Why You Need Protein

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Feeling a wee bit sluggish? Weaker than you think you should be after a workout? Not recovering quite as quickly as you used to? If any of these situations apply to you, it may be that you’re not getting enough protein for optimal performance.

If you’ve already calculated the grams of protein you need for body weight and activity each day and scrupulously adhere to a nutrition regime, you can give yourself an A, and turn the page. But, if like many of us, you think a couple of eggs dumped in your morning smoothie and a slab of steak with a baked potato at dinner covers your protein needs – you may have something to learn – so read on.

For many years, it was thought that athletes needed no more protein than the average couch potato – about .4 grams per pound of body weight each day. Doing the math, this means that a 130-pound woman would need about 52 grams of protein – or about one serving of tuna, one lean burger and a cup of 2 percent milk over the course of a day. A 180-pound man would need about 72 grams of protein per day –  an intake of all of the above plus an extra burger.

But recent research suggests that athletes – especially endurance and strength training athletes – need at least twice the amount of protein as the average Joe, and probably closer to three times as much. In fact, even though the Institute of Medicine, who set the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA, part of the Reference Dietary Intake, or RDI), does not recommend higher protein intakes for athletes, in a 2009 joint position paper on nutrition and athletic performance, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada recommended higher protein intake for athletes. Today, many sports nutritionists suggest about 1 gram to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily for endurance or strength training athletes, slightly less for recreational athletes. Meaning that our hypothetical 130 pound athletic woman would need 130-195 grams of protein per day, and the 180 pound man 180-270 grams per day – quite a difference!

Why so much protein? “Protein plays many roles,” says Susan Kleiner, PhD, a high performance nutritionist in the Seattle, Washington area and founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “It helps regrow new tissue, keeps your organs functioning, supports your immune system and your brain.”

This is true for couch potatoes and athletes alike, says Dr. Kleiner, but when you’re training, protein is even more crucial. “It is the key to maximize training and how well you recover,” she says.

MORE: WHY YOU NEED TO TAKE VITAMINS

When you’re challenging your body physically during strenuous exercise, explains Dr. Kleiner, it undergoes enormous stress. This results in a strong body, but also in some inevitable damage, such as microscopic tears in the muscles, inflammation and dampening of the immune system. The answer for muscle growth, maintenance and repair, according to Dr. Kleiner, is to give your body what it needs in the form of protein throughout the day, and especially after training. Ideally, protein intake should be spaced out during the day, as experts believe that only about 20-30 grams of protein can be digested every three to four hours (excluding post workout). And because most proteins are high in calories and many (such as eggs and some red meats) are high in cholesterol, it’s important to choose a variety of lean meats, seafood, low fat dairy, nuts, seeds and beans to make up your total protein needs rather than sticking with high caloric, high cholesterol options only.

Protein powders, especially whey protein (like the one pictures here) can also play a part in getting sufficient daily protein. Whey makes up about 20 percent of the protein found in milk, and because it contains all of the essential amino acids (the part of protein that the body can’t make), it’s one of the highest quality proteins you can find, not to mention being easily digestible. Recent research suggests that it contains antioxidant properties, too, meaning that it gives your immune system the boost it needs following exercise.

MORE: WHAT IS WHEY PROTEIN AND WHY SHOULD I BE TAKING IT?

After a workout, you need to replenish your glycogen stores with carbohydrates, and repair body stress with a bit of protein, too. “There’s a window of time following exercise that it’s important to take in carbohydrates and a small amount of protein so that recovery will happen at a fast pace,” says Dr. Kleiner. “Ideally, this is before you shower.”

While sports nutritionists vary in recommendations for the amount of carbohydrates and protein needed for sports recovery, many believe that it should be a ratio of 4 grams of carbs to every one gram of protein. In other words, if you take in 20 grams of protein, you’d need about 80 grams of carbohydrates, too. Higher amounts of protein following a workout slows rehydration and glycogen replenishment.

The final take – if you’re committed to making time for a good workout, you also need to take time to eat well in order to get the most from your training.

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