Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Protein is perhaps one of the most controversial nutrients as many athletes, coaches, nutritionists, and sports scientists have different views on how much protein is necessary. Since protein is associated with tissue growth, in particular muscle growth, many people believe that increasing the amount of protein intake will help increase the rate of muscle growth, and thus increasing strength and power. In contrast, many others believe that consuming more than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), has no advanced benefit for the athletes. Research does show that athletes have higher protein intake. However, recommendations are still unclear. There is also conflicting research on the benefits of protein supplements as some research shows that over-consuming protein has harmful effects on human metabolism. There is also a debate concerning whether or not vegetarian athletes can meet their RDA without consuming meat products.
Unlike carbohydrates and fat, protein is not stored for energy. It forms part of various tissues inside the body including the muscles and organs. It is used mainly to build new tissues or repair damaged ones. Still, in very extreme cases where carbohydrates and fats are running extremely low, protein can be broken down and used as energy. When protein is digested, it is broken down into its basic form called amino acids. These amino acids are commonly referred to as building blocks due to their role in building new tissues and repair damaged cells. They also help create various hormones, antibodies, and cells. The main reason why athletes have higher protein needs, is that training breaks down muscle fibers. The body requires amino acids to repair these fibers and also build new and stronger muscle cells so the body can prepare for the next workout. This phenomenon is called training adaptation and helps us grow and become stronger athletes.
Guidelines show that the protein RDA for an average human over the age of 19 is between 0.8 – 0.9 g protein/ kg body weight/ day. However, endurance and strength athletes' recommendations range from 1.2- 1.7 g/ kg/ day. The timing for protein intake is also an important part of the nutritional plan. Research shows that consuming regular protein servings throughout the day is better than consuming one or two high-protein meals. Research has also shown that consuming carbohydrates and protein together immediately after a workout helps preserve protein use from being used as energy, increasing the use of protein by the muscles, which helps recovery and muscle growth. Finally, as we shall see in future blogs, different proteins have different qualities. It is important to know which foods contain high-quality protein and try to include these foods as much as possible in the diet.
Research has shown that consuming higher protein intakes than the RDA does not lead to increased muscle growth or strength. It is through progressively adding stress on the muscle that will lead to muscle growth. Luckily, protein is found in a variety of different foods, so reaching the RDA should not be a problem, even for athletes. It is also common that many athletes consume higher intakes than the RDA. Consuming a little more than we need is not harmful as the body either breaks down the excess protein into a substance called urea, which is then excreted, uses it for energy, or stores it as fat if we have a positive calorie balance (ie. we consume more calories than our body uses).
In the coming blogs, we will discuss in more detail the importance of protein and the guidelines recommended with current research.
Thanks for reading, and as always stay fit!
Byrd, H. (2020). The Effects of Protein Timing on Performance Measures in Athletes.
Kårlund, A., Gómez-Gallego, C., Turpeinen, A. M., Palo-Oja, O. M., El-Nezami, H., & Kolehmainen, M. (2019). Protein supplements and their relation with nutrition, microbiota composition and health: is more protein always better for sportspeople?. Nutrients, 11(4), 829
Koopman, R., Pannemans, D. L., Jeukendrup, A. E., Gijsen, A. P., Senden, J. M., Halliday, D., ... & Wagenmakers, A. J. (2004). Combined ingestion of protein and carbohydrate improves protein balance during ultra-endurance exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 287(4), E712-E720.
Phillips, S. M. (2012). Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 108(S2), S158-S167.