Protein intake for athletes

There are numerous misconceptions about how much protein an athlete needs. What does the evidence say?

Whether you are a bodybuilder, athlete, or recreationally active individual, few nutrients have been as controversial as protein. A popular dogma is to practice a high protein intake with the notion that “more is better”.  Protein is needed for numerous bodily processes including repairing muscle tissue, so it is not surprising that it is often consumed in high quantities among those who are physically active.  However, the dietary recommendations state that most only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.4 grams per pound of body weight). This is approximately 55 grams of protein per day for someone who weighs 150 pounds. This may seem quite low to most physically active individuals and is not difficult to meet as most sedentary individuals consume more than the recommendation. So, what is the correct protein intake to optimize performance and body composition? 

A recent position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dieticians of America, and the American College of Sports Medicine summarizes the evidence for numerous sports nutrition recommendations including dietary protein intake. The current data suggests that physically active individuals should consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight) regardless if the individual is a strength or endurance athlete. The upper end of that protein intake is recommended for individuals during periods of higher training frequency and greater intensity and during periods of calorie restriction to maintain muscle mass. 

In regards to the timing of protein intake, the position statement recommends that individuals consume 0.25 to 0.3 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight (15-25 grams on average; some individual’s intake may be higher) within 0 to 2 hours after exercise to increase the protein synthesis (muscle building) process. Furthermore, that same amount is recommended every 3 to 5 hours over multiple meals throughout the day to maximize muscular adaptation.

There are numerous misconceptions about how much protein an athlete needs. Although the current evidence states that athletes need more than the current recommendations, it is not quite as high as what is observed in some gym circles. 

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