The Protein Question


What is it and how much do you need?

Since 1960—when just 13 percent of Americans were obese and just 1 percent had diabetes—there has been a considerable effort to understand our obesity epidemic. Over 600,000 articles have been published in medical literature on nutrition since then, with 44,000 last year alone. It would be great if this onslaught of information inched us closer to the goal-post in any meaningful way. Instead, obesity now affects a third of our population, with 9.3 percent of Americans suffering from diabetes.

To make matters worse, most this research is paid for by vested interest groups. As with most things nutrition, marketing has also muddied the waters. When it comes to protein specifically, there seems to be new research every few months declaring the best protein for you.

What is protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients we get from food: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. It’s in every cell in the human body. Its components—amino acids—are the building blocks of life and are necessary for a range of bodily processes, most notably the synthesis and construction of muscles, enzymes, hormones, bones, cartilage, hair, and skin. There are nine amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own; these are called essential amino acids, and we can only get them through food consumption. Though a protein deficiency can lead to loss of muscle mass, decreased immunity, weakening of the heart and respiratory system, and even death, it’s rarely seen in America where food is plentiful.

How much do you need?

For optimal health, the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day. They suggest a range of about 10 to 35 percent of your total calories should come from protein—this is your low end. Since protein is highly concentrated in animal sources a diet that includes meat and eggs will easily accomplish this. There is a “we don’t need that much” faction who claim these guidelines, and our obsession with protein, is to blame for our collective health issues. But the science suggests otherwise.

Do athletes really need more?

It’s true that athletes require more protein than sedentary people. Using your muscles to propel you through your chosen sport is hard on them. The contractions required by exercise cause micro-tears in muscle tissue. When these tears are properly repaired the muscle is then rebuilt stronger. To repair your muscles your body requires more protein than a person who doesn’t exercise and therefore doesn’t have repair to do.

As your training increases so does your need for protein. If you skimp, your body will take the amino acids by catabolizing it from your muscle tissue. Endurance athletes need about 0.55 to 0.65 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 140-pound athlete needs to eat somewhere in the range of 77 to 91 grams of protein per day to meet their recovery needs.

Where should you get your protein?

This is a complicated question when considering all the possible options and variety of protein sources and fad diets. But, there are a few guidelines that seem to work. Eat as close to the source as possible and buy the best quality you can afford. This means organic free-range chicken breast over chicken fingers and wild-caught salmon over fried fish take-out. If you choose to eschew meat, then you are going to have a harder time meeting your protein requirements. And with the myths about dietary cholesterol and saturated fat leading to heart attacks slowly dying, we can now focus on what matters—the source. Animal proteins are still king and are the most dense and complete sources of protein available to us. It’s possible to get enough through a vegan diet, it’s just harder and will likely mean considerable effort combining foods with incomplete amino acid profiles. Examples are beans with rice and lentils with corn.

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Sample Protein Day:

Breakfast: Eggs (3 eggs = 18 grams of protein)
Lunch: Chicken breast (4 ounces = 30 grams of protein)
Snack: A handful of almonds (10 almonds = 2.5 grams of protein)
Dinner: Salmon (4 ounces = 24 grams of protein)
Day’s Total: 74.5 grams of protein

Do you need to supplements?

Regardless of what the marketers say, real food should always take precedence over supplements like recovery drinks and protein powders. Protein powders really only make sense where time and convenience are paramount. The same way an energy gel makes sense while you are running a marathon, but not while you are eating a family dinner; protein powders can allow you to quickly give your muscles what they require to rebuild and still get to work on time. Focus on real food, and leave the supplements for when time and convenience are an issue.


About Author

Matt Hart owns and operates Coaching Endurance LLC, through which he’s helped hundreds of athletes reach a wide range of fitness and endurance goals. Initially USA Cycling Certified as a coach, Matt now works mostly with runners and multisport athletes. Matt resides in Utah and practices what he preaches as a professional ultrarunner for Mountain Hardwear and Montrail. For more information on Matt, follow him on Twitter @TheMattHart. To read more of Matt’s work pick up Trail Runner Magazine, where he writes the “Ask the Coach” column each issue.

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