As a sports dietitian, some of the questions I receive most frequently from athletes center around protein. How much should I be consuming? And when? What about the different types? Let's break down some protein basics - how much is enough and why our bodies need it.
WHAT IS PROTEIN, AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
Protein is a nutrient found in many different animal and plant foods. When we consume dietary protein, our bodies break it down into amino acids. We use amino acids for many different functions within the body, including synthesizing new proteins. Proteins act as a structural component of muscle and many other body tissues, helping to produce hormones and enzymes, and are necessary for the growth and repair of cells. Amino acids also play a crucial role in our body's immune response, and a diet that is too low in protein could lead to a weakened immune system.
WHAT IS "PROTEIN QUALITY," AND DOES IT MATTER?
Protein is found in many different foods, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, soy products, quinoa, nuts, legumes, and seeds. While protein is made up of amino acids, the amino acid content of protein-containing food sources is not always the same. There are 20 amino acids, and nine of them are essential, which means our bodies cannot create them on their own. Thus, we must consume enough of these nine essential amino acids in our diet for our bodies to function optimally.
A complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Animal proteins like eggs, fish, and dairy are complete proteins, while many plant protein sources are incomplete because they do not contain all essential amino acids. However, this does not mean you can't meet your daily needs through plant sources. Consuming protein from various plant sources, like pea protein, nuts, and seeds, will help individuals who do not consume animal products meet their daily amino acid needs.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED?
How much protein we need varies by individual and depends on many factors such as body weight, activity level, and body composition goals. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight per day. However, active individuals and athletes may have significantly higher needs. Recent research has shown that for exercising individuals, a range of 1.4–2.0 grams per kilogram body weight (0.64-0.91 grams per pound) of protein per day is sufficient for maintaining and building muscle mass. It is important to note that your needs may not necessarily fall into this range because of all the factors that influence protein requirements.
It's a common misconception that endurance athletes, such as runners and cyclists, need less protein than strength and power athletes. However, research has shown that protein intakes of 1.6 grams per kilogram per day (g/kg/day) are necessary to maintain lean muscle mass and support recovery for endurance athletes. Intakes as high as 2.5 g/kg/day may be required during heavy training loads when calorie requirements are greater.
DO I NEED TO CONSUME PROTEIN IMMEDIATELY AFTER EXERCISE?
Protein intake after exercise is beneficial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and helping with recovery, but the window of time you have to consume some protein is longer than previously suspected. Consuming enough total protein throughout the entire day is more important, so you don't need to worry about guzzling down that protein shake 10 minutes after a run! A perfect post-workout snack idea that contains both high-quality protein and carbohydrates is Kodiak Power Waffles topped with some nut butter and fresh berries.
How can I ensure I'm meeting my daily protein needs?
Using the range listed above, a 175-pound endurance athlete or active person, for example, would need between 111-159 grams of protein per day. This breaks out to a minimum of 37 grams of protein per meal to reach the lower end of their daily range (without snacks).
Consistent protein intake throughout the day is an easy way to ensure you're meeting your body's protein requirements and can help you manage hunger levels and promote muscle protein synthesis. So, don't forget to incorporate protein in your snacks!
About the Author
Angie Asche is a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. She is the owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition, LLC and author of the book, Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performance. In her spare time, she enjoys being active and outdoors as much as possible. You can learn more about Angie on Instagram and her website.