How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in How Much Protein Do You Need

Position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition On Protein & Exercise

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

how much protein do athletes needThere is so much conflicting information about how much protein we should be getting. Some experts say we are eating too much. Others say we are eating too little. Some experts say we should just eat fruits and vegetables. Others say we should load up on meat. Some experts say athletes need more protein. Others say they get plenty of protein in the standard American diet. No wonder you are confused!

So, how much protein do athletes need?

Because of all the conflicting advice, I thought it would be worthwhile to share with you the International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Statement on protein and exercise (R. Jagr et al, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14:20, 2017. DOI: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8).

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

 

Before summarizing the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommendations, I should start by pointing out that these recommendations are focused on the effect of protein on exercise performance. They are also focused more on high performance athletes than on those of us who are just trying to stay fit.

I have covered protein needs of people of all ages and exercise intensities in my article “How Much Protein Do You Need?” and will refer to that article from time to time.

Here are the ISSN recommendations:

exercise and protein#1: “An acute exercise stimulus, particularly resistance exercise, and protein ingestion both stimulate muscle protein synthesis and are synergistic”. In simple English, exercise and protein work synergistically to help you increase muscle mass.

#2: “For building and maintaining muscle mass…, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 0.6 – 0.9 gm/pound body weight/day is sufficient for most exercising individuals”. This is 1.7-2.5 times the RDA for sedentary individuals, and is more appropriate for elite athletes than for your average weekend warrior or fitness enthusiast.

Protein Requirements Calculator

They make the point that protein alone is sufficient for increasing muscle mass following resistance training. However, they also say that addition of carbohydrate to a protein supplement improves muscle glycogen recovery and reduces post-workout muscle soreness.

I also prefer some carbohydrate with a protein supplement because of a phenomenon called “protein sparing.”  In brief, in the absence of carbohydrate, some of the ingested protein is converted to glucose to restore blood glucose levels and muscle glycogen stores. If you include carbohydrate with the protein, the carbohydrate will be used to restore blood glucose & glycogen, and all the protein can be used to increase muscle mass.

#3: “There is novel evidence that suggests higher protein intake (>1.36 gm/pound body weight/day) may promote loss of fat mass in resistance-trained individuals”. This recommendation is primarily for body builders.

#4: “Optimal protein intake per serving…depends on age and [the intensity of] recent resistance exercise. General recommendations are…a dose of 20-40g”. In general, young people require less protein following exercise than older people. I have covered age-specific protein recommendations in my article “How Much Protein Do You Need?”. As for intensity of exercise, most of us engage in moderate intensity exercise and should aim for the lower dose recommended by the ISSN. The higher dose is more appropriate for elite athletes engaged in high intensity training.

leucine protein and exercise#5: “Acute protein doses should strive to contain 700-3,000 mg of leucine…in addition to a balanced array of the essential amino acids”. Older people also need more leucine than younger people. I have discussed age-related leucine needs in my article “Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?”.

It is worth noting that in their position statement, the ISSN did not recommend any of the other ingredients that you often find in protein supplements.

#6: “These protein doses should be evenly distributed, every 3-4 h, across the day”. If you consume too much protein at one time, the excess will not be used for building muscle.

#7: “The optimal time period during which to ingest protein is likely a matter of individual tolerance…However, the anabolic effect of exercise is long-lasting (at least 24 h), but likely diminishes with increasing time post-exercise”. While the anabolic effect of exercise lasts for 24 hours or more, the maximum anabolic effect occurs during the first 2-4 hours after exercise. This is why a post-workout supplement is generally recommended immediately following a workout. Because there is a limit to how much protein can be consumed at any one time, additional protein should be consumed at regular intervals over the next 24 hours (recommendation #6).

#8: “While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through the consumption of whole foods, supplementation is a practical way of ensuring intake of adequate protein quality and quantity, while minimizing caloric intake.”

protein shakes#9: “Rapidly digested proteins that contain high proportions of essential amino acids and adequate leucine are most effective in stimulating muscle protein synthesis.”  This recommendation is most appropriate for protein(s) ingested during the acute 2-4 hour anabolic phase immediately after exercise. During the remaining 24 hours of the anabolic phase, it is more important to maintain a constant amino acid concentration in the bloodstream. For this reason, I generally recommend more slowly digested proteins, such as meat or soy, between 4 and 24 hours after exercise.

#10: “Different types and quality of protein can affect amino acid bioavailability following protein supplementation.”  Simply put, there are a lot of “junk” protein supplements out there. Look for a manufacturer with a reputation for integrity and for product quality.

#11: “Athletes should consider focusing on whole food sources of protein that contain all the essential amino acids.”  Simply put, you should avoid supplements that contain only a few selected amino acids. Instead, choose supplements that provide whole protein from natural sources. Leucine, for example, is very beneficial when added to a whole protein supplement containing all the essential amino acids, but leucine by itself would be of little value.

protein endurance#12: “Endurance athletes should focus on achieving adequate carbohydrate intake to promote optimal performance; the addition of protein may help offset muscle damage and promote recovery.”  In short, endurance athletes benefit from a combination of carbohydrate and protein, but carbohydrate is of primary importance.

#13: “Pre-sleep casein intake (30-40 g) provides increases in overnight muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate without decreasing the overnight fat breakdown.”  The definitive studies on this have been fairly recent. This recommendation is most appropriate for elite athletes who are primarily interested in increasing muscle mass. For the rest of us, calorie considerations would outweigh the small increment in muscle mass we could gain overnight.

The above gives a summary the ISSN statement on protein and exercise and offers an answer to the question how much protein do athletes need?

 

The Bottom Line

 

This article is different from my previous articles in that it is a summary. It would be pointless to make a summary of a summary, so I have done away with “The Bottom Line.”  Read the article above for a quick summary of the International Society for Sports Nutrition position statement on protein and exercise.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in How Much Protein Do You Need

Are You Getting Too Much Protein?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

breaking newsHow much protein do you need?  In a recent article entitled “Can You Get Too Much Protein?” the New York Times asserted that most Americans were getting too much protein in their diet. They went on to imply that protein supplements were useless at best and might be downright harmful at worst.

If you happened to read this article, you are probably wondering whether it is true or just another example of media bias. If you have read other articles about supplementation in the New York Times, you may have already suspected that they are biased against the use of supplements.

However, the problem goes way beyond media bias. In today’s online world everyone is a writer and everyone is an editor. More importantly, news is instant. Newspapers and journalists no longer have the time and resources to fully research a topic before they publish it. When a story comes along that fits their bias, the temptation is strong to publish it immediately.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I will try to give you a more balanced perspective. If you would like other examples of a more balanced perspective, you might want to read articles from Harvard Medical School’s Health Publications newsletter  or WebMD .

 

What Did The New York Times Get Right?

The New York Times didn’t completely miss the mark. Here are a few things that they got right:

  • Most Americans are getting more than the RDA for protein in their daily diets. They imply that is too much. However, the prevailing view among nutrition experts today is that the RDA is too low for some groups, and many Americans are getting too little protein, not too much.
  • They do acknowledge that there are groups who aren’t getting enough protein, for example – teenage girls, pregnant and lactating women, people over 60, and professional athletes. I would add, based on recent studies, that any adult who is engaged in a weight loss program and/or couch potatoregular, vigorous workouts will also benefit from extra protein, especially after their workout. If you combine all those categories, we are talking about the majority of Americans not getting enough protein. The only exception is the otherwise healthy adults who are “couch potatoes”.
  • They are correct in saying that the average “couch potato” adult in the US doesn’t need more protein. However, even the “couch potatoes” among us would benefit from a healthy protein supplement in place of some of the high fat, high cholesterol animal protein they are eating. They don’t need more protein. They just need better protein.
  • Finally, they are correct in saying many protein supplements are either unsafe or suffer from poor quality control, topics I have covered in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. My advice is simple. Avoid those protein supplements making extravagant claims about “exploding” your muscles and giving you boundless energy. Also, choose protein supplements made by reputable companies that employ rigorous quality controls.

 

What Did The New York Times Get Wrong?

  • The main theme of their article was that most Americans were getting too much protein. They acknowledged that some nutritionists advocated consuming more protein but implied that most experts did not agree. That paradigm is 20 years old. The evidence has shifted. Most experts today feel that many Americans aren’t getting enough protein.
  • They warned high protein intake could be harmful. It could lead to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Let’s put how much protein do you needthose claims into perspective.
    • Increased risk of cancer is linked to high intake of animal protein, especially red meat and processed meats.
    • Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is linked to high intake of fat and cholesterol rich animal proteins.
    • In short, for these diseases it’s the kind of protein, not the amount, that is the problem.
    • As for kidney disease, it is clear that protein intake should be restricted when you have kidney disease. It is not clear that high protein intake can cause kidney disease in healthy adults.
  • Finally, they assumed that most people just added protein supplements to the protein they were already eating. If that were true, it might be a problem. However, most people use protein supplements in place of some of the high fat animal protein in their diet. They aren’t necessarily eating more protein. They are eating healthier protein.

 

What Do Recent Studies Show?

If we look at recent publications on the subject, it is clear the New York Times article did not accurately report what current studies show about protein needs of Americans. Here are just a few examples:

High protein diets improve physical function and weight loss in older adults. In this study participants on the high protein diet:

  • Lost 15% more weight than those on the low protein diet. More importantly, the high protein group had:
    • 60% better retention of lean body mass (muscle).
    • 25% better loss of fat mass.
  • They also performed substantially better on physical function tests than the low protein group. There was no exercise component to this study. The improvement in physical function was solely related to the better retention of muscle mass and the greater loss of fat mass in the high protein group.

protein shakeHigh protein diets improve fat mass loss and muscle mass gain in young adults on a weight loss diet(American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 103: 738-746, 2016). In this study the high protein group:

  • Had 33% greater loss of fat mass than the low protein group.
  • Increased muscle mass by an average of 2.6 pounds compared to no change in the low protein group.

High protein diets improve satiety (The Journal of Nutrition, 146: 637-645, 2016). In this study the high protein group:

  • Reported greater satiety and less hunger between breakfast and lunch.
  • Consumed 12% fewer calories at lunch.

These are just a few recent studies. There are dozens of other studies that come to the same conclusions about how much protein you need. This is the new paradigm.

 

Why do some studies still come up with negative results?

The problem may be in the experimental design of those studies. Here are two recent papers that give some hints as to why some studies might fail to see the benefit of protein supplementation.

Protein quality matters (Nutrition & Metabolism, doi: 10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8).  This review concluded that protein quality, particularly the leucine content of the protein, was important in determining the effectiveness of that protein supplement in enhancing muscle mass increases following resistance training,

Spread protein throughout the day(American Journal of Physiology, endocrinology & Metabolism, 308: E734-E743, 2015 ). This study concluded that high protein intake is most effective at promoting muscle gain and weight loss when protein intake is spread evenly throughout the day.

In short, these studies suggest that good quality protein and good experimental design are essential if you wish to evaluate the role of additional protein on things like muscle mass and weight loss.

 

How Much Protein Do You Need?

What Do RDAs and Dietary Guidelines Say? Let’s start by looking at the RDA and how it has changed over the years. You probably have heard protein dietshakes for proteinthat the RDA is 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams a day for men. However, that is misleading. The RDA for protein is based on body weight. The conversion is 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight.

A simple calculation will tell you that 46 grams per day for women assumes they weigh 127 pounds, and 56 grams for men assumes they weigh 155 pounds. We haven’t seen those weights since the 50’s. Today the average weight for a 50-year-old woman is 170 pounds. The average weight for a 50-year-old man is 201 pounds. That translates into an RDA of 61 grams for the average woman and 72 grams for the average man.

You may have also heard that 10% of our calories from protein would meet our RDA requirements, and most Americans are currently getting around 16% of their calories from protein. The New York Times article implied that 16% of calories from protein was too much. Anything above that would be excessive, perhaps even dangerous.

What do the guidelines say? The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans  recognizes individual variations in protein needs and recommends we get between 10% and 35% of our daily calories from protein. For a 2,000 calorie diet that represents between 50 and 175 grams of protein/day.

 

What Are The Experts Saying? Experts are not just recommending more protein for some groups. They are making specific recommendations for how much protein people in those groups should be getting. How much protein do you need?

 

  • If you are an inactive, otherwise healthy, middle-aged adult, 10% of your calories from protein or 0.36 grams of protein a day per pound of body weight is sufficient. However, you would probably benefit from healthier protein choices.
  • If you are a teenage girl, your protein requirements are only slightly higher than a woman in your 20s. However, teenage diets are often not what they should be. You may not be getting the protein you need. Aim for around 0.38 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
  • If you are pregnant or lactating, your protein requirements are between 0.47 and 0.56 grams per pound of body weight per day. That represents a 30-55% increase in protein requirements. Your developing baby needs the extra protein. Be sure you are getting enough.
  • If you are over 50, you are probably losing a little muscle mass every day (a condition referred to as sarcopenia). To offset that muscle loss, most experts on aging recommend seniors increase their protein intake to around 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Ideally, that protein should be spread evenly throughout the day with about 25-30 grams of protein per meal. Leucine needs are increased as well, so leucine-rich protein sources are best. I’ve covered this topic in detail in a previous issue Protein Needs of Older Adults of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • If you are not an athlete, but work out on a regular basis, you will achieve better muscle gain from your workouts if you consume leucine-rich protein after each workout. If you are a young adult, 15-20 grams will suffice. If you are an older adult 20-25 grams is a better target. I’ve also covered this topic in a previous issue Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • If you are trying to lose weight, diets providing about 0.72 grams of leucine-rich protein per pound (~ 2X the RDA or 28% of the total calories) appear to be more effective than RDA levels of protein at preserving muscle mass and reducing fat mass. Again, this topic is covered in a previous issue High Protein Diets and Weight Loss of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • Higher protein intake is most effective when coupled with resistance (weight bearing) exercise.
  • Higher protein intake is also most effective when spread throughout the day rather concentrated in a post-workout supplement or at a single meal.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent New York Times article asserted that most Americans were already getting too much protein in their diets and that dietary protein supplements were either unnecessary or dangerous.
  • That paradigm is at least 20 years out of date. Today, most experts agree that many Americans are getting too little protein in their diet.
  • Groups most likely to need additional protein are teenage girls, pregnant and lactating women, adults over 50, elite athletes, people who work out regularly, and people on weight loss diets.
  • The only group routinely getting more than enough protein from their diets are otherwise healthy, adult “couch potatoes,” and most of them would benefit from healthier protein choices in their diet.
  • Increased protein intake is best utilized when coupled with resistance (weight-bearing) exercise. It is also best utilized when spread out evenly throughout the day rather than being concentrated in a single post-workout supplement or a single meal.
  • The most current guidelines for protein needs of various groups are given in the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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