Written by David Gaviria, RD, MPH
I remember my first protein shake. It was freshman year of high school after soccer practice, before I knew much about protein needs for athletes. One of the varsity athletes pulled out a shaker bottle once practice was over and glugged down the brown liquid. I asked him what he was drinking because it didn’t look too appetizing, to which he responded, “It’s a protein shake bro. Gotta get jacked. Try it.” I did. It was gross. I didn’t have another one for a while until my trainer at the gym convinced me I needed it to gain weight. This one was slightly better, so I bought a bottle of protein powder. Did it work? Debatable, but it sure made me feel like I was an athlete.
Not too long ago, when it came to packaged options, all you could choose from protein-wise were mediocre shakes or even more mediocre protein bars. Today, though, you can find all kinds of protein products – bars, shakes, waffles, cereal, yogurts, chips, crackers – you name it, it’s out there and most are pretty palatable.
With all of this exposure and clever media campaigns, athletes and the general population have started eating more protein products than ever before, but are they necessary? What are the actual protein needs of athletes? Let’s find out.
What is Protein?
Proteins are one of the three types of macronutrients alongside carbohydrates and fats. They are made up of compounds called amino acids, which, you might remember from chemistry classes, are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 unique amino acids that build proteins and depending on the amount of certain amino acids present, your protein source may be either high or low-quality.
· High-quality proteins have adequate quantities of all 9 essential amino acids, which are ones that our body can’t produce on its own. You can see them in the table above.
· Lower-quality proteins are insufficient in their quantity of at least one essential amino acid.
Why is this important? Because not eating adequate amounts of essential amino acids regularly throughout the day may limit recovery which can ultimately harm your performance!
Chances are if you eat meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products, you’re getting enough essential amino acids by the end of the day because animal proteins contain all essential amino acids in desirable proportions. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or just trying to eat fewer animal products, it’s important to make sure you are eating plant foods that contain high-quality proteins. This means they contain adequate amounts of the essential amino acids on their own. The top plant proteins for quality and quantity are soy products like edamame, tofu, soy milk, and tempeh, as well as pea protein. While pistachios, quinoa, buckwheat, chia, and spirulina are also considered “complete”, the amount of protein you’d get from one serving of these foods isn’t quite enough for a meal or snack.
Thankfully, you can also combine plant foods with different limiting amino acids to create a more complete source at meals and snacks (note: non athletes do not need to pair at meals as long as they eat a variety over the course of the day). This means that one food has the essential amino acids that the other is low in and vice versa. Here are some meal and snack ideas!
· Oats and peanut butter
· Quinoa and beans
· Pasta with white beans, lentils, or peas
· Dry cereal with peanuts
· Roasted chickpeas with pumpkin seeds
What Does Protein Do?
Proteins have a lot of structural and metabolic functions in the body. They make up the structure of nearly all the tissues, including organs and muscle. Proteins also function to transport nutrients around the body as enzymes and hormones for metabolic reactions, antibodies to defend against infection, and more. Despite all these functions, we typically hear about protein as muscle the most. Thankfully, this isn’t something your teammates just made up – protein may help our muscles heal from exercise. This is because exercise actually damages our muscles in order for them to adapt.
As you exercise, muscle fibers get tiny tears from the stress put on them. After training, the body repairs these tears, improving strength, speed, and/or endurance over time. This process is known as exercise-induced muscle adaptation, and it requires protein and energy to optimally occur.
Protein Needs for Athletes
Thankfully, a little goes a long way with protein. It turns out you don’t need a protein shake or bar everyday. The average athlete actually eats more protein than they need! In most cases, the main impact of having too much protein in your diet is that the extra protein consumed that ends up getting converted to energy is an inefficient process. Only about 8-20% of the protein can be used for energy compared to nearly all of carbohydrates and most of fat. You’re better off having the right amount of protein in your diet for its structural and metabolic functions and focusing on eating enough energy from carbs and fat.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that both endurance and strength athletes consume 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means that, for example, a 160 lb athlete needs anywhere from 80-128 grams of protein per day.
If you didn’t believe that you don’t need a protein shake with every meal, 80 grams of protein is only about 3-4 average bottled protein shakes! Most athletes can get enough protein in their diet through food alone, with 4 ounces of chicken breast or tempeh providing around 25 grams These portions are smaller than most athletes consume at main meals and don’t account for the amounts in other foods on the plate!
When Should You Eat Protein?
The key to maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is to spread out protein intake throughout the day by eating a high-quality protein source every 3-4 hours. Some examples are a palm-sized amount of meat, You can choose animal protein, fish, or tofu, or any plant protein pairings mentioned above, such as ½ cup of beans, 1 cup of quinoa, or a Greek yogurt cup.
Protein gets a lot of attention post-workout, so your muscles can start the repair process as soon as possible. A general rule of thumb is about 20-25 grams of protein within 30-60 minutes after your workout. 30-60 grams of carbohydrate should also be added to replete muscle energy reserves. If you’ve eaten a protein-containing meal a few hours before your workout, the window increases to 1-3 hours post-workout. And, more specific quantities would be recommended to you based on your weight and goals if working with a dietitian 1-1. Those under the age of 18 also have higher needs!
If you do consume a protein supplement instead of food, be sure to make sure it’s NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport Certified. With that being said, protein powders can definitely be a convenient option for student athletes on the go. If you are interested in supplementing with protein powder or have questions about protein needs for athletes, contact one of our sports dietitians to help you create a personalized nutrition plan for your goals!
David is a registered dietitian, former soccer and cross country athlete, and lover of all things endurance. He works with endurance athletes to boost performance from a weight inclusive lens. David holds bachelor’s degrees in Health Sciences and Psychology from the University of South Florida, a MPH in Nutrition from UNC Chapel Hill, and is completing his Ph.D. in Nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill. He is currently training for his first marathon and half Ironman. Learn more about David at davidgaviria.com.