Since the dawn of nutrition, protein has been overlooked when it comes to diet trends. We had the fat scare in the 80s and early 90s, where fat was the bad guy so everything was low fat or fat free. Then in the late 90s and early 2000s carbs became the villain thanks to atkins and keto, so the focus switched to low carb/high fat. Even when we look at the nutrition label, protein just gets stuck way down at the bottom. But protein intake for athletes (and non-athletes!) should not be overlooked.
Fat gets three lines and subcategories. Carbohydrate has four (and often more) with subcategories, including a new addition of added sugars. Protein has alway just gotten the one line with no added details or extra information. No more! Today we are going to discuss the importance of protein. What it is, how our body uses it, how much is needed, and why protein intake as an athlete is so important.
Let’s dive in!
What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient, which is a nutrient needed in large amounts daily. Protein, like carbohydrates, provides 4 calories per gram. However, while carbs’ primary role is to provide energy for activity, protein has too many functions to possibly list. From a nutrition standpoint, protein is a component of most foods. Our top sources of protein are things like meat, dairy, eggs, and beans. We can also get large amounts from supplements like protein powders and bars. Even foods like vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains contain small amounts of protein.
How does our body use protein?
Some of protein’s main functions include repairing damaged tissue (from exercise, illness, or injury), helping the body move energy and oxygen around, and producing hormones. Every cell in the body either is a protein or is made by a protein. So, when we eat protein we provide our body with nutrients called amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to be distributed around the body for building muscle, healing, and all the other functions protein has to offer.
How much protein is needed?
This is actually where it starts to get tricky! The recommended range of dietary protein intake for athletes is all over the map depending on who you ask. The requirements for normal humans to live a normal healthy life is around 45-70g per day. The way it is calculated is by a number of grams per kilogram of body weight. The minimum amount of protein for a person to survive is 0.8g/kg of body weight.
However, the amount of protein for athletes is much higher. Since athletes put their bodies under a greater amount of stress from training, exercise, practice, and long seasons, the amount of protein for athletes starts at a minimum of 1.2g/kg. A whopping 50% more than the minimum listed above. We actually don’t have a clear cut maximum for protein in athletes, but the most agreed upon range of daily protein intake in the research is 1.2 – 2.0g/kg. The exact amount of protein needs varies greatly depending on type of sport, training volume, weight goals, and much more.
Why is protein intake so important for athletes?
Well, as listed above it has a significant number of functions, so if athletes don’t eat enough protein it can cause a lot of issues. Insufficient protein can lead to injuries, loss of muscle, hormone insufficiency, or accumulated fatigue. When I worked for the Miami Dolphins I encountered quite a few athletes who struggled to get enough protein in for their athletic needs. I actually argued with the assistant strength coach that guys weren’t getting enough protein (he thought they were without question) and later that day 3 different players asked me about hitting protein goals. Anyway, when athletes get the right amount of protein they recover better, help prevent injury, and play more optimally.
If you’re an athlete (or a parent of one) that wants to find out protein needs and how to reach them, give us a call/email and ask for Blair.