Protein Needs for Athletes

Written By: Leah Perrier, RD

Title: Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of Saskatchewan

Last Updated on:

Eating the right foods is essential to athletic performance. Most people know that food provides athletes with the energy and nutrients required to reach their peak performance, but the variety of misinformation on the amount of protein an athlete needs is staggering.

Protein is only part of the power

Traditionally eating a protein rich diet was thought to be synonymous with building muscle. We now know that this is misguided information, and that the best sports diet contains adequate but not excessive protein to build and repair muscle tissue, produce hormones, boost immune system and replace red blood cells. During exercise the muscles use carbohydrates as their primary energy source – not protein. Thus it is important that athletes, including athletes in explosive sports, eat adequate carbohydrates before, during and after exercise. Protein, while vital to a healthy diet, will not bring them to victory on its own.

Protein Needs for Athletes

Protein needs are slightly increased in highly active people. Protein need recommendations include:

Endurance Athletes: 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg body weight per day

Resistance and Strength-Trained Athletes:1.6 to 1.7 g/kg body weight per day

These protein needs are easily fulfilled through diet alone without the use of protein supplementation if energy intake is adequate to maintain body weight. Aim to include a source of protein such as eggs, beef, chicken, turkey, fish, cheese, milk, yogurt, nuts, soy and protein-rich vegetables such as lentils, baked beans, black beans and kidney beans at each meal. The protein in these foods will act as an anchor for your carbohydrate energy so that your meal lasts you longer. Ensuring there is protein at each meal will help stabilize blood sugars and enhance satiety.

Protein Need for Recovery in Athletes

It is known that carbohydrates are the most efficient source of energy pre-exercise, and for the storage of energy post-exercise. Recent research suggests that protein may also aid in enhancing glycogen replacement after exercise by stimulating the action of insulin, a hormone that transports glucose from the blood into the muscles. In addition, the availability of amino acids from protein may enhance the process of building and repairing muscles. Therefore, there is no need to shy away from a source of protein after a workout!

The Bottom line

Adding protein to your meals can be easy. Here are some examples of protein sources:

Breakfast protein foods include: Nuts and nut butters like almond or peanut butter, seeds, tofu, egg, ham, yogurt, milk, soymilk, cheese.Lunch and dinner protein foods include: beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, poultry, milk, yogurt, soymilk, cheese.

Action: Aim for two to three servings of meat and alternatives per day and two to four servings of milk products or soy products per day in order to meet your protein needs.


athletes, protein, sports nutrition


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