It stands to reason that because athletes expend more energy during the day than the average person, that they need more nutrients to recover. A typical diet consists of these three macronutrients 

  • Protein
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates

While each of these three macronutrients plays an important role in the health and function of the body, exactly how much athletes need to eat of each of them is a topic of much debate. Protein intake is an especially hot topic amongst athletes. Because protein works to strengthen and repair muscle tissue, high protein diets have gained a lot of popularity. But just how much protein is actually necessary to keep athletes at peak performance?

What does protein do for your body?

It first helps to understand the role that protein plays in your health and fitness. Proteins are essentially the “building blocks” of the body. They combine with amino acids to make up bones, muscles, tendons, and other tissues. Protein is essential for building, strengthening, and repairing the body and consuming enough protein is important for everyone, but it is especially crucial for athletes who put their bodies through rigorous training.

Your individual dietary needs

There is no one single answer to the question of how much protein an athlete needs to consume. The truth is that the amount will differ depending on an individual’s overall diet and eating patterns. It’s commonly assumed that, because protein is essential to building muscle, that more protein amounts to more muscle.

But, in actuality, eating more protein won’t necessarily result in more muscle tone. If an athlete consumes an adequate amount of the other macronutrients, fats and carbohydrates, their body won’t require as much protein to build muscle. Part of the answer, then, is to find the right balance between protein, fats, and carbohydrates and not to simply maximize your protein intake.

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Nutrition and exercise

While the right balance and intake of protein is supports muscle growth, muscle mass can only be increased when exercise is added to the equation. The intensity and duration of exercise can change the amount of protein that is needed. It’s also important to time the consumption of protein with physical activity. Eating high-protein foods within two hours of completing a workout, as well as additional protein spaced throughout the day, increases its muscle-building benefits.

Recommended protein intake

It is true that athletes need more protein than non-athletes in order to build and repair muscle tissue. However, many athletes overestimate the amount that is needed. The American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dieticians of Canada recommend the following average daily intakes:

  • Adult non-athletes: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2lbs) of body weight
  • Endurance athletes: 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight
  • Strength-training athletes: 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight

Do you need protein supplements?

There are a wide variety of protein supplements and powders on the market that can be easy, convenient, and efficient ways to get your after-workout protein boost or if you don’t have time to prepare a meal. However, protein supplements aren’t necessary to get the recommended amount of protein. Food alone can provide enough of the nutrient to keep you at peak performance.

What are high protein foods?

In addition to the amount of protein you intake, it’s also important to consider the source of protein. High quality foods with high protein content can be easily and healthfully consumed alone or with carbohydrate foods.  Some recommended high-protein foods to include in your diet are:

  • Chicken – 21 grams/3 oz
  • Turkey – 21 grams/3 oz
  • Beef – 21 grams/3 oz
  • Fish – 21 grams/3 oz
  • Eggs – 13 grams/2 large eggs
  • Tofu – 15 grams/3 oz
  • Milk – 8 grams/8 oz
  • Cheese – 21 grams/3 oz
  • Yogurt – 8 grams/8 oz
  • Peanut butter – 8 grams/2 tbsp

In general, athletes do need to consume more protein than non-athletes in order to build and repair muscle and achieve peak performance. Ultimately, the exact amount of protein that you should be eating depends on your individual individual dietary habits, exercise routine, and other nutritional needs. If you want to learn more about how you can tailor your protein intake to improve your performance, consult a registered dietician nutritionist.