How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein bars. Protein shakes. Plant-based protein powders.
With so many sources of protein available, how can we know which protein sources are best for athletic performance? It may be best to answer this question after discussing the purpose of protein and why our bodies need it. Proteins are one of three nutrient groups required by the body that supply calories and energy. Protein specifically maintains the body’s tissues such as muscle and makes enzymes and hormones that help the body function. Therefore, it is important to consume an adequate amount of protein each day.

A person who lives a more sedentary lifestyle should consume 0.8 – 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.1 For a 154-pound man, this would be about 56-70 grams of protein per day. Someone who performs endurance activities should consume 1.2 – 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body, which is about 84-98 grams of protein for a 154-pound man.1 Endurance exercises are activities that increase your heart rate and breathing, such as briskly walking, jogging, or dancing.1 With strength training exercises, the recommended amount of protein per day is between 1.6 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is about 112-119 grams of protein for a 154-pound man. Strength training activities may include using free weights, weight machines, or bodyweight to strengthen muscles.1

Now let’s talk about when you should eat your protein. It’s best to space out intake throughout the day and have it with 4 to 5 meals.2 It seems that giving protein immediately post-exercise increases strength and muscle mass the most.2 After exercise, the body is in recovery mode and uses the protein to repair and build muscle. About 15 to 25 g of protein are ideal during the first two hours post-exercise for the typical range of athlete body sizes.2 Smaller or larger athletes may have to eat a little more or less.2  Waiting for more than 4 hours after exercise appears to decrease the muscle-building effect of exercise, so it’s best to have sufficient protein right away. Also keep in mind that in addition to protein, your body also needs carbohydrates after a workout. It is ideal if your meal or snack includes both.

You may be wondering what some good protein sources are, especially after your workout. Whole foods with high-quality (complete protein sources) are best, especially if you’re looking to increase lean body mass, decrease muscle breakdown, and exercise recovery.3

Milk can be an excellent option after exercise (or any time of the day for that matter!) as it helps with recovery, rehydration, muscle glycogen replacement, and improved protein balance.3 Simply put, it leads to improved gains in muscle strength and size. Considered a high-quality protein, milk has whey (a fast-digesting protein) and leucine (an essential amino acid needed for muscle protein synthesis).3 Bonus – milk is an excellent source of vitamin D and calcium important for bone health!

Eggs no longer get a bad rap and are another high-quality protein source because of their amino acid content (also rich in leucine) and easy digestibility.3 Bonus – they’re cheap and easy to prepare!

Beef (and other meats) are proteins with high biological value because they contain all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) important for muscle protein synthesis.3 Bonus – meats provide essential micronutrients such as iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid.3 Just be sure to choose lean sources to control the fat content.

So, what about some plant-based protein sources for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet? There are many great plant-based options to get the needed protein throughout the day or after exercise. For example; quinoa, beans, lentils, soy, peas, and hummus are excellent options. Additionally, nuts, nut butters, and seeds are great choices as well. Bonus – they’re typically high in fiber (great for heart health), lower in calories (good for weight maintenance), and better for the environment!

References

  1. Dunford M. Sports nutrition: A practice manual for professionals. American Dietetic Association; 2006.
  2. Karpinski C, Rosenbloom CA. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017.
  3. Jager R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14:20.