Protein for athletes: how to use it to boost sports performance
When it comes to dietary recommendations, there has been a heavy focus on protein for athletes – and for good reason, since this macronutrient has been shown to aid in muscle growth, weight management, and athletic recovery. But how much do athletes need, and what are some good dietary sources? Here’s how you, as a dietitian, can help your clients get enough protein to boost sports performance.
If your athletic clients are looking to boost performance, build muscle, or enhance recovery, then increasing their protein intake may be the way to go.
But how much protein is right for your clients, and how can you, as a nutrition professional, add more of this macronutrient to their meal plans so they see better results?
Before diving into some dietary recommendations of protein for athletes, let’s first understand why protein is important and what your role is when it comes to enhancing a client’s athletic performance.
What is protein?
Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients, and is composed of 20 different amino acids, nine of which need to be obtained from the diet (as the body can’t produce them on its own).
Amino acids are considered to be the primary building blocks in the human body, and are found in muscles, tendons, bone, skin, hormones, tissue, enzymes, red blood cells, and more.
You can get enough protein through certain dietary sources, which ultimately helps the body build and repair muscles, heal injuries, store and carry oxygen, and synthesize hormones.
Importance of protein for athletes
Whether it’s weight lifting, dancing, running, or cycling, your clients need to have the right nutritional plan to support their athletic endeavors.
While all macronutrients are important for overall health, studies show that diets high in protein can boost metabolism, aid in recovery, and enhance satiety – all of which are essential for athletes .
Moreover, protein also helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue, which is important to build lean muscle and may reduce the risk of injury [3,4].
Recommended protein intake
The Dietary Reference Intake for protein is 0.8 g of protein/kg of body weight per day for an average sedentary person .
However, since athletes have increased needs, this number can range between 1.2 to 2.0 g of protein/kg of body weight per day [5,6].
Here are some general guidelines for different athletic goals:
- Endurance athletes: 1.2 to 1.4 g of protein/kg of body weight per day (source)
- Strength training athletes: 1.4 to 2 g of protein/kg of body weight per day
- Weight loss + maintaining endurance and strength: >2.0 g of protein/kg of bodyweight (source)
Keep in mind that it’s up to you to determine how much protein your client needs, as these numbers will vary depending on their activity level, age, sex, performance goals, and other needs.
Note: be sure to look at your client’s overall eating pattern when determining protein requirements, as you need to ensure that your athletic clients meet their nutritional needs for carbs and fat, not just protein.
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Best dietary sources of protein for athletes
Here are some dietary sources of protein for athletes that will enhance any meal plan.
- Eggs: Hail to the most common breakfast item! Eggs are a nutritional go-to, as they are rich in protein (one large egg provides around 6 grams) and are a great source of selenium, vitamins B12 and A, and choline . While you may choose to include this as a breakfast option in any meal plan, you can get creative and add a hard boiled egg to your client’s salads, avocado toast, or sandwiches.
- Cottage cheese: This dairy source is rich in nutrients, low in calories, and high in protein (one cup provides around 28 grams), all of which combine to create a nutritional powerhouse that is perfect for athletes . Add this to your client’s meal plan by including it as a snack or mixing it into guacamole.
- Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt is packed with important nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin A, selenium, and zinc, while being rich in protein (7 ounces offers around 20 grams) . This is also a great source of probiotics, which can help improve the gut microbiome and enhance athletic performance. Try including it in your client’s meal plan via smoothies, fruit bowls, or even homemade desserts for an extra boost of protein.
- Salmon: Seafood is one of the best ways to boost protein intake, as half a salmon filet offers over 30 grams of protein . Salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, both of which can help boost sports performance.
- Protein powders: If your client has a hard time eating enough protein, then you may want to consider supplementing with a protein powder. There are many options on the market, all of which will fit your client’s individual needs and goals. For instance, whey protein (dairy-based) can provide about 25 grams of protein/serving, while soy protein (plant-based) offers 23 grams of protein/serving .
Protein recommendations for plant-based athletes
If your client follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, they may not get enough protein to fuel their gains. As such, it’s important that you work with them to provide the right amount of plant-based protein sources. Some options include tofu, beans, lentils, legumes, nutritional yeast, seitan, plant-based protein powders, and fortified foods.
These food items can easily be incorporated into a meal plan and will ensure that your client gets enough protein to build muscle, power through a workout, and enhance overall performance.
Protein plays a crucial role in an athlete's eating plan because of its ability to repair and strengthen muscles. As a nutrition professional, you can work with your clients to ensure they meet their protein needs to boost performance, build muscle, and speed up their recovery time.
When it comes to getting enough protein for athletes, you should look at each client’s activity level, age, sex, performance goals, and other needs, as these will vary from person to person. You can add high protein food sources (such as dairy products, eggs, salmon, beans, legumes, tofu, and protein powders) to your client’s meal plan to ensure they meet their needs.
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