How Much Protein Do We Really Need?
For quite some time, there has been controversy over how much protein is required, especially for the active person. A high protein diet has become popular over the years for weight loss due to its ability to help stave off hunger and control blood sugar. The main reason for this is because choosing a high protein diet, which would be at least 50% of daily calories, means taking in less of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats. Decreasing fats with this type of diet will help take in less calories overall since fats contain more calories per gram. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, contain the same amount of calories per gram than protein, so why would having less carbohydrates than protein make a difference? After all, is it not about calories in versus calories out?
Based on research, the answer is yes and no. Nutrients react very differently from each other in our bodies. That’s why eating 100 grams of protein will have a completely different effect on the body than eating 100 grams of refined sugar. So, based on this concept, the quality of macronutrients is more important than the quantity of calories in terms of weight loss. This is even more so for the maintenance of muscle and performance in athletes.
The Role of Protein
Protein has a variety of roles for our bodies such as being the building block for muscles, hair, skin, nails, and cartilage. Protein also helps protect against infections, distributes oxygen in the body, and transports substances throughout our cells. Many athletes and bodybuilders believe adding in extra protein than is required will increase muscle and strength. This is highly false, as the only way to increase muscle mass and strength is through exercise.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein in a healthy adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Based on several research studies, it may be beneficial for athletes to ingest more than the RDA of protein due to the role it plays in the repair of exercise induced muscle damage. The scientific basis for this is the body’s balance between protein and nitrogen. Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen. During specific nitrogen testing, the amount of protein a body requires will be determined based on how much nitrogen is secreted from the body compared to the amount of protein ingested. If the protein intake is greater, this is considered an anabolic state, which equates to a quicker recovery from exercise. Since this is the ideal situation for athletes, a higher protein diet is recommended.
How Much More Protein Exactly?
The amount of protein recommended for active individuals is highly based on the intensity of exercise. The RDA of protein for this group of individuals ranges from 1.0 to 2.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. The lower end would be followed by lower impact exercisers, especially those who do not train every day of the week or for long periods of time. The higher end would be what is recommended for higher impact athletes such as bodybuilders or endurance athletes who train every day and/or for a longer duration.
Exercise, especially high intensity weight-lifting and prolonged endurance activity, creates small tears in the muscles, called microtrauma, which is a necessary step in building mass and strength, but only if you allow the muscles to have proper rest and fuel for recovery and repair. As mentioned earlier, the main benefit for this higher protein intake for intense exercisers is for faster recovery from activity. Therefore, if you are not ingesting enough protein for your damaged muscles, the tears that occur during exercise will remain damaged and never build or maintain the strength that you require for your next training session.
Another important factor to consider is the timing of consuming protein. As stated in many articles, it is important to not wait too long after intense exercise to eat a meal, and that meal should include a good amount of protein and carbohydrates. Recent studies show that the exact timing for a post-workout meal is not what should be considered. What is important is making sure your pre- and post-workout meals are not separated by more than three to four hours. For example, if you have a long run scheduled that will last you three hours in length, ideally your pre-workout meal should be ingested 30 to 60 minutes prior and a post-workout meal should then be consumed immediately after the run, in order to remain within the appropriate window. If the run is shorter, say one hour in length, and you consume a pre-workout meal 60 minutes prior, your post-workout meal can wait one or two hours and still be in the anabolic window.
Now that the amount and timing of protein intake is covered, the quality of protein is the next important topic. As mentioned in a variety of dietary articles, lean proteins are the way to go. Why have fat-ridden protein sources when we already most likely consume plenty of fats from other foods in our diets? Lean meats and chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products are the best options. Protein powders are also a great source of high protein and have been widely used for shakes and smoothies following exercise, especially when short on time available to stay within the anabolic window.
As far as for a vegetarian and vegan diet, there are a variety of protein source options. Beans, nuts, grains, and many vegetables contain a high amount of protein and can easily be the basis of a diet, considering all of these options have other nutrients and vitamins that our bodies require. There are also many plant-based protein powders on the market that are just as satisfying as whey protein.
If you are an athlete looking to maintain or build strength and enhance your performance, it is beneficial to keep your protein intake at a higher level. It is important to note that increasing protein should be done carefully as to not sacrifice too many carbohydrates, as this macronutrient is essential for energy stores, especially for distance runners and cyclists. Opt for leaner sources of protein and keep in mind the timing requirements to aide in muscle recovery. Following these guidelines is just one avenue in proper nutrition for athletes to be able to perform at their best and limit risk of injury.
- Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults, Online Publication ,
- Contemporary Issues in Protein Requirements and Consumption for Resistance Trained Athletes, Online Publication ,
- Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?, Online Publication ,