We’ve all heard how important protein is for athletic performance. I once heard a presenter at a conference refer to carbs and fat as “having bad PR people”. In contrast, I’d love to hire whoever did the marketing for protein.
But if you are anything like me, the thought of eating more protein conjures up a vision of the bodybuilders I see every time I’m at my local Mongolian grill piling their bowls full of every kind of meat imaginable. I used to think, “Is that what I have to do to get faster and stronger? No thanks!”
So why is protein important? How much of it should we be eating? Is a post-workout protein shake necessary? What does a vegetarian do for protein? There’s a lot of confusing information out there. Let’s separate fact from fiction.
Benefits of protein
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are classified as “macronutrients.” These are compounds the body needs in large amounts as opposed to vitamin and mineral “micronutrients” that we need less of. Both macro and micronutrients are vital for our body to function at it’s best.
Protein can be thought of as the body’s building blocks. They provide structure and strength to muscles, tendons, connective tissues, ligaments, organs, etc… Proteins also make up hormones and substances used by cells for communication and chemical reactions. As you can see, these are all pretty important duties. When people are concerned about getting enough protein, they aren’t wrong in doing so.
How much do I need?
When we eat protein, our bodies break it down into smaller structures called “amino acids.” We’re constantly using amino acids to build/rebuild things.
The body can store a small amount of protein, but not as much as other macronutrients (carbs, fat). As a result, we need to eat protein daily to feel and perform our best.
Active people need around 1.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass. So a 150 pound (65kg) person would need 85 grams per day and a 200 pound (90 kg) person would need 113 grams per day.
Those are the minimal requirements for generally active people. We need more protein in situations like this:
- Intense exercise; multiple training sessions in a day
- Having a physical job
- Being injured or sick; recovering from surgery
- Chronic stress
- Poor digestion
Before you pile your plate full of eggs and steak and bacon, remember than 1.7-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. Our livers and kidneys cant handle more than that on a regular basis. We need to make sure to not eat too much of a good thing.
Most foods have some protein. Besides the obvious sources like meat, tofu, and eggs, check out how much is in a serving of these foods. Or check out this article on what 20 grams of protein looks like in different foods.
- Broccoli: 3 g
- Peanut butter: 3 g
- Baked potato: 4 g
- Avocado: 4 g
- Quinoa: 5 g
When to supplement
It’s best to think about eating “real foods first.” If you are getting enough protein from your meals, supplementation isn’t necessary, despite what many companies may claim. Eating a variety of foods and eating what is in-season usually can supply your body an adequate amount of protein.
However, we may occasionally be in situations like these:
- Under a lot of stress, training hard, or feeling sick
- Busy without time to cook/prep meals
- Traveling with limited choices for good protein
- Eating a plant-based diet and having difficulty getting the right amount of protein
In these cases, a great solution is to supplement with protein powders:
- Plant-based protein (pea, hemp, rice)
- Milk protein blend
- Egg whites
Be careful when selecting a protein powder, as they are not regulated by the FDA. It’s hard to know if a supplement contains what the label says it does, but products verified by independent third-party labs, like ConsumerLab or NSF should be as advertised.
What kind of protein do I need?
As I mentioned earlier, amino acids are the building blocks of protein (which are the building blocks of the body). There are different types of amino acids:
- Non-essential amino acids: The body can make these so we don’t really need to eat them.
- Essential amino acids: We can’t make these so we need to get them from our food.
- Conditionally essential amino acids: Sometimes we may need more of these (hard training, stress, when we are sick…). We can make them, but not very well or very fast.
Sounds confusing, right? It actually doesn’t need to be. Almost all foods contain some protein, and by eating a varied diet full of whole, non-processed foods, most people get the amino acids they need.
The confusion comes with claims by some supplements to contain certain amino acids necessary for performance or recovery. If you do use a supplement, use this chart as a reference to know what’s in it:
Essential Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids vs essential amino acids
You may see also protein supplements labeled as “BCAA’s” or “Branched-chain amino acids”. These have been very popular, but new research like this study and this position statement show they aren’t as great for workout recovery or muscle building as claimed.
Supplementing with “essential amino acids”, or whole protein (whey protein, plant-based proteins) before, during, or after exercise is best.
Plant based eaters:
The biggest criticism of a plant based diet: “But where are you getting your protein!?!?”
Athletes who follow a plant-based diet should make sure they whole-food sources of protein first, like fresh vegetables, fruits, and legumes. It’s easy to fall into a trap of eating refined and processed “vegetarian foods” or using excessive grains to round out meals (pasta, cereal, bread, etc.).
- Eat enough calories in general to meet the demands of their training or workouts.
- Make sure to eat as many different kinds of fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, and tubers as possible.
- Incorporate at least 1 cup of beans/legumes per day. Plant-based diets can be low in the amino acid lysine, and legumes are a great source. Other lysine-rich foods are tofu, tempeh, soy milk, peanuts, and peas.
- Take a plant-based protein supplement if needed
- Our body does best on a variety of proteins that occur naturally in foods – we evolved as humans by eating different foods that are in-season.
- Sometimes a protein powder is necessary. Sometimes it isn’t. Know what your body specifically needs.
- It’s possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet, even if you are a high-level athlete.
This post was written by:
Carol Mack, DPT, SCS, CSCS. Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Sports Certified Specialist.
Former NCAA Division I soccer player. 15 years coaching experience. Member US Olympic Committee Medical Network. Chair, Female Athlete Special Interest Group (American Physical Therapy Association). Runner, yogi, CrossFitter, fitness enthusiast. Go check her out!
If you have a question for Carol, please comment below OR feel free to shoot us a message!
- Berardi, John et al. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition, Inc, 2017.
- Andrews, Ryan. Plant-based eating: Expert Q & A, Part 1
- Jackman et al. Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans. Front Physiol. 2017; 8: 390.Published online 2017 Jun 7. doi: 3389/fphys.2017.00390
- Kerksick et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14:33. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4. eCollection 2017.