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Athletes and Protein: The Truth About Supplements

By Nancy Clark, MS, RD - author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

When you look at the ads in almost any sports publication, you cannot help but notice the supplement industry is hard at work promoting protein powders, bars and shakes.

Their goal: to convince athletes they need extra protein to build muscles and recover from exercise. Never before have I talked to so many frenzied athletes — bodybuilders and marathoners alike — who are worried their standard diets are protein-deficient and inadequate to support their sports program. They commonly ask: What’s the best protein supplement?

My response: Why do you think you even need a protein supplement in the first place? You can easily get the protein you need through standard foods. Believe it or not, very few athletes need any type of protein supplement.

Yes, protein supplements can be helpful in certain medical situations. For example, an athlete with anorexia may be more willing to consume a protein shake than eat tuna, cottage cheese or chicken. Patients with cancer or AIDS often benefit from protein supplements if they are unable to eat well.

But I have yet to meet a healthy athlete who is unable to consume adequate protein through his or her sports diet. Hence, the purpose of this article is to look at the myths and facts surrounding protein supplements, so you can make informed decisions regarding your sports diet.

How much is enough?

Only 10% to 15% of total calories need to come from protein. Although athletes require slightly more protein than does a sedentary person, a hungry athlete tends to eat hefty meals with large portions of protein-rich foods.

That extra peanut butter sandwich, second chicken breast at dinner and taller glass of milk satisfies any and all protein needs — without any supplements.

Following are recommendations for a safe, adequate protein intake:
(numbers are given for grams per pound of body weight, with an example for a 150-pound person):

  • Sedentary person: 0.4 gms/lb; 60 gms/150 lb person
  • Recreational exerciser, adult: 0.5 - 0.75, 75 -112
  • Competitive athlete, adult: 0.6 - 0.9, 90 - 135
  • Growing teenage athlete: 0.8 - 0.9, 120 - 135
  • Dieting athlete, reduced calories: 0.8 - 0.9, 120 - 135
  • Maximum for all healthy athletes: 0.9 gram/lb (2 gm/kg)

    Note: Protein needs change depending upon calorie intake. That is, if you are dieting to lose weight and are in calorie deficit, you will need more protein than if you are eating adequate calories. Your muscles burn protein for energy when fuel is scarce.

    Example: If you weigh 160 pounds and want the maximum acceptable protein intake (0.9 gms pro/lb), you'd need 144 grams of protein an amount you could easily consume from a day's diet that includes 1 quart skim milk (30 gms protein), 1 can tuna (30 gms pro), and 8 ounces chicken breast (70 gms pro).

    The small amounts of protein you get from the foods that fill out the rest of your diet (cereal, bread, broccoli, frozen yogurt, etc.) will bring you to more than 144 grams of protein. More protein will not be "better."

    And no scientific evidence supports the idea the protein or amino acids in supplements are in any way superior to the protein from eggs, milk, lean meats, fish, soy or other ordinary foods.

    Is more better?

    Eating more than the recommended protein intake offers no benefits. Apart from being costly, a protein-based diet commonly displaces important carbs from the diet. That is, if you have an omelet and a protein shake for breakfast instead of cereal with banana, you'll consume fewer carbs to fuel your muscles properly.

    Carbs are the primary fuel for athletes who do muscle-building resistance exercise. Once your muscles become carb-depleted, fatigue sets in and your workout is over. Your diet should provide extra carbs, not extra protein.

    If you consume too much protein from supplements, you may also fail to invest in optimal health. For example, I had one client who daily ate five protein shakes and four protein bars — to the exclusion of standard food. Displacing natural foods with engineered foods (such as protein supplements) limits your intake of the vegetables, fruits, grains, fiber, phytochemicals, natural vitamins and other health-protective nutrients that Nature puts in whole foods.

    Pre- and post-exercise protein

    Q. I've heard I should eat a protein bar for a pre-exercise snack?

    A. Protein has typically been consumed at meals, away from the time of exercise. New research suggests eating protein before you work out can optimize muscle development. Pre-exercise protein digests into amino acids that are then ready and waiting to be taken up by the muscles after a strength workout.

    This does not mean you'll evolve into Charles Atlas; you'll simply optimize your body's ability to build and repair muscle at that moment.

    The amount of protein needed for this benefit is tiny — about 6 grams (less than 1 ounce of meat). You certainly do not need a hefty pre-exercise protein bar nor a thick steak. A yogurt, cereal with milk, or a slice of peanut butter toast will do the job just fine! A pre-exercise protein supplement is a needless expensive.

    Protein source (with cost/grams of protein/cost per gram)

    MetRx Big 100 Bar: $2.50, 26 grams, 9.5 cents
    PowerBar ProteinPlus: $1.95, 24, 8 cents
    Tuna, 6 oz can: $0.99, 30, 3.5 cents
    Skim milk, 1 quart: $0.75, 32, 2.5 cents
    Peanut butter, 2 tbsp: $0.15, 7, 2 cents

    Q. Ive heard I should I eat protein right after I exercise to enhance the speed of glycogen recovery?

    A. Supposedly, eating some protein along with carbohydrates after exercise stimulates insulin, and that stimulates greater glycogen uptake. At least five carefully controlled studies have shown the addition of post-exercise protein does not offer any advantages when the athlete eats adequate calories from carbs.

    My advice: If you refuel with wholesome, refreshing meals that appeal to you, you'll inevitably get the nutrients you need. Fruit and yogurt, nuts and raisins, bagel sandwich, and pasta with meat sauce are just a few popular recovery foods that offer an enjoyable combination of both protein and carbs to refuel, rebuild and repair muscles.

    Copyright: Nancy Clark 7/02

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutritionist at SportsMedicine Associates (617-739-2003) in Brookline MA.

Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

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