Does a High Protein Diet Improve Sports Performance?

Paleo, Atkins, and South Beach diets could be a good choice for athletes

Assortment of fruit and vegetables. Noe Montes/Getty Images

High protein diets tend to be the norm for many athletes, as more research examining the role nutrition plays in performance is increasing. Not to mention, diet trends like Paleo and Pagan, as well as the philosophy of eating clean, gain popularity.

The truth of the matter is that just like training methods will give different athletes, different results; different eating plans will make different athletes perform differently.

Everything is individual. However, there is research that supports the use of high protein diets for performance for both strength and endurance athletes. 

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

The popularity of high protein diets goes beyond athletes to those looking for fast eight loss. High protein diets that exclude carbohydrate in the form of breads, pasta, and potatoes and cut calories often show a large initial weight loss due to the water loss that occurs with some muscle glycogen depletion. If you perform high intensity or endurance training you probably know that glycogen depletion is one of the reasons athletes 'bonk' or 'hit the wall' in endurance competition. Without enough easy to access energy, in the form of glycogen, we simply run out of fuel.

High Protein Diets and the Endurance Athlete

Glycogen is the stored energy in muscle, and it helps muscles retain water. This combination is critical for high-intensity athletic performance.

Depleting these energy stores is hardly something that will improve athletic performance. However, research out of Ohio State University shows that our bodies can adapt to finding energy in other places, like from fat stores and that sports nutrition isn't as straight forward as it used to be.

Specifically, researchers looked at elite marathoners who normally ate a low-carb diet that consisted of 10 percent carbs, 19 percent protein, and 70 percent fat, and compared them to other elite marathoners who choose to eat a diet with 59 percent carbs, 14 percent protein, and 25 percent fat.

Besides their diets, the athletes were similar in their elite status, age, performance, training history, and maximum oxygen capacity.

Now here's the crazy part: During a test determining the athletes' maximum oxygen intake to gauge carb- and fat-burning rates, the low-carb runners' peak fat-burning rate was 2.3-fold higher than the rate for high-carb athletes: 1.5 versus .67 grams per minute. What's more: The two groups did not differ significantly in oxygen consumption, ratings of perceived exertion, or calorie expenditure.

If you're an endurance athlete, it may take a while to get used to performing on a high-protein diet, or even one if more fat as in this study. But it may be worth a try if you are looking for a way to improve your times.

High Protein Diets and Strength Athletes

Beefy diets are synonymous with strength athletes and Cross-Fit enthusiasts. Protein is important to athletes because it helps muscles repair themselves from the stress that exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, puts on them.

 It’s recommended that physically active individuals eat between 0.64 to 0.91 grams per pound of bodyweight a day. But what would happen if you doubled it?

Turns out there might be limits to protein’s benefits above a certain threshold. According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, doubling protein intake to 2.20 grams per pound of bodyweight daily had no effect on body composition in resistance-trained individuals who otherwise maintain the same training regimen. Therefore, the most common recommendation is to consume 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily, spread out over five to six meals. For an athlete weighing 90 kg (200 pounds) that is a total of 108 - 154 grams of protein a day. 

What's more: Research has shown that when you consumed more than 30 grams of protein at a time, your body isn't going to absorb all of it. In our example, that means you can have five snacks or meals that have 30 grams of protein would be optimal for performance.

How Much Protein is That?

To make your meals, high on protein, use the below guide of common foods to plan. 

FoodServing SizeProtein (grams)
Fish, cod, cooked in dry heat3 oz19 grams
Chicken, 1/2 breast, meat only, roasted3 oz27 grams
Turkey, ground, cooked4 oz22 grams
Beef, top sirloin, trimmed to 0" fat, broiled3 oz25 grams
Milk, reduced fat 2%, with fortified vitamin A8 oz8 grams
Tofu, raw, firm1/2 cup20 grams
Yogurt, plain, Greek, nonfat6 oz17 grams
Cheese, cottage, lowfat, 2% milkfat4 oz13 grams
Peanut butter, natural, no salt, smooth2 Tbsp7 grams
Eggs, whole, cooked, fried2 large12 grams

 

So What Should an Athlete Eat?

Basically, an athlete's nutrition plan should be individualized to meet the needs of training and competition. It may take some trial and error to get the perfect ratio of carbohydrates, protein, and fat that will help your body perform optimally. The effort will be worth it.

Sources

Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014 11:19. DOI: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-19.

Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D.A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep;109(9):1582-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.06.369.

Volek JS, Freidenreich DJ, Saenz C, Kunces LJ, Creighton BC, Bartley JM, Davitt PM, Munoz CX, Anderson JM, Maresh CM, Lee EC, Schuenke MD, Aerni G, Kraemer WJ, Phinney SD. Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism. 2016 Mar;65(3):100-10. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2015.10.028. Epub 2015 Nov 2.

Nutrition and Athletic Performance - Joint position statement authored by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, March 2009 - Volume 41 - Issue 3

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