Protein is one of three macronutrients that needs to be part of our diet. The other two fats and carbohydrates are used as fuel sources for our brains, muscles, and organs. Protein is made up of amino acids and has several uses in the body, one being that it is used for maintenance, recovery, and as a building block of muscle. It may have the most popular in the bodybuilding world as the leading nutrient and is constantly pushed to this population to grow large muscles. Although it is well known in the bodybuilding world that protein is an important nutrient, it is not known in other athletic populations, particularly youth sports. Proper education of nutrition and specifically protein, to both parents and athletes, is a must for recovery and attaining a high-performance level.
The physiology of how protein reacts in the body is a complicated process as there are many different pathways that specific amino acids take. Without profoundly diving into the complex physiology of protein absorption, this article will touch on how much athletes need to consume daily, the timing of protein consumption, and the quality sources of protein in the diet.
Daily Protein Consumption
Protein needs to be consumed daily for the proper function of the body. When and how much are dependent on what sport the athlete plays, their age, and frequency of training. In the past, the general guideline has been 1 gram of protein consumed per kilogram of body weight every day. Although this is a good beginning goal for someone who previously did not consume a sufficient amount of protein, recent evidence has shown that the optimal amount of protein consumption is quite higher. Around 1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is needed to maximize lean muscle growth, also known as anabolism.
There is also a misconception that you can overeat protein, and excess amino acids that are not processed by the body will be stored as fat and increase body mass. Some researchers have challenged this statement by studying the effects of eating a hypercaloric (more calories than normal) diet with five times the recommended daily intake for protein. What they found was that there was no significant change to fat mass, fat-free mass, body weight, or percent body fat between the control group and the high protein group. Keep in mind that the control group was already consuming ~1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d) of protein to begin with (*). However, some high protein group members complained that eating a vast amount of food to get to 4.4 g/kg/d of protein was uncomfortable. As it provided no benefit, it is not necessary for athletes.
Timing and Distribution of Daily Protein
So now we know that athletes should be consuming approximately 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d of protein. But how should they be timing the consumption of protein? Schoenfeld and Aragon (**) argue that protein should be consumed over four meals during the day. So, for an athlete, this would be 0.4 g/kg per meal and 0.55 g/kg for the upper range of 2.2 g/kg/d. These are just updated guidelines, and individual cases may vary depending on goals and nutritional habits.
The anabolic window is a popular phrase among the bodybuilding crowd. It refers to a window of time post-exercise where the ability to absorb protein and maximize muscle synthesis is optimal. Although there is evidence behind this statement, the evidence is not 100% definitive, and long-term daily protein intake is more important. That being said, athletes should consume a source of protein shortly after exercise. If an athlete is eating four meals a day, it can be assumed that they would be eating meals rich in protein both pre and post-exercise since they would be eating approximately every 3-4 hours.
Sources of Protein
There are many different ways to obtain the recommended amount of protein. Meat is the most well-known source of protein. Lean sources of protein from meat can include chicken, turkey, and pork. Chicken packs the most punch coming in at 25-30 grams of protein in a 4 oz serving, followed closely behind by pork and turkey, both at 20-25 grams each. Red meat is another excellent source of protein but comes at the cost of being more calorically dense and therefore having a higher percentage of fats than lean meats like chicken and turkey. Ground beef has around 20 grams of protein per 4 oz serving, while high-quality red meat sources like steak come in at about 25-30 grams in a 4 oz serving.
Fish and eggs also provide great sources of protein as well as other nutrients in the diet. A high-quality source of salmon can provide approximately 30 grams of protein in 4 oz. Other fish like tuna and tilapia rank a little lower on the protein ladder coming in around 25 grams per serving. Eggs provide a much smaller amount of protein, around 6 grams per egg, which is still a decent amount and provides an option for breakfast as many people find themselves without many options for protein during that meal.
Dairy products are another source of protein. They contain both whey and casein protein, with the majority being casein (~80%) and the remaining (~20%) coming from whey. Casein is a slowly digested form of protein, while whey is rapidly digested (***). The most common source of dairy is milk containing 8-10 grams of protein in 8 oz. Cheese is another common protein source from dairy, which has 4-7 grams per 1 oz. Yogurt provides around 10 grams of protein for 8 oz, or you can go with the Greek option, which boosts the protein up to approximately 15 grams per 8 oz.
There are other vegan or plant-based options for those that do not want to eat meat, fish, eggs, or consume dairy products. For instance, tofu is a popular vegan substitute for meat. It contains 10-12 grams of protein in a 4 oz serving, which isn’t as much as a 4 oz serving of meat but is a great alternative for someone eating vegan. Beans also provide a good amount of protein, not just for vegan eaters but for everyone. Beans typically contain 7-9 grams of protein per 4 oz. With milk and dairy becoming less and less popular, people have turned to alternative “milk” such as soy, almond, or lactose-free milk. Soy and lactose-free milk still provide a comparable amount of protein to regular cow’s milk at 8 grams in 8 oz. However, almond milk does not have the same protein supply. It comes in with less than 1 gram of protein in an 8 oz serving.
Of course, a supplementation is a viable option. Supplementing with a protein powder is really only necessary if an individual is not getting enough quality protein from their diet. The most common form of protein supplementation comes from whey or whey blends mixed with casein. Plant-based options include soy, pea, or brown rice protein and are an option for non-dairy consumers. Both types have comparable protein numbers ranging from 18-25 grams per serving, which is generally listed in the number of scoops and can be different depending on the supplement’s brand.
Protein is one of the three vital macronutrients that needs to be consumed as part of the diet. Among other reactions in the body, it is the major building block of muscle tissue. This is not as well known as one would think, and many athletes, especially female teenage athletes, neglect its consumption. New evidence has shown us that to maximize muscle anabolism. Athletes should consume approximately 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d of protein across a minimum of four meals per day. That comes out to consuming 0.4-0.55 grams of protein per kg per meal. This is, of course, a guideline and not set in stone. Individual cases of protein needs may vary but will most likely fall in between these ranges. There is a wide range of sources from where athletes can get their protein from. These include types of meat, fish, eggs, various dairy products, and vegans, beans, tofu, soy, and pea proteins that offer viable protein sources. Of course, supplementation is an option with great products, both plant-based and the typical whey and casein options. The lack of knowledge by parents and athletes about this subject is disturbing. Education of proper nutrition practices and protein consumption is vital for athlete growth and performance.