Protein is a macronutrient with an essential role in an athlete's diet.
Muscle growth and muscle recovery after workout are the two main factors that contribute to the realization of your athletic goals, and both require a correct intake of protein. Knowing the benefits of protein and including protein in your diet efficiently is key to your success.
In this blog, we discuss protein and how to consume sufficient quantities of protein to improve your athletic performance.
Structure and role of protein
The term protein comes from the Greek word 'proteios', which means principal or primary. This meaning is very pertinent in the context of nutrition, as protein is the most important constitutive unit in the human body's tissues.
Protein in food is composed by 20 different amino acids, divided in essential and non-essential amino acids.
There are 9 essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). The human body is not able to synthesize them itself, but they are essential for its function.
The other 11 amino acids (alanine, arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, tyrosine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid) are non-essential. But under certain physiological or health conditions, certain semi-essential amino acids may become essential.
In the body, protein is the main functional and structural unit of all cells. But the structure and function of individual protein varies greatly. Among other things, proteins are the constitutive unit of enzymes, blood transport molecules, hair and nails, intercellular matrix, hormones, and membranes. Proteins are also the essential element of your immune system.
The amino acids, constituent parts of protein, are also the precursor of the synthesis of numerous co-enzymes, hormones, nucleic acids, and other molecules that are essential for your life functions.
Proteins are also a source of energy in case of a calorie deficit, although your body prefers fat and carbohydrates. Due to their numerous functions in your body, a sufficient intake of protein is essential to preserve your health and athletic performance.
What is the recommended intake of protein?
The recommended intake of protein for a healthy adult is between 10 to 15 percent of the nutrient intake, which means about 0.8 grams of protein for kilogram of body mass.
These values, though, apply to healthy and moderately active individuals. Since physical activity increases the volume of micro muscle tears, so increases the need for protein.
For an active individual it is recommended to intake from 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. This means that an athlete of 70 kg needs to consume from 84 to 140 grams of protein per day.
Your body will best be able to absorb protein if you divide your intake evenly. The best way is to include 20 to 40 grams of protein in each meal with 3 to 5 hours between each meal.
Protein digestibility and bioavailability
When considering the intake of protein, you must also consider its digestibility and bioavailability.
The body breaks down protein into single amino acids, which it then uses to form new protein. This requires a specific order and ratio of amino acids.
If a food contains all essential amino acids in a favorable ratio, your body will be able to use it fully. Such a food is considered a 'complete' source of protein. This applies to animal protein. Examples of such foods are meat, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and whey protein isolate.
Plant-based foods lack at least one essential amino acid. It is possible to get all the essential amino acids from plant-based foods, but you need to consume the correct combination of different foods – legumes, cereals, and seeds.
The content of protein in foods is usually expressed in units per gram of protein per 100 grams of a food or a percentage of that food. But in our opinion, it makes more sense to observe the quantity of grams of protein for a certain energy value, for example 100 kcal.
Let's take peanut butter. Peanut butter is often considered a protein-rich food, as it contains about 25% of protein or 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. But with 100 grams of peanut butter you consume about 600 calories. To consume the same amount of protein, it only takes about 140 calories of lean chicken meat or 180 calories of cottage cheese.
|Food||Protein per 100 g||Protein per 100 kcal|
|Whey protein isolate||85 g||24 g|
|Eggs||33 g||15 g|
|Lentil (dry)||26 g||7 g|
|Cheese||24 g||7 g|
|Peanut butter||24 g||4 g|
|Chicken breast (raw)||23 g||23 g|
|Beans (dry)||23 g||7 g|
|Lean beef (raw)||23 g||18 g|
|Protein bar||21 g||6 g|
|Tuna in its own juice||19 g||22 g|
|Sesame||18 g||3 g|
|Nuts||15 g||2 g|
|Oats||14 g||4 g|
|Cottage cheese||13 g||18 g|
|Whole-grain pasta (dry)||13 g||4 g|
|Buckwheat (dry)||13 g||4 g|
|Low-fat Greek yogurt 0%||10 g||18 g|
|Brown rice||8 g||2 g|
|Tofu||5 g||11 g|
|Whole milk||3 g||5 g|
You know all the protein-rich foods, but then you come short with ideas on how to incorporate them in your meals. To boost your culinary inspiration, we have prepared a few ideas of balanced* meals:
- oatmeal with banana and cottage cheese,
- pancakes with fruit and Greek yogurt,
- sandwich with ham and paprika,
- scrambled eggs with rye bread and avocado,
- bread with Skyr and jelly.
- cottage cheese cream with banana,
- smoothie with whey protein and berries,
- protein bar and orange,
- nuts and apple,
- whole-grain bun, chicken breast, and fresh veggies,
- salad with beans and pasta.
Lunch and dinner:
- lentil and potato stew,
- noodles with tofu and fried veggies,
- chickpea patties and baked potatoes,
- baked fish with potatoes and beets,
- buckwheat with tuna,
- rice with veggies and stewed beef,
- pizza with polenta dough and cooked ham, mozzarella, and egg,
- turkey fillets and couscous.
*Most meals contain a high amount of dietary fiber, which means they are not appropriate before intense exercise. If you are interested in what you can eat before intense exercise, check out our guide!
It is true that proteins are an essential part of a balanced diet for athletes, and in this blog we have nothing but praised them. Nevertheless, do not exaggerate with your protein intake. Too much proteins, just like carbs and fat, will accumulate in your body as fat.
Also keep in mind that simply consuming protein will not increase your muscle mass. You still need a signal, i.e. physical activity. If you want to transform fat into muscle mass efficiently, check out one of our training plans!