Everyone needs to eat protein, no matter how active they are, but due to the especially strenuous demands on their bodies, athletes need more protein than the average person. The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of protein for adults is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 55 grams of protein per day. But for most athletes, that’s probably not enough.
Athletes should aim to eat between 1.2 and 2 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight every day.
Protein builds, maintains and repairs muscles throughout the body, and it can also be broken down and used for energy. When athletes complete a hard workout, they stress their muscles to the point of minor damage that needs recovery. Physical rest is part of that equation, but nutrition is another part, and getting enough protein ensures that athletes can gain and maintain the muscle mass they need for their performances. In general, the more time you spend working out and the higher intensity of your workout, the more protein you need, whether you work primarily on strength or on endurance.
Recommendations for Athletes
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine both recommend that athletes eat 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, that boosts the 55-gram RDA to between 82 and 136 grams. In a 2015 interview with “Today’s Dietitian,” registered dietitian Christopher Mohr said that even recreational athletes who train only a couple of days per week could benefit from upping their protein intake to more than the baseline RDA. Another way to think about protein intake is in terms of percentages. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests getting 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein.
Foods to Choose
Think about your goals when you consider potential sources of protein. For example, complete proteins, which contain all nine essential amino acids, are an optimal choice for athletes. Most complete proteins are animal-based, however, so they aren’t an option for vegan and vegetarian athletes. Fortunately, plenty of plant-based foods are high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals as well, including beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Dairy foods are also great sources of protein, especially lean options like eggs, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt.
Do Athletes need Protein Supplements?
Supplements are convenient when you don’t have a lot of time but really need to fit in a quick snack or meal before or after hitting the gym. They offer a lot of protein at one time, but they lack the complete package of macronutrients plus vitamins and minerals that whole foods can provide. If you plan to include protein supplements in your diet, the best choice might be whey. According to research published in 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, whey supplements improved participants’ body composition in multiple studies, especially when combined with resistance training. In a study published in 2017 in the research journal Nutrients, scientists found that whey supplements also improved recovery after exercise.