Protein and the Athlete

July 12, 2010 at 7:51 pm 1 comment

How much protein do athletes really need?  Do they need more protein than the average person?  Does more protein equal more muscle?  Let’s talk a little about protein’s role in the body and then I’ll tell you what the scientific research has shown.

Proteins are strings of amino acids. Protein from food is broken down in the intestinal tract into individual amino acids which are then dumped into an amino acid pool from which the body makes its own proteins.  There are 9 essential amino acids – amino acids which the body must have but cannot make on its own.  They are:   histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Protein is involved in the growth, repair and replacement of tissue.  Tissue in this case means organs, muscles and bone.  Other roles that protein has in the body are as hormones, enzymes, regulators, transporters and antibodies.  So you can see how protein has a very important role in the healthy maintenance of your body.  You notice I didn’t list protein’s role in providing energy.  Protein is only used for energy as a last resort because it is needed in the performance of its primary role of maintenance, building, and repair.

About 10-35% of total calories in an athlete’s diet should consist of protein. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in the body and if sufficient carbohydrates are not consumed then protein (from tissue, muscle, organs) is sacrificed to provide the energy that our bodies need.

It is also interesting to note that excess protein cannot be stored.  It is excreted.  Eating a high protein diet can put unnecessary strain on the kidneys to excrete the unused nitrogen in protein.

The protein requirement for the average person is .8g/kg.  For a 150 lb individual, that translates to about 54g of protein/day.  A 3 oz. serving of chicken breast is almost 27 grams of protein.  That is half of the day’s requirement!  Thus the protein requirement for athletes can easily be met in their regular diet.  In fact, most athletes consume more protein than they need.

Believe it or not (believe it because the scientific evidence proves it!) most athletes do not require any more protein than the average individual.  In study after study, protein has not been proven to improve athletic performance.   Endurance athletes and strength training athletes may have increased protein requirements; however, it has also been shown that well trained athletes’ bodies use protein more efficiently and thus may not need extra protein.

It is recommended that endurance trained athletes consume 1.2-1.4g protein per kg of weight.  Once again, using a 150 pound individual as an example:

lbs./2.2 = kg          150lb./2.2 = 68kg      68kg X 1.2g protein = 81g protein at the lower end of the range.

Strength trained athletes may require even more protein – 1.2-1.7g/kg.  Amino acids are needed for muscle growth in strength-trained athletes, especially when training first begins because this is the time when most muscle development and growth occurs.  Eventually the body uses protein more efficiently and strength athletes do not need to continue to consume large amounts of protein.  Whey, casein and soy are good protein supplements if needed, but, as stated earlier, most athletes consume adequate protein from their diet.  Lifting weights grows muscle – protein is needed to repair the muscles.  Thus, protein does not build muscle, working out does!  Remember that you gym rats!

Good sources of protein are lean meats, fish, low or non-fat dairy, poultry, legumes, and soy.  Examples of protein are:

3 oz. chicken breast 27g

4 oz. cooked salmon 29g

4 oz. 95% lean ground beef 29g

1 cup 0% plain greek yogurt 20g

½ cup 1% cottage cheese 19g

½ cup cooked black beans 6g

1 1-oz. slice cheddar cheese 7g

¼ block of firm tofu 13g

½ cup cooked quinoa 4.5g

Protein has a small role in recovery nutrition, but that is a subject for another blog.

The bottom line:  Endurance and strength-trained athletes may require more protein than the average athlete.  Most athletes consume excess of the required amount of protein so supplements are rarely necessary.


Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine:  Nutrition and Athletic Performance.  Journal of the American Dietetic Association, March 2009.

Sports Nutrition:  A Practice Manual for Professionals by Marie Dunford, PhD, RD, 2006.

Understanding Nutrition by Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes.  2008.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Elise Reitshamer  |  July 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Another great one Marcia!


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