From social media to television shows, we are constantly bombarded with mixed messages about protein. No wonder many athletes struggle over how to consume the best sports diet. They want to know: Should it include—or exclude—meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy? For vegetarian athletes, the answer is simple: animal foods are on the “no” list. For Paleo fans (carnivores), the answer is also simple: meat is important.
Let’s take a look at the science and what we know. Protein helps build muscle in conjunction with regular resistance training. Is a protein-focussed diet best? NO. Simply eating more protein will not give you bigger, stronger muscles. You need to combine protein with strength training, a well balanced diet, and consistent fueling and re-fueling of your muscles.
Protein drinks, shakes, bars, powders are all around us, but the truth is the most easily accessible protein sources are whole foods. Animal protein sources, such as lean meats and poultry, as well as dairy products (think cheese and yogurt) provide us with all of the essential amino acids (building blocks), and plenty of them. Plant-based diets can also provide the protein and amino acids you need. Consuming a variety of beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tofu, and especially soy products, will give you the tools used to build strong muscles.
Athletes typically need about 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein for each pound of body weight. So, for example, a 150-lb (68-kg) athlete will need approximately 75 to 120 grams of protein per day. For this athlete, eating a small 4-ounce baked chicken breast will get them 35 grams of protein. And that is just for one meal and from one food. Add in foods from other meals—yogurt, beans, peanut butter, and hummus—and you are easily set for the day.
We live in a country where protein is abundant. According to Dr. David Katz, MD, MPH, a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health, a shift towards more plant based proteins will move us in a healthier direction, but it’s not all or nothing. We want to focus on choosing an overall wholesome diet with foods that contain a variety of proteins, as well as high-quality carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. By eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods throughout the day, you can invest in good health, be you an athlete who eats lean meat-meat, plant proteins, or both.
The world of protein is not as complicated as the world has made it out to be. If you are unsure of where to begin or are questioning your protein needs, you need not go it alone. You can consult with a registered dietitian (RD) who is a board certified specialist in sports nutrition (CSSD) near you. (https://findanrd.eatright.org/) Alternatively, Nancy’s Clarks Sports Nutrition Guidebook explains the in’s and outs of protein quality and needs for athletes in an easy to understand, practical way.
Written by guest blogger and Simmons University nutrition student Ali Mattia ATC.