March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Whether running sprints, swimming long distances or lifting weights, athletes expend more energy than the average person and their bodies need additional nutrients to recover from intense physical activity. Protein plays an important role in an athlete's diet as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. High protein diets are popular among athletes — especially those seeking a leaner, more defined physique. But how much protein is really necessary?
While protein is critical in building muscle mass, more is not necessarily better. Simply eating large amounts of lean protein will not equate with a toned body.
When determining protein requirements for athletes, it's important to look at the athlete's overall diet. Athletes who consume diets adequate in carbohydrate and fat end up using less protein for energy than those who consume a higher protein diet. This means that protein can go toward building and maintaining lean body mass. Athletes need to ensure that they are also meeting needs for carbs and fat, not just protein.
Muscle growth happens only when exercise and diet are combined.
For example, research has shown that timing of protein intake plays a role. Eating high-quality protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy or soy) within two hours after exercise — either by itself or with a carbohydrate — enhances muscle repair and growth.
Duration and intensity of the activity is also a factor when it comes to protein needs.
Because they are building muscle, power athletes require a higher level of protein consumption than endurance athletes. "[Power] athletes' protein needs are highest during the initial training phases, when muscle gain is largest," says sports dietitian Kelly Rossi, MS, RD, CSSD. "As any athlete trains more, their body's efficiency in using protein increases so they may not need as much."
While athletes' protein needs are greater than that of non-athletes, they're not as high as commonly perceived. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training. Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts.
Are Powders and Supplements Needed?
Most athletes can get the recommended amount of protein through food alone, without the use of supplements. Protein powders and supplements are great for convenience, but are not necessary, even for elite athletic performance. For example, Rossi works with athletes at the University of Virginia and only relies on protein powders when athletes need immediate protein right after a workout and don't have time for a meal. "Whole foods are always best, but with a busy athlete trying to juggle a million things, it is more realistic to provide them with the convenient shake," she says. "When someone has more time and motivation to plan, then the focus can be on more whole foods."
Want to learn more about protein and athletes? Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.