Just saying the word evokes a grunt and automatic chest flex as I channel my inner Arnold and imagine shaker bottles filled with chalky grit, gyms full of heavy weights, and bacon wrapped steaks topped with eggs.
Am I right?
Okay, I might be exaggerating just slightly… but we’ve been conditioned to think of protein as being a ‘more is better’ must for lean, strong, athletic bodies. Let’s take a minute to discuss the recommendations for protein intake, best sources, and practical guidelines for meeting these suggestions.
How much is enough?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults is set at .8g/kg protein per day. Using these guidelines, a 120lb (~54 kg) person would need about 43g protein and a 180lb (~81 kg) person would need about 65g protein per day. These guidelines are set based on what will keep the average Joe healthy and do not necessarily reflect the optimal protein needs for athletes. This is what sports nutrition is all about; finding what works for optimal performance, not just general health. Research shows 1.4-2g/kg/day might be more beneficial for athletes. Meaning our 2 athlete examples from above might need between 75-108g/day and 113-162g/day respectively. This is a large range and gives flexibility for the athlete’s individual needs based on type of athlete (Endurance? Power?) and type of training phase (Building? Racing? Off Season?). So how do you know which end of the range your needs require? There are many factors that go into prescribing an exact daily protein requirement, but generally there are some key suggestions I can give. If you’re in the off season or trying gain muscle and lose weight, it might help your goals to aim for the high end. If you’re in the building, mileage phase, then aim for the middle ground when it comes to protein intake. For athletes in their racing season, performance will likely be best with lower protein intakes.
The total grams/day should fit into your overall macronutrient balance. Again, depending on personal needs, that breakdown might look like 10-20% protein, 50-70% carbohydrate, and 20-30% fat.
What does that much protein look like?
If you were aiming to get 120 grams of protein today here are a few examples of how you could do that.
Panera Bread steak bagel sandwich + orange juice 38g
Protein shake + banana 30g
Chipotle chicken, rice, bean, cheese burrito + salsa, lettuce, quac 56g
Total = 124g
That’s a pretty typical day right? Not the best diet, but nothing too shocking, which shows how easy it is to get protein in the diet.
However, as an athlete looking to improve body composition and athletic performance, you can do better than simply eat enough protein.
Here’s another example of how to get 120g of protein:
3 scrambled eggs with cheese, avocado + orange juice 26g
Grande latte + 1 oz almonds 18g
Larabar + banana 6g
Standard turkey sandwich 28g
Apple + cottage cheese 28g
Can of chicken, wild rice soup 14g
Total = 120g
So what makes the second example better?
For an athlete, protein is best consumed in smaller doses spaced throughout the day. Aim for consuming protein in ~20g doses and not to exceed 25g. Research shows that consuming protein needs in big lumps will not lead to gains as the body struggles to efficiently digest and use such a large load. Some forms of protein can be heavy and hard to digest as well. When large amounts of these proteins are consumed, it can leave you sluggish during the day and prevent quality sleep at night. Smaller amounts of protein can be better put to use by the body, meaning your muscles will benefit. Protein is also satisfying and keeps us feeling full longer. For this reason, having the macronutrient throughout the day can prevent over eating and sustain a lean body better.
Protein comes in many forms, which is best?
All proteins are beneficial and useful. Look for protein sources that fit into a healthful diet (low sodium, lean, portioned, natural). Animal and plant proteins can both be quality sources, although they do have differences. Vegetarian and vegan proteins typically contain fiber and carbohydrates while animal proteins contain B12, omega fatty acids, and heme iron. I suggest getting a wide range of protein foods as limiting yourself can lead to nutritional imbalances. While it’s best to consume real foods, protein powders can be an excellent choice for an athlete looking to add quick recovery or on the go protein to their diet. Look for powders that are pure and free of extras like added sugars and chemicals. Whey protein has the best ability to build muscles, but pea protein is an up and coming star due to its amino acid profile and ability to retain bone calcium levels.
It’s best not to get hung up on protein. Most of us get plenty and do not have problems reaching the suggested daily amounts. What athletes should focus on is overall dietary balance, protein quality, distribution and timing.