Sports Nutrition Basics Part 3 – Protein

A nice healthy protein meal

Correct and adequate protein intake is crucial for anyone involved in vigorous training. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of skin, hair, nails, bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles. It also serves a crucial role in enzyme production and maintaining a strict acid-base balance.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for the average male and female adult is just 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2lbs) of bodyweight. In a 70kg (154lb) individual this equates to just 58 grams of protein per day or about two chicken breasts worth.

Some research shows that competitive athletes, particularly those involved in heavy weight training, may require more protein. The recommendation for strength and endurance athletes ranges from 1.2 to a maximum of 2.0 grams per kilogram (1kg = 2.2lbs). Research has shown that consuming more protein than this serves no benefit and may be harmful in the long term.

Good sources of protein include low fat milk, poultry, fish, lean red meat, eggs, nuts, beans and lentils and soy products. Fatty meats like pork and fast food hamburgers as well as most cheeses contain a lot of saturated fats so are not as suitable sources of protein.

Recently, the emergence of high protein, low carbohydrate diets have become popular in the weight loss industry. While they may or may not help to shed the pounds, high protein, low carbohydrate diets are unsuitable for athletes.

Many athletes are afraid that their heavy training schedule will force their bodies to breakdown lean muscle mass and then use it as energy. The body does use protein sparingly as a source of fuel after 45 minutes of exercise, however consuming more protein is not a good strategy.

By consuming plenty of carbohydrates before, during and after exercise it acts as a protein “sparer”. Only in the absence of adequate carbohydrate stores will the body begin to metabolise significant amounts of protein for use as energy.

The Athlete’s Diet

A typical western diet contains too much fat and not enough healthy, whole grain carbohydrates.

Athletes should aim to make 60-65% of their diet carbohydrate, with an emphasis on fresh fruit and whole grains such as brown rice and pasta, wholemeal bread, potatoes and high fibre cereals. About 20-25% of total calories should be in the form of fat.

The majority of this should be in the form of good fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega fatty acids) found in oily fish like mackerel and salmon, olive oil, avocado and raw nuts (not roasted or salted). Protein should make up the remaining 10-15% of an athlete’s diet derived from fish, poultry, low fat milk and lean red meat for example.

How an athlete's diet should be made up

Take a look at the table below for a sample day’s eating plan:

sports nutrition series diet