Eat Smarter – Protein and the Athlete

As I have said before, athletes make great patients – most of the time. Athletes love new training programs, supplements, and physical therapy, all of which are crucial, but just like the general population they struggle when it comes to following dietary recommendations.

The nutritional need of each athlete is unique, but whether you are into endurance, power, or recreational sports, a basic understanding of nutritional foundations is an important starting point in improving your performance. This three part series will be a brief overview of nutrition for athletes focusing on macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats. We will start with my favorite macronutrient – protein. What it is, what it does, how much you need, where you get it, and when you need it.

Protein – What it is

From a biochemical perspective, proteins are large molecules composed of amino acids. In the body they function as enzymes, components of the immune system, and provide structure to cells and body tissues. Protein is in almost everything we consume, but is found in the highest concentration in meat, poultry, legumes, beans, and dairy.

Protein – What it does

When consumed, protein does a number of things for us. Protein promotes satiety – the sensation of fullness after we eat. Physiologically, protein provides amino acids to rebuild tissue, produce enzymes, and form immune complexes. Although all functions of protein are important, in general athletes are most concerned with tissue repair (think muscle repair and growth).

Protein- How much you need

A variety of factors affect how much protein you need. The type of sport you participate in, your age, digestive health, and your body composition. General recommendations I follow in my practice (which vary somewhat based on the individual) are 1.1-1.4 g/kg/day for endurance sport athletes and 1.4-1/8 g/kg/day for power sport athletes. Recommendations in the general population are around .9g/kg/day. The units of these recommendations may seem a bit confusing. Basically for each kg of body weight an individual needs to consume a set amount of protein (measured in grams). For example, a recommendation of .9g/kg/day means that for each kg of body weight an average individual should consume at least .9g of protein. So a 75kg person (165lbs) needs to intake at least 65 grams of protein per day. Of course all of these numbers change based on individual needs, health goals, and digestive health.

Protein- Where you get it

I always recommend athletes achieve protein adequacy through poultry, lean cuts of meat (minimal red meat), legumes, beans, and low fat dairy. Unfortunately not all protein is created equal. Animal sources of protein contain all of the amino acids we need, but plant sources need to be mixed together in order to attain the same important amino acid prowp-content/uploads. It can be difficult to reach protein adequacy for most people, so supplementing with whey, pea, or soy protein can be helpful. If individuals are not sensitive to dairy, I always recommend whey due to its ideal amino acid composition, and known immunological benefits.

Protein- When you need it

Along with meeting your daily requirements of protein, the timing of protein consumption is important. Each meal and snack you consume should have some source of protein – this will help with satiety, modulate blood sugar spikes, and increase the chances you will achieve protein adequacy. For power sport athletes or those looking to build muscle, it is important to consume protein with equal amounts of carbohydrates (think protein shake containing protein supplement and half a banana) within 30 minutes after activity to stimulate muscle repair and growth.

Bottom Line

The bottom line? You probably are not consuming enough protein, and your performance may be suffering! Be a 24 hour athlete – sleep better, train harder, and eat smarter.

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