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Sports Nutrition

Protein

Just how much does an athlete need?

By Danelle Swearingen

Though protein is indeed necessary for the building and maintenance of muscle tissue, there is a limit to how much the body can use for this purpose. Extra amounts of protein are simply excreted by the body, are used very inefficiently for energy (replacing much more efficient carbohydrate energy in a high protein/low carbohydrate diet), or can be stored as fat. Diets very high in protein and low in carbohydrates also cause the buildup of ketones in the body, which can produce ketoacidosis, an acidic state that changes the pH of the body and affects normal bodily function.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the amount of protein required by an athlete is only slightly higher than that of the average individual. The fact is, most Americans, including athletes, eat far more protein than they really need (assuming they are eating enough total calories). The protein recommended for the average person is 0.8 g/kg body weight (to convert pounds to kg, divide the # of pounds by 2.2). The ADA recommends that endurance athletes consume 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg and that strength-training athletes consume 1.6 to 1.7 g/kg. Even if an athlete consumed only 10% of their total calories from protein (most people eat about 12-15%), they would still be consuming more protein than necessary. There has also been evidence to suggest that long-term high protein intake causes kidney problems and could be linked to osteoporosis.

Many athletes consume protein supplements, and many of these available on the market contain whey protein. This is the protein component of supplements such as Myoplex. Whey protein is actually a type of protein found in dairy products such as milk - in supplement form it is simply separated and concentrated. It can still cause allergic reactions and intolerance problems in certain people just like dairy products do. There is no evidence that whey protein improves athletic performance. Even athletes who do not consume dairy products are able to get the same amino acids from other food sources, making whey protein unnecessary. Other types of protein in food are also more concentrated and complete (containing the essential amino acids in proper amounts) than whey protein, although they should not be consumed in extreme quantities either.

The bottom line is, whey protein or otherwise, athletes just don't need as much protein as they seem to think!

Resources:

  1. Nutrition and athletic performance -- Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000;100:1543-1556.
  2. www.gnc.com - whey protein