How much protein do you really need? If you’re an athlete, it is more than average. However, it could also be far less than you think.
Say the word “protein” and your mind may wander to images of hulking body builders guzzling protein shakes in between sets of squats. However, protein is not just for strength training or bulking up—it’s a major factor in every athlete’s health and performance. It’s also one of the most misunderstood elements in the American diet. Understanding how much you need and how to make sure these needs are being met could just be the missing piece that will take your performance to the next level.
Most people equate protein with building muscle, but proteins have many other functions in the body, like producing hormones and enzymes, bolstering immunity, and transporting and storing small molecules—to name a few.
So what is protein, really, and why is it so essential to our body? First of all, protein is made up of amino acids. Of the 20 di erent amino acids used by the human body, nine are considered “indispensable” because the body cannot create them. The remainder are deemed “dispensable” because the liver can manufacture them—unless the body is placed under undue stress (e.g. from prolonged endurance exercise).
A protein is considered “complete” if it contains su cient amounts of all nine indispensable proteins. Animal proteins such as those from meat, poultry, sh and eggs are complete proteins, which explains why many people immediately turn to these foods when aiming to meet their protein needs. Most plant proteins, on the other hand, may be missing one or more indispensable amino acids, classifying them as “incomplete” proteins. Vegetarians need not despair. Having a variety of plant proteins throughout the day will likely provide enough amino acids for your body to meet its needs. The matching up of di erent incomplete proteins is commonly referred to as complementary proteins.
If you have a friend who is a body builder, chances are you’ve been lectured about how you just aren’t getting enough protein. Even the foods lining our grocery aisles would seem to indicate as much with everything from cereal to pasta touting “added protein.” So how much do we really need?
The current recommendation for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, or 46 grams for the average woman. The average American eats far more than that. However, as is usually the case, athletes don’t fit quite so neatly into “standard” recommendations. During exercise, skeletal muscle is broken down and we must ingest protein in order to allow our muscles to repair, recover and grow. This constant muscle turnover translates to higher protein needs depending on the type and volume of training.
Recreational athletes should strive for 1.0 g/kg of body weight. Endurance athletes require anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg of body weight.
In case you aren’t a math whiz, let’s put that into perspective. A 150-pound endurance athlete needs about 82 to 95 grams of protein per day. (The USDA has an online calculator that can help calculate average protein and nutrient needs based on weight and activity level at nal.usda.gov/fnic/interactiveDRI/.)
And ultraendurance athletes need even more, with recommendations ranging from 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg (0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound) of body weight. One important thing to note is that these recommendations assume an athlete is consuming adequate calories to meet their energy needs, and that they are also consuming good quality protein.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
As with so many things in life, there is truth to the saying you can have too much of a good thing. Unlike carbs and fat, which have been, and still are, shunned by many, protein seems to have taken on a holier-than-thou status and as a result, many feel they just can’t get enough. One study found that almost 60 percent of Americans are actively trying to increase their protein intake and doing so largely by resorting to protein supplements and foods fortified with protein. This is despite the fact that protein deficiencies in the U.S. are extremely rare and most individuals have no problem meeting their daily needs.
Those who are still convinced that more is better should be careful not to over do it. The concern with having too much protein stems largely from a byproduct of amino acid metabolism: ammonia. Ammonia is toxic to the body, but does not normally pose any risk because our body converts it to urea, allowing it to be excreted in our urine.
Research has shown that protein intake over 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day exceeds the rate at which urea can be synthesized, leading to a build up of ammonia in the blood. Excess ammonia in the blood can lead to brain damage.
But consuming that much protein is very hard to do, especially if you’re relying on whole foods (as you should) to meet your protein needs. Most athletes should be concerned about getting enough protein as opposed to overdoing it. To put it in perspective, one large egg only has about 6 grams of protein. Not exactly enough to put the body into ammonia overload. Athletes can meet their needs without going overboard by including lean meats, poultry, sh and other animal products like dairy and eggs. There are also ample sources of protein-rich vegetarian options like whole grains, soy, nuts, seeds and legumes.
WHEN TO PROTEIN UP
“When” you consume protein should be a consideration for every athlete. It is very important for athletes to consume protein after exercise in order to allow for muscle growth and recovery. Endurance exercise relies primarily on carbohydrates to provide energy, but remember what happens during exercise: the body also breaks down small amounts of skeletal muscle to provide additional energy. After exercise, consuming protein combined with carbohydrates stimulates the process of protein synthesis.
Chocolate milk is often touted as an ideal recovery drink, because it provides enough carbohydrates and protein for the body to replenish its glycogen stores while also supplying the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle.
Many factors contribute to optimizing your athletic performance. Now that you know the facts about smart protein, you will have one less factor to worry about.
THE PROTEIN MENU
You don’t have to be a carnivore to get all 9 essential proteins. In fact, most Americans get more than adequate protein from their daily diet. However, the more you exercise and the more muscle you are trying to build, the more protein you may need.
Keep in mind, the recommendations for the ultra endurance athlete is 0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound. For a 170 pound male, that could come to 153 grams—that sounds like a lot! But consider how easy it is to get even that amount of protein from a variety of foods: a quarter pounder with cheese has 37 grams of protein, a container of Greek yogurt has 17 grams and a 3-oz. serving of tuna, 25 grams. Add in two eggs (12 grams), two tablespoons of peanut butter (8 grams) on two slices of whole wheat bread (7.2 grams), a cup of quinoa (8 grams), a cup of lentils (16 grams), 2 oz. of cheddar (13 grams) and a glass of milk (8 grams) and 2 cups of spinach (1.8 grams) and you are nearly there. Here’s how to consider proteins:
COMPLETE PROTEINS: While it’s true that meat, sh, poultry, eggs and most dairy products pack the full stack of (all 9) proteins, so do quinoa, buckwheat and hemp as well as soy and soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, etc.).
INCOMPLETE PROTEINS: While they may not contain all 9 essential proteins, nuts, seeds, rice, beans and many grains provide protein. Combining them, or making them part of your daily menu, can create the complete proteins you needs.
COMBO MEALS: Some classic food pairings don’t just taste good, they work together nutritionally. These foods all are incomplete proteins but combined (either together or during the day) give you the 9 proteins you need: peanut butter on a slice of whole-wheat bread, brown rice and beans, and a pita and hummus. There could be other bene ts of combining foods too. A recent study of more than 2,000 elderly people in Japan (as published in Nutrition Journal, May 2017) showed that those who had diets that included both high intakes of dietary protein and high antioxidant intakes (foods high in antioxidants include dark leafy greens, berries and other vegetables) were less frail.
PROTEIN POWDERS AND SUPPLEMENTS: It’s increasingly common to see whey powder, casein and other protein supplements added to shakes, smoothies, supplements and energy bars. Keep in mind that while these may help you meet your protein requirements, they should not be considered as a replacement for whole foods, which add in all the other nutrients your body needs.
Jamie Sheahan, M.S., R.D. is the Director of Nutrition at The Edge in Burlington where she works closely with athletes to develop customized fueling plans to optimize their health and performance. Sheahan is also an adjunct professor of sports nutrition at the University of Vermont. An avid runner, she has completed 20 marathons.