Defining Protein Needs

Research has yet to define the exact protein requirements of sports-active people because individual needs vary. People in the following groups have the highest protein needs:

  • Endurance athletes and others doing intense exercise. About 5 percent of energy can come from protein during endurance exercise, particularly if muscle glycogen stores are depleted and blood glucose is low.
  • Dieters consuming too few calories. The protein is converted into glucose and burned for energy instead of being used to build and repair muscles.
  • Growing teenage athletes. Protein is essential for both growth and muscular development.
  • Untrained people starting an exercise program. They need extra protein to build muscles.

In scrutinizing the protein needs of athletes, exercise scientists have found that athletes need slightly more protein than other people do to repair the small amounts of muscle damage that occur with training, to provide energy (in very small amounts) for exercise, and to support the building of new muscle tissue.

In general, pinpointing exact protein requirements is almost a moot point because many athletes eat more protein than they require just through standard meals. That is, a 150-pound (68 kg) recreational athlete who burns 3,000 calories can easily consume 300 to 450 protein calories, or 75 to 112 grams of protein. This equates to 0.5 to 0.7 gram of protein per pound (1 to 1.5 g of protein per kg), which is more than the RDA of 0.4 gram per pound (0.8 g per kg).

Table 7.1 provides safe and adequate recommendations for protein intake for a range of individuals. These recommendations include a margin of safety and are not minimal amounts. If you are overfat, base your protein needs on your ideal body weight.

In contrast to the belief that a little more protein is good so a lot more will be better, no scientific evidence to date suggests that protein intakes exceeding 0.9 gram of protein per pound (2.0 g per kg) will provide an additional advantage (Lemon 1995). Nor is there evidence that taking a protein supplement on top of an adequate diet (with about 0.5 g of protein per pound, or 1 g per kg) will enhance muscle strength or size (Godard, Williamson, and Trappe 2002). And don't fret about how the protein is packaged—as whey powder, chicken, egg whites, or chocolate milk; all protein can build muscles. The advantage of getting protein from natural foods (as opposed to supplements) is that natural foods contain protein the way nature intended as well as yet-unknown bioactive compounds that might influence muscle growth.

The physiques of bodybuilders are not attributable to the excessively high protein diet they commonly consume but rather to their intense training. Bodybuilders work incredibly hard. They prefer a high-protein diet because protein not only builds and protects their muscles but also keeps them from feeling hungry when they are cutting calories—lean protein is harder to overconsume.

Table 7.1 Protein Recommendations

Grams of protein Grams of protein per body weight per body weight

Table 7.1 Protein Recommendations

Grams of protein Grams of protein per body weight per body weight

Type of individual

pound

kilogram

Sedentary adult

0.4

0.8

Recreational exerciser, adult

0.5-0.7

1.0-1.5

Endurance athlete, adult

0.6-0.7

1.2-1.6

Growing teenage athlete

0.7-0.9

1.5-2.0

Adult building muscle mass

0.7-0.8

1.5-1.7

Athlete restricting calories

0.8-0.9

1.8-2.0

Estimated upper requirement for adults

0.9

2.0

Average protein intake of male endurance athletes

0.5-0.9

1.1-2.0

Average protein intake of female endurance athletes

0.5-0.8

1.1-1.8

Data compiled from American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association, and Dietitians of Canada Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32 (12): 2130-2145, 2000; R. Maughan and L. Burke, editors. Sports Nutrition (part of the Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science series, an IOC Medical Commission Publication) Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002; Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. Food and Nutrition Board, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.

Data compiled from American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association, and Dietitians of Canada Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 32 (12): 2130-2145, 2000; R. Maughan and L. Burke, editors. Sports Nutrition (part of the Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science series, an IOC Medical Commission Publication) Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002; Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. Food and Nutrition Board, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002.

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