple for gaining muscle; they’re packed with protein! They also contain generous amounts of vitamin B niacin and B6, which is particularly important if you’re active.  
    • Lean beef — Beef is jam-packed with high-quality protein, minerals, creatine and B vitamins. Even when you’re trying to gain muscle, it’s best to choose beef that supports muscle gain without adding too many extra calories. 
    • Fish — Salmon, tuna and shrimp have high levels of vitamin A and B vitamins (including B12, niacin and B), which are so important when you’re trying to gain muscle. Tuna also provides large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which can slow the loss of muscle mass and strength that naturally occurs with age. 

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can look for:

    • Beans — Many different types of beans can be great when included in your diet. Popular varieties like black, pinto and kidney beans are excellent sources of fibre and B vitamins as well as being high in magnesium, phosphorus and iron! All of these reasons make beans a good source of protein to add to a plant-based diet.
    • Quinoa — While protein-rich foods are a priority for building muscle, it’s also important that you have the fuel to get active. Quinoa contains hearty amounts of magnesium, phosphorus and fibre that all play an important role in the function of muscles and nerves. 
    • Tofu — Tofu is a great meat substitute and is produced from soy milk. It’s an excellent source of calcium and soy protein, which is found in tofu, and is considered one of the highest-quality plant proteins.
    • Chickpeas — Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a great source of both carbs and protein. As with many plant-based foods, the protein in chickpeas is significantly less than what you’d find in animal sources, however, it’s still a good alternative.


9. Is a high-sugar diet bad, even if I’m in a caloric deficit?

It depends on the context. “Generally speaking a high sugar diet 'may' cause health and performance complications, but in the same breath a calorie deficit is a calorie deficit!”

“Weight loss can be achieved in any calorie deficit, but the important questions that you need to ask yourself are: Is it sustainable? Is it healthy?”

If you’re doing a lot of endurance sports, you’ll more than likely be consuming pure glycogen. “This is high sugar that’s needed for long-distance activities. If your goal is weight loss, the most important thing is being in a calorie deficit. You’ll feel better if you mostly consume whole foods — which is simply a food that’s been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from any additives or other artificial ingredients — however sugar isn’t a bad thing!”


10. Should I eat before a workout?

A question that has seemingly been asked time and time again; should I eat before a workout?

The simple answer is, you do you! “Although it isn’t 100% necessary, it’s a good idea to ingest some sort of pre-training fuel to be able to perform at your best during your session. Ideally, you’d be looking at between 1.5-2 hours before.”

“However, if your nutrition has been 'on point' then, generally speaking, glycogen and glucose stores should be ample enough to fuel your body. This is of course dependent on the workout in terms of intensity and duration.”


11. How many meals should I eat a day?

Again, it entirely depends on the goals that you’re trying to achieve. Ask yourself:

  • What are your goals?
  • How does your body respond to certain foods and quantities?
  • What does your lifestyle look like in terms of work/life balance?

“Some people prefer to eat many small meals, some prefer the traditional three, and some even prefer to eat just one big meal! Whichever method works for the individual to hit their goals and their macros is good.”


12. Do I need recovery nutrition?

There are four main goals with recovery nutrition and that’s: restore, replace, repair and rest. They’re all vital for your recovery and if your muscles aren’t repairing and recovering after exercise, you’ll struggle to see progress in the gym. 

“All nutrition is considered to be the cornerstone of all recovery, especially if you’re undertaking an exercise regime. Your body is constantly regenerating and repairing trillions of cells. Exercise is a way of forcing a stress response on the body for it to recover and rebuild bigger, faster and stronger.”

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13. What does a healthy diet look like?

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to a healthy diet. What one person might consider healthy another might not. 

“However, a healthy diet should contain all 3 macronutrients and be micronutrient rich. The most important thing is you need to make sure that your diet is enjoyable! So think lots of colour including fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, pulses, lean meats and fish.”

“Foods that are less beneficial to one's training targets but add some enjoyment to life should also be included”.


Get your protein right with Fitness First

At Fitness First we have a wide range of classes, personal training sessions and more available for you, no matter your fitness level. 

If you’re looking for some more inspiration, check out The Inside Track to read up on the latest fitness and nutrition advice from the expert personal trainers at Fitness First.