Nutrition for MMA Fighters: The Basics Part 2 - Protein

by Jordan Sullivan - Head of Nutrition Services & Dietician for thefightdietitian.com June 25, 2019 5 min read

Nutrition for MMA Fighters: The Basics Part 2 - Protein

In our last blog post we detailed what carbohydrates are, how beneficial it is in your nutrition and what our body does when we eat them. To understand how to fuel a MMA fighter you have to understand the fuel itself, and to do this we need to continue covering the Macronutrients and how it can be added to your MMA diet. The next one to examine is probably the best known and least understood, protein.

Protein

When we eat protein, our stomach breaks it down in to amino acids and these pass into our small intestine where they can enter the blood stream, and then be used in our body as we need.

Protein gets so much attention because our whole body is built on it. Our muscles, skin, immune system, enzymes, hormones and chemicals are all made from protein (more specifically amino acids). Unlike carbs, we don’t have a particular place that our body can store these amino acids (broken down protein). If we have too much, we simply send them to the liver, then to the kidney, and then down the toilet.

Have you ever heard someone say protein supplements are just expensive pee? This is why. If you eat a good amount of high-quality protein in your healthy diet then your body breaks it down and takes everything that it needs, leaving the rest for your liver and kidney to remove. If you add a supplement on top of this, you’re just adding to the removal of the excess amino acids. This is more the case for the everyday person, for athletes there’s a bit more to the story. More often than not, time-poor combat athletes need a good protein supplement, but more on this later.

Chemically speaking, protein looks like this. I don’t need you to know what any of it means, but what I need you to recognise is the R at the bottom of it.

Amino Acid Molecule Structure

Protein - Amino Acid Molecule Structure

That guy is important because there are 20 different things that can attach to it. The attachments are what define the 20 unique structures we call amino acids. When we eat high protein rich food, our body is breaking that down to get to the amino acids that it contains.

Of these 20 amino acids, 9 of them are what we call essential, meaning we need to get them from the food that we eat. We don’t need to go through all of the Essential Amino Acids but what you can know is that muscle tissue, the stuff we are eating when we eat the meat of animals, contains all 9 essential amino acids.

This is the centre of the whole vegan/vegetarians(plant based diets) do not get enough protein debate. Spoiler alert, they do. Plants do contain these essential amino acids, there just isn’t one plant (other than soybeans) that contains all of them. So, what the vegan/vegetarians have to do is eat a good variety of plants, grains, cereals and nuts and they can easily get all of these in.

The foods that contain all of the 9 essential amino acids are; red meat, white meat (including fish), eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, soybean and quinoa.

Selection of food for weight loss stock photo

Photo Credits: istockphoto.com

Protein for Muscle

The main benefit of protein is associated with muscle repair, recovery and building. The process is called Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) and you can write a whole book on it, but we will just keep it simple for now.

Basically, when you exercise you get micro tears in your muscles, your body needs to repair these by giving the muscle building blocks (amino acids).

This is important for Combat Athletes who train 1-3 times a day, who repeatedly and consistently put their muscles through this process. To allow for adequate recovery, repair and rebuilding, we need to make sure that the athlete’s body has access to these building blocks (amino acids) for when it needs them.

So as a rule of thumb, Combat Athletes should be consuming a high-quality source of protein every 3-4 hours of their day. If you were to wake and eat at 7am then your intake would need to be at 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, and 10pm. You can then begin to appreciate how a high-quality protein supplement could come in handy as this routine requires a lot of cooking and preparation. The key point to remember; Have consistent protein throughout the day.

Protein for Appetite

This is one of the biggest benefits of protein that never gets spoken about. When it comes to Combat Athletes and making weight, knowing the following information is absolutely critical.

Protein has a powerful role in the body in regulating our appetite, ie. how hungry we feel. It does this through the release of a hormone called Cholecystokinin (CCK). When you eat a protein rich meal, it gets sent to your stomach where your natural stomach acid and specific enzymes break down the protein. During this process a signal is sent to your brain to tell you to stop eating and to “switch off” the feelings of hunger. This signal is CCK.

I like to use the example of eating pasta versus a nice steak. You can always eat more pasta, but rarely do you go back for a second steak. The reason why is carbohydrate rich foods such as pasta do not release CCK like protein rich foods do.

For MMA fighters losing weight, utilizing this is a must. By regularly consuming protein throughout the day, you are not only promoting muscle repair, you are suppressing the feelings of hunger that comes with reduced calorie intake.

I hope that after reading this blog post, you can now better appreciate what protein is and why it is useful for Combat Athletes. We will touch on specifics on how to work out how much you need at each meal later on. For the next instalment, we will conclude our discussion of the Macronutrients and move on to examining Fats.


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