Protein Power

Five good reasons to make sure you’re getting enough of this vital macronutrient, especially for athletes and other active people.

Everyone is an athlete, and adequate protein is a universal nutritional requirement for all.

Athletes usually require more energy in the form of overall calories, and thus their protein needs are higher too.

Unfortunately, the nutritional status of most people is poor, whether they exercise or not. Low levels of various nutrients are common due to low intake of healthy whole foods and higher junk food consumption. Protein is often a missing component to a healthy diet.

We tend to think of protein as being important for building muscles and strength, which is true. However, even inactive people require modest amounts of protein each day. That’s because muscles do more than provide the means for movement — they also are important for immune, circulatory, hormonal and other activities that require protein.

For muscle activity, protein has many functions:

  • Protein enhances the anabolic actions necessary in muscles following exercise, and is a vital part of recovery.
  • Although all amino acids are important, leucine is often highlighted as a marker for muscles, and found in higher amounts in beef, pork, nuts and seedshealthy dairy, fish and beans.
  • Protein can help prevent muscle injury, as long as the muscles are not abused by excessive volumes and/or intensity of exercise.
  • A healthy protein status is important for athletic performance.
  • Balancing protein intake with healthy fats and unprocessed carbohydrate foods can help improve muscle function and reduce excess body fat.

Optimal protein intake can be usually accomplished by consuming 20-40 grams of protein in each meal or substantial snack.

Whether we’re trying to develop strength, build more muscle, or maintain current body condition, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommendations include 1.4-2.0 grams protein/kg body weight/day. For those performing regular strength-training sports, 2.3-3.1 grams/kg/day, or more, may be necessary.

For example, an healthy and active 160-pound person may require upwards of 170 grams per day.

Examples of daily protein needs:

  • For daily protein intake of 128 grams. The protein foods that would provide this include three eggs and cheese at breakfast, a salad for lunch with a hefty serving of turkey, and salmon for dinner.
  • For a daily protein intake of 106 grams: two eggs for breakfast, a chef’s salad for lunch, and a sirloin steak for dinner.
  • For 90 grams of protein: two eggs at breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, and lamb for dinner.

Reasons people may need additional amounts of protein.

  • Larger body frames or high muscle-mass types.
  • Those performing more extreme sports.
  • Growing children.
  • Those who are over 40 to prevent muscle-mass loss.

However, more is not necessarily better as protein intake above one’s needs won’t help, and could stress the gut. It’s important to estimate your personal needs to determine the amount that works best. This can be done by comparing different intakes with energy levels, post-workout muscle recovery, MAF Tests, gut function, and other signs and symptoms.

Protein is necessary for balancing fats, stabilizing blood sugar and insulin, and regulating nutrients and hormones. It’s important for digestion, nervous-system maintenance, building new cells throughout the body and fueling the immune system, among other functions.

For serious competitive athletes, an evening protein supplement can help in muscle recovery and development. While food consumption in the evening is typically not recommended, during times of intense training or a buildup to key endurance races, consuming about 30-40 grams of an easily digested protein like egg white powder as a shake can be helpful. Avoid this if it causes intestinal upset.

While studies tend to separate protein needs for endurance performance and strength training, everyone benefits from both types of fitness. This does not necessarily mean increasing muscle bulk and added weight.

In addition to consuming protein foods at mealtimes, benefits can occur when consuming protein before or after exercise. Protein can be helpful during training sessions or competition when nutrients besides water are necessary, and can also be added to a carbohydrate drink. This can reduce muscle soreness, and during hard training or competition, reduce muscle damage.

During long workouts and races, endurance athletes can consume approximately 0.25 g of protein/kg body weight per hour, along with their carbohydrate intake. For those using protein before, during, or after workouts, or to supplement a healthy diet, the two best sources are:

Egg white powder.
This protein source may be ideal because it’s less processed, highly digestible, and easy to incorporate in shakes and recipes such as homemade energy bars.

Whey protein powder.
This protein source is not only readily assimilated but also contains cysteine, the building block for the powerful antioxidant glutathione. Be sure to buy the concentrate form not the highly processed isolate or hydrolyzed forms. Avoid products containing added sugar, flavorings, or other unnatural ingredients including synthetic vitamins.

Protein is an important part of any healthy person’s diet. If you’re active or an athlete it’s even more important to assess your needs and take appropriate steps to meet this crucial requirement.

11 Comments

  • Luis says:

    Some authors (like US-based authors Peter Attia or Valter Longo) believe there is a trade-off between increased physical performance provided by protein and longevity and cancer risk. Ingesting more protein than strictly needed might overstimulate both mTOR complexes, which are responsible for upregulating cell growth and proliferation and downregulating autophagy. This implies that cancer cells might increase their chance of surviving the immune system if these pathways are always on. In fact, people with some mutated/dysfunctional mTOR genes suffer from much lower cancer incidence. Any thoughts on this?

  • Alan says:

    2 g/kg? As a 66 year old, I struggle to get 100 g of protein. I am 160 lbs. and am fairly active. We have a fair amount of protein at every meal.

  • Bill Kranker says:

    Dr Phil,

    I know from reading your regular emails that you recommend more of a Paleo style diet which has higher levels of animal foods in it and contains healthy unprocessed vegetables. I agree that the more unprocessed the better but I am concerned that the higher levels of animal foods could increase the risk of developing heart issues later in life? What studies or evidence can you point to to suggest that I should not be concerned? Is using non-animal protein an issue?

    Bill

  • Yves Chabot says:

    Hello, since I ditched all animal products and go plant base diet, I never performed so well either for my training (triathlon) or in my daily life.
    I tried for 15 days and and kept this new diet\way of live for a few months now and never looked back. I also feel good about not participating in animal cruelty.

  • There is a HUGE group of people, sport active vegetarians and vegans, who could use more info for their protein and other nutrient needs, especially Omega 3’s and 6’s, among others… Any chance of an article with some guidelines for us? Thanks!

  • Joe says:

    Dr. Maffetone,
    Is there a brand or product you recommend for the whey and egg protein supplements? I am trying to find something that does not having extra additives.

    Thank you,
    Joe

  • Matthew says:

    Overall I really appreciate the holistic approach of the Maffetone method. With that said I must point out that one important aspect is missing though: the environment!
    Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge part of the global warming and there’s no way we’ll be able to reach the climate goals and save the planet without reducing our meat consumption. Therefore I believe it’s higly irresponsible to advice people to eat more meat. There are other sources of protein that people could and should turn to.
    After all, what’s the point of being healthy if it’s ruins the planet? That’s just pure egoism! So please Dr. Phil, include a sincere environmental concern in your theory/method to make it even more holistic.

    • Matthew:

      There are a few polyculture farms out there (e.g. polyface farms) which prove that holistic land management with the use of livestock (which can then be butchered) allows an extraordinary amount of biomass to be cultivated in a small surface, while remaining carbon negative. The brilliance is that it allows for multiple animal and plant species to be raised on the same surface area: while a well-run polyculture farm usually produces far fewer pigs than say, a pig factory farm, it has the potential to produce far more biomass on the same surface area.

      So in principle, there is nothing to say that we can’t consume meat and animal products as part of a plant-based diet as a way of life, as evidenced by these farming methods. That said, the dietary habits of most americans contain extraordinary levels of animal products to levels that are often toxic (relative to their muscle building needs). But the article is directed towards athletes and active individuals, who as a group tend to get less protein than they need. If they got their animal protein from products sourced from polyculture farms, boosting that economic sector, we’d all be better off for it.

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