By Emily Shields Werner, MS, RD, LDN
Protein! It can be a complicated topic with so many questions. Am I getting enough protein? What foods are good sources of protein? Can I be a vegetarian or vegan athlete and still meet my protein needs? What should my timing of protein intake be? The list goes on and on. Luckily, I am here to help! By reading this blog you will have the tools you require to optimize your intake of protein for greater athletic success.
Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential amino acids. Our bodies cannot make these essential amino acids and we must get them from food. Among other functions, our bodies use protein to build and repair muscle. All animal proteins (meat, dairy, eggs) contain all of the essential amino acids. A few plant proteins do as well, such as quinoa, soy and buckwheat. Legumes, grain, nuts and seeds are generally low in 1 or 2 essential amino acids. However, foods can complement one another and create perfect proteins. Every time legumes such as beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains such as wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born. For example, people traditionally combine rice and beans or peanut butter and whole wheat bread to create a perfect protein. It was once believed you had to consume all amino acids at one meal, but we now know as long as you have a variety of complementary plant proteins throughout the day that is sufficient.
How much protein do I need?
The current recommendation for athletes is 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 135 pound athlete would weigh about 61 kilograms. Multiply 61 by 1.2 and 61 by 2. That athlete would need approximately 73 to 122 grams of protein per day. During intense training blocks or if injured they should aim for the higher end of the range. However, consuming much more than 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight won’t give you an advantage over your competitors. If you are a vegetarian or vegan athlete try to consume protein near the higher end of the range because your body is not able to absorb as much protein from plant based sources. For vegan athletes, the diet may need to be supplemented with protein powder.
Eat your protein throughout the day
If you are not able to eat enough protein during the day can you make up for it and consume a massive protein shake before bed? The answer is no! Your body can only digest and absorb so much protein at once. It is critical to consume protein throughout the day. Depending on your weight, try to consume 15 to 25 grams of protein 4-5 times throughout the day. Post workout try to have 15-25 grams of protein within 30 minutes. Is that all you need? NO! Don’t forget the CARBS! Athletes tend to focus too much on the protein and ignore the carbs. Carbohydrates are important for replenishing muscle glycogen after workouts. Aim to consume a ratio of 3 to 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein. In reference to our 135 pound athlete example they would require about 20g of protein post workout and 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates. Here are some examples of post workout recovery snacks to meet their needs:
- 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 cup strawberries, ½ cup granola = 18 g protein & 63 g carbs
- 2 eggs, 2 slices toast, 1 Tbsp jelly, 1 orange = 26 g protein & 63 g carbs
- 1 cup chocolate milk, 1 scoop protein powder (with about 10g of protein and 30g carbs), 1 banana = 24 g protein & 72 g carbs
Emily received her Master’s in Nutrition from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a Registered Dietitian and specializes in Sports Nutrition. She is a professional cyclist and when not racing enjoys helping people improve their athletic performance and overall health through nutrition. Emily is accepting new clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org