Essential Protein Sources

Get better at the sports you play and the life you lead at STACK. Improve your training, nutrition and lifestyle with daily

By Nancy Rodriguez // Director of sports nutrition programs at the University of Connecticut

Want to reap the most benefits from protein in your diet? Read below to find out how.

Protein's Role

Protein serves structural [i.e., skeletal muscle] as well as functional [i.e., enzymes, hormones] roles in the body. And for athletes, it has added importance because it supports normal muscle growth, synthesis and repair in response to routine exercise.

The Amount You Need

Male and female athletes need .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. For example, a 100-pound girl requires 50 grams daily, while a 170-pound guy needs 85 grams.

Protein Sources

Your body cannot produce several of protein's amino acids that are considered "essential" and must, therefore, be provided by your diet. High-quality protein sources that contain these essential acids include: meat, eggs, fish and low-fat dairy products [yogurt, string cheese, etc.], as well as combinations of whole grains, vegetables, legumes [e.g., beans and peas], nuts and seeds.

Supplements, such as protein shakes, powders or bars, are healthy alternatives when you're on the run or lack the appetite to meet your protein and energy needs. However, these products should only complement a varied, balanced diet, because your daily caloric intake must be high enough that your body does not use protein for energy, but instead to support muscle growth, repair and maintenance.

When You Need It

Since resistance exercise works together with amino acids to stimulate muscle growth, consume protein within 30 minutes of strength training. The amount of amino acids necessary to elicit this anabolic effect is surprisingly small—only about six grams of essential amino acids or 20 grams of a high-quality protein source, such as whey or casein. I routinely recommend a recovery drink with protein as soon after a workout as possible to optimize muscle repair and re-synthesis. Follow the drink later with a protein-based meal with carbohydrates [vegetables, grains or starches]. Make sure that no more than 30 percent of its calories come from fat.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock