Katie Ferraro by Katie Ferraro

Oh, protein…that all-important, but often misunderstood macronutrient. While you are likely aware of the importance of getting enough protein for overall health, did you know that athletes’ protein needs can differ quite dramatically from those of the general population? To put some of your perplexing protein questions to rest, we’ve gathered five prominent sports nutrition experts to share their performance-enhancing protein tips that an active person like YOU can use.

The Satiety Solution

The nutrients from the foods you consume serve many functions in your body. In addition to providing you with energy and other nutrients in protein-containing foods, perhaps one of protein’s most valuable contributions is its ability to promote satiety, or the feeling of fullness.

Kate Machado, MS, RDN, a sports dietitian at the University of San Diego, says, “Protein is key to promoting satiety, an important consideration for athletes who are often fueling their bodies for long stretches of time.” She advises her athletes to include protein in meals and snacks throughout the day instead of consuming it all at once. “This can help avoid overeating later in the day, especially in the evening, which is when I see some of my athletes struggle with consistent, balanced intake.”

As far as what sources of protein she says are best, Machado likes chicken or turkey breast, omega-3 rich salmon and seafood, and iron-rich lean beef. If you eat dairy, she recommends milk, yogurt and cheese as good sources of branched-chain amino acids that can often be found in convenient, portable snacks for busy athletes on the go.

The Protein–Muscle Connection

Contrary to popular belief, eating protein alone, without the muscle stress associated with regular activity and exercise, is not enough to build muscle. Jasmine Chu, MS, RD, a sports dietitian at the University of California, San Diego also recommends spreading dietary protein out throughout the day within meals and snacks, including post-exercise recovery snacks.

She says that this spacing allows athletes to perform their best by facilitating adaptations to training such as increased muscle mass, endurance and strength. “Protein triggers the initiation of the muscle rebuilding process,” Chu explains, “and provides the nutrients needed for muscle protein synthesis as it adapts in response to exercise.”

Chu also points out that dietary protein helps keep an athlete healthy and able to withstand the stresses that repeated exercise places on the body’s musculoskeletal system. “The protein we eat throughout the day helps to strengthen the integrity of musculoskeletal tissues, allowing the body to resist injury during training and competition.”

When it comes to recommended sources of protein, Jasmine says that she always recommends whole-food sources of protein first (like fish, poultry, lean cuts of pork and beef, tofu, eggs and certain dairy foods, along with whey and soy protein isolates). However, she also acknowledges that whole-food sources of protein are not practical or convenient for consumption in situations such as travel or when appetite is suppressed after intense exercise. In these cases, she recommends sport foods or supplements (like protein bars, shakes and powders) that contain whey or soy protein isolates to help athletes stay on track with their protein intake goals.

How Much Protein Promotes Performance?

When it comes to protein intake, the typical American adult actually consumes more protein than is recommended. Although protein requirements for athletes are higher than the average adult, attention should still be paid to timing and portion sizes. Unnecessary, extra calories from any macronutrient source—including protein—can promote weight gain. As such, sports dietitians advise that athletes seek to eat enough—but not too much—dietary protein each day, as body composition has a great impact on athletic performance.

Jacque Scaramella, MS, RD, CSSD, a sports dietitian contractor with the United States Olympic Committee, recommends that most of her average weight athletes include about 20-25 grams of protein per meal and snack. This tip means that astute athletes and active individuals should be scanning their food labels to figure out how much protein is in the foods—and the particular portion sizes—that they are eating each day.

When it comes to protein sources, Scaramella also stresses the importance of adequate protein intake for the repair and recovery of muscle and other tissues after training to help optimize training adaptations.

She encourages her athletes to eat high-quality protein after training and at meal times. This high quality—or high biological value protein—can be attained from foods such as animal-based proteins (lean poultry, beef, fish, dairy products and whole eggs). These are important in the recovery process because they contain all of the essential amino acids as well as iron and B vitamins.

If you are a vegetarian athlete, Scaramella recommends including iron-rich protein sources such as whole eggs, lentils, soybeans, tofu, quinoa, and nuts and seeds. These also are rich in B vitamins and help facilitate energy production by releasing the energy consumed from food, and then using it as fuel to power your muscles.

Don’t Overdo it On Protein

Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, the sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, Braves and Falcons, stresses the importance of protein for her athletes because of the roles it plays in the body. “Protein builds your body’s structures. It is important for repairing and building muscle.”

Spano also reminds her clients that protein isn’t the only nutrient of importance. “Carbohydrate is the main source of energy used during high-intensity activity. Skip on carbohydrate and you’ll eventually feel tired during training.” 

If you’re looking for different or innovative ways to meet protein needs, Spano encourages her athletes to check out new products like lentil and bean pastas, bean chips and other sources of plant protein to add to the macronutrient mix.

Timing Matters

And when it comes to protein, the timing of its inclusion matters for active individuals. Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, a dietitian who specializes in vegetarian diets and is an expert panelist for the annual U.S. News Best Diets review, says she likes her athletes to consume about 20 grams of protein within a half hour of completing strenuous exercise. “It is important to consume a protein source after a workout that has stressed the muscles. That is when your body is primed to intake the protein and to help repair the muscle breakdown that may have occurred, and further build upon that muscle.”

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