By Lindsey Guard
How we process dietary protein:
First, let’s understand the role of protein within the body. Protein is primarily not used as energy as it is “metabolically expensive” for the body to digest. “Metabolically expensive” meaning that it requires more energy and more systems within the body to utilize as energy. This is in comparison to other forms of energy stored in the body that are more readily available, such as glycogen and fatty-acids.
Instead, the body uses protein for a variety of other roles tied to athletic performance: connective tissue and bone maintenance, neurotransmitter synthesis (serotonin, dopamine,
adrenaline, etc.), hormone production (thyroid hormone, growth hormone), immune system
function, gut health, and analgesic affects. In regards to this information, it’s not far-fetched to claim that athletes should certainly be consuming more protein than sedentary individuals.
The RDA recommends a minimum of 50g of protein per day, but this is a recommendation standardized to prevent obtaining diseases such as Kwashiorkor, a potentially deadly depletion of dietary protein intake. Since athletes are expending more of their energy, it is important to recognize that 50g is not an athletic standard. A hard training program necessitates a higher protein intake in order to maintain bodily processes and functions as stated earlier.
How much protein?
With that being said, while researchers debate over how much protein is optimal, it might be
good to err on the side of too much than too little. Historically, male athletes habit excessive loads protein, ingesting too much at the expense of taking in enough fats and carbohydrates. Female athletes, on the other hand, tend to stay away from protein. A common fear for women is that they will get “bulky”. Both are errors that athletes should be conscious not to make.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is where optimal intake probably lies. Some research makes the argument that given the same body weight, that women probably don’t need as much protein as do males. This is most likely due to body composition (e.g. difference in body fat) as well as hormonal factors that play a role in differing metabolic profiles.
I would argue that protein intake should be based off of lean body mass (LBM) and not total
body weight (TBW). To calculate this, take your total body weight and multiply it by (1 minus
your body fat percentage).
For example, if I weigh 210 pounds and am at 10% body fat, then I am (210 x 0.9=) 190 pounds of lean body mass.
Once you have made this calculation, your daily protein intake will lie between 1.0-1.4g/lb of lean body mass. For the individual in the example, they are somewhere in the middle at 200g protein daily. Dividing this daily dose evenly over the course of the day is probably the best way to time your intake until more research shows the clinical benefit of deliberate protein timing. Timing and types of protein are heavily researched and very popular amongst the athletic population.
Types of Protein:
Protein is made up of 20 types of amino acids chained together by peptide bonds.
Eight of these twenty amino acids are essential meaning that they must come from the diet as our body cannot synthesize them itself. The other 12 types are inessential and can be made from the body and do not need to come from the diet.
Each type of dietary protein usually has all 20 amino acids to some degree. It is important to note that, just how your training program is varied, there is not one single best source of protein. Athletes should attempt to obtain a variety of sources of dietary protein to obtain an optimal nutrition profile.
Whole food proteins
Contrary to the World Health Organization’s demonization of red meat as a potential
carcinogen (a claim that is obscenely scientifically flawed and skewed), well-sourced red meats should be a part of any athlete’s nutrition. Iron, zinc, and B12 are central nutrients of this food which are vital for red blood cell production and to prevent anemia.
Compared to plant-based nutrition, red meat contains heme-iron which is more readily absorbable than plant’s non-heme- iron. This is important especially for hard-training females that are at risk of iron-deficiency anemia due to monthly blood losses and a tendency toward lower iron-levels. For both males and females, I would suggest 1-3x/wk high quality (think
grass fed) red meat consumption to maintain iron stores.
Fish is another great source of protein given its rich addition of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty
acids. I doubt that most athletes have enough fish consumption to counter the pro-
inflammatory effects of hard training and diet, so I would recommend all athletes to start by
taking a fish oil supplement, or even better, krill oil as it is a more sustainable practice for the
environment and is less likely to be contaminated with heavy metals and toxins. I gladly give recommendations as how many grams of fish oil to supplement based off of body weight, training, diet and lifestyle.
Eggs… one day they are good and the next they are deadly. The media, and so called “experts”,
have us confused on eggs (let alone the thousands of other food items) that it is difficult to be convinced in one direction or the other. I would say that unless you have a food intolerance to eggs (which you can find out by working with a nutrition coach), eat eggs in moderation alongside other protein sources. Eggs are also a rich source of zinc, B12, and iron.
Don’t worry about the cholesterol content which has been reverberated by our society as the
heart-attack- causing agent, but is actually a vital part of our cell’s membrane and health.
Plants also provide a good source of protein, given that it’s not as much as animal protein.
Beans are a cost-effective way to bump up protein intake. Some might benefit from the high
fiber content in beans whereas some might experience unwanted bowel changes.
Grains also contain a trace amount of protein (as stated in the carbohydrate blog) that should contribute to your overall daily intake. Given that a small part of the population is non-Celiac gluten sensitive, athletes could consider going on an elimination diet under the supervision of a nutrition coach to see if gluten could be a causative factor of systemic inflammatory effects. If not, grains can be a healthy addition to an athlete’s diet.
While I think most athletes might overuse protein powders at the expense of ingesting whole foods that would otherwise be packed full of naturally occuring nutrients that are much easier for your body to absorb.
In defense of supplemental protein, I understand that protein powders/bars provide a convenient source of dietary protein intake that may be more functional for most athletes. This is especially important for busy moms, college students, and those needing to go to work right after a
training session. Protein powders might also provide as a means to navigate around nausea and
stomach upset brought about from ingesting whole foods after or right before a training session as they can be much more complex to digest. On a regular basis, I limit the protein supplementation usually around 1-2 servings daily (depending on level of intensity and phase of training).
Whey protein comprises about 20% of total dairy protein composition. As most know, whey
protein is rapidly digestible. Some work suggests that even though whey is absorbed rapidly, it
is inferior to slower-digesting protein in terms of actual protein retained by the body. With that
said, I would argue that it’s rapid digestible nature makes whey protein a good option for post-
workout nutrition (0-2 hours post-training).
Casein is the other part of dairy, comprising ~80% of total dairy protein composition. Given its
slow digesting characteristic, this protein is superior at stimulating muscle protein synthesis
(MPS)- this is probably why most bodybuilders and athletes have chosen to take casein right
before bed, in an attempt to maintain MPS. Another way in which athletes achieve this (without supplementation) is having a lot of their protein 1 hour before bed in sync with a substantial serving of fat.
Research has shown that soy protein powers is inferior to milk protein at stimulating MPS. On
the other hand, work has also shown that soy protein increases the antioxidant levels in the body during exercise. Until more data is available to conclude the effects of soy on the body, my
vegetarian friends should try to limit soy protein to no more than 20-25g/day including whole
This is by no means an exhaustive list but rather, is a quick guide in getting athletes more in
tune with their protein intake. If you have any questions of how to put this into practice or perhaps navigate troubles of fueling for your sport, feel free to reach out to us at Peak Functional Nutrition.