Protein: How Much Do You Need?
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD
When you look at the ads in almost any sports publication, you cannot help but notice the supplement industry is hard at work promoting protein powders, bars and shakes. Their goal: to convince athletes they need extra protein to build muscles and recover from exercise. Every athlete seems worried that their standard diets are protein deficient and inadequate to support their sports program.
The big question is “What’s the best protein supplement?”
The reality is that very few athletes need any type of protein supplement. Protein supplements can be helpful in certain medical situations. For example, an athlete with anorexia may be more willing to consume a protein shake than eat tuna, cottage cheese or chicken. Patients with cancer or AIDS often benefit from protein supplements if they are unable to eat well. But a healthy athlete?Most of us can consume adequate protein through a balanced sports diet.
How much is enough?
Only 10 to 15% of total calories need to come from protein. Athletes require slightly more protein than a sedentary person. That extra peanut butter sandwich, second chicken breast and taller glass of milk satisfies any and all protein needs–-without any supplements. If you weigh 160 pounds and want the maximum acceptable protein intake (0.9 gms pro/lb), you'd need 144 grams of protein:
Is more better?
Eating more than the recommended protein intake offers no benefits. Apart from being costly, a protein-based diet commonly displaces important carbs from the diet. If you have an omelet and a protein shake for breakfast instead of cereal with banana, you'll consume fewer carbs to fuel your muscles properly. Carbs are the primary fuel for athletes who do muscle-building resistance exercise.
Once your muscles become carb-depleted, fatigue sets in and your workout is over.
Your diet should provide extra carbs, not extra protein. If you consume too much protein from supplements, you may also fail to invest in optimal health. I had one client who daily ate five protein shakes and four protein bars--to the exclusion of standard food. Displacing natural foods with engineered foods (such as protein supplements) limits your intake of the vegetables, fruits, grains, fiber, phytochemicals, natural vitamins and other health-protective nutrients that Nature puts in whole foods.
Pre and Post Exercise Protein
Protein has typically been consumed at meals, away from the time of exercise. New research suggests eating protein before you workout can optimize muscle development. Pre-exercise protein digests into amino acids that are then ready and waiting to be taken up by the muscles after a strength workout. This does not mean you'll evolve into Charles Atlas; you'll simply optimize your body's ability to build and repair muscle at that moment. The amount of protein needed for this benefit is tiny--about 6 grams (less than one ounce of meat). You certainly do not need a hefty pre-exercise protein bar, nor a thick steak. A yogurt, cereal with milk, or a slice of peanut butter toast will do the job just fine!
How about protein right after you exercise?
Five carefully controlled studies have shown the addition of post-exercise protein does not offer any advantages when the athlete eats adequate calories from carbs. If you refuel with wholesome, refreshing meals that appeal to you, you'll inevitably get the nutrients you need. Fruit & yogurt, nuts & raisins, bagel sandwich and pasta with meat sauce are just a few popular recovery foods that offer an enjoyable combination of both protein and carbs to refuel, rebuild and repair muscles.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD
Author, Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition
Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions
Books and sports nutrition teaching materials available at www.nancyclarkrd.com
Director of Nutrition Services, SportsMedicine Associates
830 Boylston St. #205, Brookline MA 02467
Phone: (617) 795-1875 Fax: (617) 795-1876
"Helping active people win with good nutrition."
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