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Depending on who you listen to, the amount of protein your body needs will vary from ‘hardly any’ to 3g per pound of body weight. The accurate information is obviously diluted  by supplement companies who sell protein – their agenda is to get you to consume more, so confusing the athletic public with questionable claims commonplace. In this article, we look at nutritional research to determine protein requirements for active individuals.

This article is aimed at the intermediate athlete. One who is training hard but doesn’t have a nutritionist on the team to make the protein decisions for them!


Time to read: 5 minutes

Intermediate

Key Points:

  • The role of protein in the body
  • The chemical construction of protein
  • Bioavailability
  • Fluctuating protein needs
  • Protein needs for active individuals

Protein is the macronutrient associated with growth and repair of the body tissues plus is a key energy source for the body to perform.



The Role of Protein in the Body

We’re assuming by this point that you already know what protein is, so instead we’re going to focus on its role within the body.

Protein is the macronutrient associated with growth and repair of the body tissues. The reason it’s synonymous with athletic populations is because the more active you are, the more ‘damage’ your body accrues. Protein helps the repair process, so it stands to reason that the more active you are, the more protein you require to speed repair and recovery of your body after training and competition.

The secondary role of protein is energy supply. Protein is broken down and used as energy by the body via a process called gluconeogenesis. [1]

 

The Chemical Construction of Protein

Chemically-speaking, not all proteins are the same. They’re constructed via a combination of molecules called amino acids. Each combination of these amino acids produces a different protein, so it’s not accurate to describe protein in an overarching sense. Nutritionally and practically speaking this can be important when we discuss protein requirements later in the article.

What appears to be the case is the speed of absorption varies significantly with different types of protein [2], which can inform the decision making of both the type of protein consumed and the timing of it.

 

Bioavailability

Bioavailability can be described as ‘the amount of an administered that is absorbed and used by the body’. In more practical terms, say you were to consume 50g of protein form your food, how much of the 50g has actually been used by your body?

Research on protein types has concluded that there is a significant variation in the quality and absorption rates of different types of protein [3], which athletes should take seriously. Further research suggests that the quality of protein absorption is arguably more important than the quantity [4] – if you consume protein from sources that are well absorbed, you’ll need to consume less protein overall. There’ll be more on this later in the article.

 

Fluctuating Protein Needs Throughout the Season

Strictly speaking in a training sense, food is fuel and the protein requirements for active individuals will vary depending on training volume, intensity and goals, competition schedule and whether or not the athlete is injured.

As the macronutrient responsible for repair and regeneration, research advocates maintaining high protein consumption even for injured athletes, irrespective of training volume [5]. This is a key point to remember because an automatic assumption would be reduced training requires reduced protein, but bear in mind protein is vital for tissue repair so needs to be maintained.

During periods of higher intensity training, especially in phases where there is an emphasis on hypertrophy or volume then protein intake needs to be considered very important and emphasis on adequate protein consumption is required – this can fluctuate from 1.3g per KG of bodyweight up to 2g per KG of bodyweight, depending on the athlete experience and sport specific needs – for example higher protein intake can maintain muscle mass even during times of moderate calorie restriction, such as when an athlete is trying to reach a weight category or is dropping weight to improve power to weight ratios [6]. Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that protein intakes beyond these levels are beneficial [7].

 

Protein Requirements for Active Individuals: Concluding Thoughts

When we consider the protein requirements for active individuals, the emerging picture is one that strategy is more important than sheer amount. The three main points to consider are…

  1. Protein quality and bioavailability.
  2. Consumption in relation to body mass.
  3. Protein timing.

Protein quality is determined by its ‘completeness’ in terms of overall amino acid profile. Typically speaking the better sources tend to be animal based, with beef and eggs being particularly good. They also contain a lot of other beneficial nutrients which improves overall health and performance. Whilst it is possible to get enough protein using non-animal based sources, it’s a much more involved and difficult undertaking.

The research shows that the protein requirements for active individuals sits within the 1.3-2g per KG of bodyweight realm. Whilst you don’t have to get granular with this, our suggestion is you hover around 1.5g and push it up to 2g when trying to drop weight or build muscle. For a 70kg athlete, this would be 105-140g of protein per day.

In terms of timing, whey protein isolate is ideal with its fast absorption rates post-exercise. For the longer term, beef and eggs or other animal-based options are best. If you want to supplement overnight, there is evidence that casein Casein protein supplementation may provide the greatest benefit for increases in protein synthesis for a prolonged duration [8].

Your protein intake is important, but by sticking to a few simple rules regarding quality, amount and timing you won’t go wrong.

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