3 Protein Pointers That Even Fitness Pros Might Not Know
by Megan Meyer, PhD
Chances are, if you hit the gym or enjoy working out, you have probably seen people slugging back protein shakes or mixing up a container full of protein powder with some liquids. As a college athlete myself, I knew that I should be incorporating protein into my diet, but really did not know more beyond that. Leaving college and becoming more immersed in the health and nutrition space (even getting my PhD!) and working with a bunch of registered dietitians, I have picked up some pointers on protein that everyone can benefit from. These tips have helped me achieve some recent fitness goals, like completing my first Olympic triathlon, and I think they will come in handy for you as well.
1. Appropriately select your protein source and time your protein intake
Protein is comprised of building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids string together to make protein for your body to use. Research indicates that leucine is the key amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS) AKA building muscle. Some great sources of protein that are rich sources of leucine include animal and plant sources, such as lean meat, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and soybeans.
As for timing, most of us consume the majority of protein at dinner according to NHANES. If we are trying to boost MPS and build lean muscle and strength, then we need to supply our bodies with protein every 3-4 hours. A 2014 study reported that MPS was 25% higher when protein was evenly distributed throughout the day when compared to the traditional high-protein evening meal. So make sure to spread your protein intake throughout the day, and try to eat meals that contain roughly 30 grams of protein.
Also, don’t forget about snacks! Snacks are a great way to sneak in some extra protein. Aim to have 15-gram snacks to power you through between meals and help you increase your protein consumption without much hassle.
2. Increase the amount of protein you eat
Ready for some numbers and a healthy debate? The RDA (or Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day for adults over 18 years of age. This intake was defined by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) as the level to meet sufficient protein requirements of the majority of healthy individuals.
However, it is important to understand that this recommendation was set to prevent deficiencies rather than promoting optimal health. Because of this, this recommendation is currently under debate for certain population groups such as athletes or fitness enthusiasts like yourselves. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that although athletes need only about 1 g/kg/day of protein to maintain muscle mass, if you are looking to build muscle mass, aim to eat about 1.4-1.8 g/kg/day.
One last thought on this point brings us to the IOM’s Dietary Reference Intake defined as the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR). The AMDR for protein falls between 10-35% of calories coming from protein. Interestingly, we consume only about 16% of our calories from protein, indicating that protein intake is on the low end and that there is quite a bit of room to increase intake.
Calculate your daily personal protein intake on your own:
3. Protein Quality vs Quantity
The phrase “high quality protein” gets thrown out a bunch in the fitness world. But what does this really mean? Inserting the words “high quality” makes it seem like there is a hierarchy of protein sources and that some protein sources are better than others. I have heard people state that protein from a package isn’t “pure” for your body, and all of these concepts could not be further from the truth.
Protein from whole foods are good sources of protein BUT so is protein from packaged foods. Plus, packaged sources of protein offer the added bonus of affordability and convenience. My favorite go-to items are nut butters, soy nuts, and pouched tuna. All are shelf stable and can survive being thrown in my desk at work or tossed in my gym bag.
Additionally, there are some misconceptions surrounding complete vs incomplete protein. Before we get to the facts, let’s quickly discuss the amino acids. Amino acids are building blocks that make up protein. There are 20 types of amino acids used by the body, 9 of which are essential. Protein which contains all the essential amino acids in the right amounts are labeled as “complete”, and there are many myths out there in the fitness world urging people to eat only complete proteins or to pair incomplete proteins together. You certainly do not need to pair incomplete proteins at every meal in order to get all the essential amino acids. Rather, aim to consume a variety of protein sources throughout the day to provide your body with essential amino acids.
Using these protein pointers can help us power through our day and achieve the fitness goals we are working towards. It doesn’t matter if you are a buff body builder or a fitness newbie, protein can help boost your fitness performance.
Megan Meyer, PhD is the Program Manager of Health and Wellness Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC). At IFIC, she is committed to communicating science-based information to media, health professionals, outside organizations, and consumers on topics related to nutrition and health.