Protein is enjoying a moment in the sun, surrounded by a golden halo that has it sitting at the top of the pecking order from a nutrition point-of-view. We’re constantly bombarded with messages about the importance of protein for weight loss, weight gain and general well-being; and if you look at the shelves, it’s pretty obvious the food industry has jumped on the band wagon, too. Personally, I think it’s all a little out of control…
Don’t get me wrong, protein is essential to our body. It is needed for growth, reproduction and healing as well as supporting a healthy immune system. Protein also helps to keep us satisfied for longer after a meal which is one of the reasons the high protein, low-carb diet is popular.
In sport, protein is important for building muscle mass and aiding recovery after training. If you’re training hard and not eating enough protein your body will start to break down muscle – so your workouts will actually be damaging your body instead of strengthening it.
Before you get too excited though… we don’t actually need as much as some would have us believe – and more is not necessarily better. Sedentary men and women only need 0.8-1.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 60kg woman, thats only 48-60g and for a 70kg man, only 56-70g. Eat a small steak (100g), 2 eggs and a multigrain bread roll and you have enough.
Athletes need a little more protein, but again, it’s not as much as you may think. From the table below you can see that if you’re training for a triathlon just for fun, you don’t actually need any more protein than the average sedentary person. If you’re training at a high level for an Ironman, you’ll need more, but only up to 1.6g per kilogram body weight. Most of the time, if you’re training at this level, you’ll be eating more food to stave off hunger and fuel your training, so without even trying, you’ll be eating enough protein.
Protein Intake (g/kg/day)
|Sedentary men and women||
|Elite male endurance athletes||
|Moderate-intensity male endurance athletes (exercising four to five times per week for 45-60 min)||
|Recreational male endurance athletes (exercising four to five times per week for 30 min at <55% VO2peak)||
15% lower than male athletes
Source: Burke and Deakin, Clinical Sports Nutrition, 3rd Edition, McGraw-Hill Australia Pty Ltd, 2006
NB: If you’re somewhere in between moderate and elite (e.g. training 1-3 hours per day) I always average requirements out at about 1.4g per kg body weight per day.
Going overboard on the protein can actually be a problem as it puts excess pressure on your kidneys and increases the amount of calcium you pee out when you go to the loo, risking bone health in the long-term.
Do try this at home:
Eating enough protein is easy and you can do it without spending hundreds on protein powders/bars/balls/drinks. For most of us, including some meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts or legumes (soy, chickpeas, kidney beans) at most meals and snacks will ensure you meet your protein needs.
Particularly important is eating a combination of protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes of a training session or race to help with recovery. Perfect post-training snacks include a chocolate milkshake, banana smoothie, cheese toastie, tuna & salad sandwich, eggs on toast or a bowl of cereal (you get protein from the milk). This is also where a protein powder can come in handy. They offer a convenient option if you’re strapped for time, and often liquids work better than solids if you don’t have an appetite for a while after a session. Just make sure you buy one with a mix of protein and carbs so you are restocking your muscle glycogen stores too.