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Protein FAQs for Athletes


Protein is a popular topic these days among competitive athletes, but there is a lot of confusion about how much protein they need, when they should eat it, and the best kinds of protein to choose. 

Here are answers to some of the questions active people commonly ask about protein in a sports diet as presented by prominent protein researchers at the American College of Sports Medicine's Annual Convention in May 2012.

Question: Do some athletes need more protein than others?

Answer: Just as children have high protein needs during growth periods (0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight), athletes also have requirements higher than the USDA's Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight when building muscles: endurance athletes need 0.55 grams per pound, while strength athletes need 0.75 grams per pound. 

  • These protein recommendations assume the athlete is consuming adequate energy from carbohydrate and fat. 
  • Athletes who restrict their food intake end up using some protein for fuel; thus they need a higher protein intake.
  • Most athletes consume around 0.7 grams of protein per pound per day, so they easily meet the protein recommendations without needing protein supplements.

Question: What's the best way for athletes to support muscle development?

Answer: The biggest way to stimulate muscle growth, of course, is to lift weights or do other forms of resistance exercise.  To support muscular development after hard lifting, all athletes need to consume high quality protein (with all the essential amino acids) in close time proximity to their training, such as:

  • milk products
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • fish
  • lean beef
  • all meats,and
  • soy protein.

Question: How should an athlete spread their protein intake over the day? Is it better to have a large steak for dinner or smaller protein doses every few hours?

Answer: Many athletes eat very little protein for breakfast, but then feast on a high protein dinner. Current research suggests the trick to optimizing muscle development is to spread the protein intake evenly throughout the day.  For example, if your young athlete is used to eating a carbohydrate-based breakfast (such as oatmeal or a bagel) and a salad for lunch, it would be wise to include more protein in those meals.  The goal is to consume at least 20 grams of protein every 3 to 4 hours.

A 200 pound athlete can easily consume the recommended 150+ grams of high quality protein with no need for protein supplements. by consuming at least 20 grams of protein per meal and snack, such as by eating the following: Grilled chicken

  • 3 eggs for breakfast (21 g protein);
  • 2 cheese sticks for a morning snack (14 g protein);
  • 4 oz. deli meat in a lunchtime sandwich (28 g protein);
  • an afternoon snack with 6 oz. Greek yogurt (18 g protein) mixed with 1/2 cup high protein cereal (6 g protein);
  • a medium (6 oz). chicken breast for dinner (42 g pro); and 8 oz. cottage cheese (24 g protein) before bed.

Question: Are all dietary protein sources the same? What about supplements: whey vs. soy vs. casein?

Answer: Different types of proteins are made up of differing amounts of essential amino acids (EAA) and have different rates of digestion.

  • whey is more rapidly absorbed than casein.
  • Soy protein contains fewer EAA's than whey or casein.
  • The EAA leucine is a key "trigger" for building muscle, so leucine-rich foods with rapid digestive properties are best for recovery from resistance exercise.
  • Animal protein, including plain or chocolate milk, lean beef, and tuna, are leucine-rich.
  • Plant proteins contain leucine, but in lower amounts.

Because casein is slowly absorbed, consuming casein-rich foods before bedtime (such as cottage cheese) can help support muscle-building processes throughout the night. This may be particularly important for athletes seeking to maximize muscular growth during building seasons, such as during a pre-season training program.

Question: Do other nutrients consumed at the same time as protein affect muscle recovery?

Answer: Yes. Consuming carbohydrates in combination with protein is best.  Carbs are important to refuel muscles, while protein's job is to build and repair muscles. Adding some fat, such as low fat or whole chocolate milk vs. fat free chocolate milk, also seems to increase protein uptake. Researchers are unsure why fat enhances protein uptake, so stay tuned!

Question: Does adding protein to a sports drink enhance performance and/or recovery?

Answer: Studies suggest no improvement in performance, either in endurance or speed (time trial performance). The benefits of having protein in a sports drink relate more to recovery. Protein contributes to slightly higher muscle protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment.

Question: Should protein be consumed before exercise to promote recovery after exercise?

Answer: It won't hurt, but may not help. Eating 20 grams of protein 45 minutes before exercise increases amino acid uptake by the muscles to an equal extent as eating protein immediately after exercise. Take note: 20 grams of protein per recovery-dose is plenty. Athletes who consume higher amounts of protein either burn it for fuel or store it as fat.

Question: When athletes lose weight, they also lose muscle. Is there a way to prevent that loss?

Answer: About 25 to 30 percent of weight loss relates to muscle loss. To cut down on this loss of lean tissue, dieters can:

  1. create just a small calorie deficit (as opposed to starving themselves with a crash diet)
  2. choose protein-rich meals and snacks, and
  3. include resistance exercise twice weekly in their training.

Question: How should vegetarians - particularly vegans - meet their protein needs?

Answer: Vegan athletes can successfully meet their protein needs by eating a variety of plant foods. Most grains contain all 9 essential amino acids, just in lower amounts than an equivalent serving of animal foods. Hence, vegans need to consume generous portions of plant protein (grains, beans, legumes, nuts, soy) to compensate for both the lower density of the protein as well as the fact that plant proteins are less bioavailable (due to their fiber content).

The wisest way for a vegetarian to optimize protein intake is to consume adequate food. If the vegan is undereating, an energy deficit easily leads to muscle loss. Vegans who want to lose fat (not muscle) will want to focus their limited food intake on protein-rich plant foods.

More tofu anyone?


Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

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