Perhaps you’ve heard that an athlete requires more protein than the average person. Beyond protein’s well-known role in building and repairing lean muscle, protein supports strong bones, ligaments and tendons; helps in the movement of oxygen to muscles; controls many metabolic processes in the body; aids in the repair of body cells; and plays a role in healthy immune function. But how much protein do you really need, and what type of protein should you be eating?
Determining Your Protein Needs
Protein needs vary based on your activity level, type of activity and overall caloric needs, but the suggested range for athletes is 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For example, an athlete who is 130 pounds would need approximately 65-104 grams of protein per day.
It is best to distribute your protein needs evenly throughout the day by enjoying high-quality protein at meals and during snacks. Some experts suggest 20-30 grams of protein at each meal – getting the remainder of your protein after workouts and as snacks.
Protein Quality Matters
Many foods contain protein, but the amount and quality of protein may vary. Proteins are made up of “building blocks” called amino acids. Animal-based proteins – such as meat, fish, eggs, milk and other dairy products – are considered high-quality proteins because they provide all the essential amino acids our bodies need. Some plant proteins (soy, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat) contain all the essential amino acids, but most plant proteins are lacking one or more. This doesn’t mean that plant proteins aren’t beneficial: All foods have a place in a well-balanced diet. It simply means that a variety of proteins should be enjoyed daily to get all the necessary building blocks for muscle growth and repair.
Protein in Common Foods
- Milk (1 cup): 8 grams
- Greek Yogurt: 15-20 grams
- Cheese (1 ounce): 6-8 grams
- Lean Beef (3 ounces): 22-27 grams
- Lean Pork (3 ounces): 24-26 grams
- Lean Poultry (3 ounces): 25-26 grams
- Seafood (3 ounces): 18-22 grams
- Eggs (1 large egg): 6-7 grams
- Beans (1/2 cup): 7-8 grams
- Nuts (1 ounce): 6-8 grams
- Peanut Butter (2 tablespoons): 8 grams
- Whey Protein Isolate (1 scoop): 24 grams
Whey to a Higher Protein Diet
Whey protein has become very popular among athletes who are looking to enhance their performance. Whey is one of the two fundamental proteins found in cow’s milk. Whey is a result of the cheese-making process: Milk is separated using an enzyme, leaving the curds (used to make cheese) and whey (a liquid protein). The liquid whey is pasteurized and dried into a powder for various uses. Whey protein is one of the best sources of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is a special type of amino acid (branched-chain amino acid) which is metabolized directly by the muscle tissue (as opposed to being metabolized by the liver) – assisting in the promotion of muscle growth.
Whey protein is naturally found in cow’s milk, cheese and yogurt. Additionally, whey protein can be found as a powder or as an ingredient in energy bars and other foods. Look for “whey protein isolate,” “whey protein concentrate” or “hydrolyzed whey protein” in a food product’s ingredient list.
While whey protein powders and foods made with whey can have a place in a balanced diet, keep in mind that naturally nutrient-rich foods (e.g., milk, cheese and yogurt) likely provide adequate amounts of the key nutrients your body needs to compete at peak athletic potential.
The key is to focus on eating a balanced diet that models MyPlate recommendations.