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How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Baseball player - How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein

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Eating protein doesn't equal big muscles. Instead, muscle growth is a complex process that relies on adequate consumption of protein and calories, hormones the body produces, including human growth hormone and testosterone, and a healthy dose of physical activity.

Here are a few facts and tips to keep in mind before you amp up your protein in search of a new physique.

Work Builds Muscle

Although eating protein doesn't build muscle on its own, the presence of protein in an athlete's eating pattern is important. Believe it or not, when you exercise, such as lifting weights or running, some of your muscle cells break down. Protein from food helps repair this damage from exercising and builds up more muscle, making them stronger.

Strike a Balance

While protein is important for building new muscles, eating the right amount of protein is key. Consuming more protein than your body needs may translate to excess calories that must be stored, usually in the form of fat. Too little protein consumption means your body has to supply it itself, which can result in muscle breakdown and loss. When you eat a balanced diet that includes enough calories and carbohydrates, your body won't use protein as a calorie source — it will spare it to build muscles and repair them when needed.

How Much Protein Is Enough?

Young athletes need slightly more protein than their peers who aren't athletes. Protein needs are based on age, sex, body weight and stage of development, with teens needing between 10 to 30 percent of their daily calories from protein. Although an individual’s exact needs will vary, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) provides a good reference for how much of a certain nutrient a healthy individual needs in a day. The RDA for protein is 46 grams for teenage girls and 52 grams for teenage boys per day.

Most athletes are able to meet these protein requirements and then some. In fact, studies show that young athletes consume two to three times the RDA for protein! Although athletes may have higher protein needs than their peers, contrary to popular belief, consuming large amounts of protein does not build additional muscle.

One strategy that may provide an advantage, though, focuses on timing. Studies now show that it is not just the total protein intake for the day that counts for athletes. The body can best build and maintain muscles when protein is divided relatively evenly throughout the day. To do this, include a source of protein at each meal and snack.

The Best Protein Sources

Many foods contain protein, but high-quality protein comes from beef, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products, soy and soy products. Including a variety of plant-based sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds throughout the day can also help to meet protein requirements.

How much protein does your favorite food provide? Follow this chart to find out:

Food Serving Size Grams of Protein
Chicken breast, cooked 3 ounces 24
Fish, salmon, cooked 3 ounces 21
Ground beef, cooked 3 ounces 22
Greek yogurt 1 cup 18 to 22
Yogurt 1 cup 12 to 14
Tofu, firm ½ cup 8 to 11
Milk 1 cup 8
Beans ½ cup 7 to 9
Peanut, almond and soy nut butters 2 tablespoons 7 to 8
Cheese 1 ounce 5 to 7
Nuts 1 ounce 3 to 6
Egg 1 large 6
Quinoa, cooked ½ cup 4

Beware of Protein Supplements

Some athletes wonder about using a protein supplement such as protein powder or a high-protein drink. Overall, this isn't necessary and even might be dangerous. Using protein supplements may lead to excessive protein intake, taxing the kidneys and promoting dehydration. Plus, the risk for contamination with steroids, hormones or other unwanted ingredients is real, as the safety of dietary supplements is largely left to manufacturers.

The good news? You can meet your protein needs with food alone! Just be sure to eat a serving of protein, like the ones above, at each meal.

Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN contributed to this article.