How Much Protein You Need for Exercise

What is protein?

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Are you confused about how much protein you need? Many athletes and exercisers are increasing their protein intake to help them both lose weight and build more muscle, but is that the right way to go? It makes sense that, since muscles are made of protein, eating more protein will help you build more muscle. However, science tells us that isn't always the case.

A Little Bit of Science

Proteins are the basic building blocks of the human body.

They are made up of amino acids, and help build muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails, and internal organs. Next to water, protein is the most plentiful substance in the body, and most of it (around 60% to 70%) is in the skeletal muscles.

There are 20 amino acids that are required for growth by the human body and all but eight can be produced in your body. These eight amino acids, called essential amino acids, must be supplied by food and/or supplements. The other twelve non-essential amino acids are made by the body, but both essential and non-essential amino acids are needed to synthesize proteins. What does all this mean? It means that if you don't supply your body with the essential amino acids it needs, your body may be limited in the amount of protein it can use to build muscle.

Getting the Right Kind of Protein

Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called complete proteins.

These foods include beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk and just about anything else derived from animal sources. Incomplete proteins don't have all of the essential amino acids and generally include vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and nuts. So, if you're a vegetarian, does this mean you can't get complete protein?

Not at all. Below is a chart listing some incomplete proteins. To get all of the essential amino acids, simply choose foods from two or more of the columns.

GrainsLegumesSeeds & NutsVegetables
BarleyBeansSesame SeedsLeafy Greens
Corn MealLentilsSunflower SeedsBroccoli
OatsPeasWalnuts 
RicePeanutsCashews 
PastaSoy Products Other Nuts 
Whole Grain Breads   

Many experts believe that most of us get more than enough protein daily. In fact, some believe the average sedentary American eats about 50% more than the recommended daily amount, which ranges from 40-70 grams each day depending on your gender, age and situation.

If you're an exerciser, however, your protein needs may increase since resistance training and endurance workouts can rapidly break down muscle protein.

A position statement published by the ADA, DOC and ACSM recommends that endurance and strength-trained athletes have between 1.2 and 1.7 g/kg (0.5 - 0.8 grams per pound) of protein for the best performance and health.

What if you're trying to build more muscle? Shouldn't you eat even more protein? Not necessarily. There's evidence that bodybuilders, much like exercisers or athletes, do require more protein but that any more than double the RDA won't necessarily help you build more muscle. In one study, experts studied three groups of weight lifters: A low protein group (0.86 g/kg), a moderate protein group (1.40 g/kg) and a high protein group (2.40 g/kg) and found that, "There were no effects of varying protein intake on indexes of lean body mass."

In essence, the more you exercise, the greater your protein needs will be. However, taking it too far, for example, more than doubling your protein intake, won't necessarily help you build more muscle.

How to Calculate Your Protein Needs:

1. Weight in pounds divided by 2.2 = weight in kg
2. Weight in kg x 0.8-1.8 gm/kg = protein gm.

Use a lower number if you are in good health and are sedentary (i.e., 0.8). Use a higher number (between 1 and 1.8) if you are under stress, are pregnant, are recovering from an illness, or if you are involved in consistent and intense weight or endurance training.

Example: 154 lb male who is a regular exerciser and lifts weights
154 lbs/2.2 = 70kg
70kg x 1.5 = 105 gm protein/day

Calculating Protein as a Percentage of Total Calories

Another way to calculate how much protein you need is by using daily calorie intake and the percentage of calories that will come from protein. To do this, you'll need to know how many calories your body needs each day.

First, find out what your Basal Metabolic Rate is by using a BMR calculator.

Next, figure out how many calories you burn through daily activity and add that number to your BMR. This gives you an estimate of how many calories you need to maintain your current weight.

After you've figured out your maintenance calories, next figure out what percentage of your diet will come from protein. The percentage you choose will be based on your goals, fitness level, age, body type and metabolic rate. Most experts recommend that your protein intake be somewhere between 15 and 30%. When you've determined your desired percentage of protein, multiply that percentage by the total number of calories for the day.

Example:
For a 140lb female, calorie intake=1800 calories, protein=20%:
1800 x .20 = 360 calories from protein. Since 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, divide protein calories by four:
360/4 = 90 grams of protein per day.

No matter what your calculations are, remember that there are no magic foods or supplements that can replace the right training and the right diet. The foundation of any program, whether your goal is to lose weight or gain muscle, is a combination of strength training and a healthy diet that includes carbs, with a balance of protein and fat.

Sources:

American Heart Association. "High-Protein Diets." Accessed: Sept 22, 2009. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/High-Protein-Diets_UCM_305989_Article.jsp

DietaryFiberFood.com. RDA: Protein Requirement for Humans. Accessed: Sept 22, 2009. http://www.dietaryfiberfood.com/protein-requirement.php.

Lemon, P. Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals. J Am Coll Nut, 2000; 19(90005): 513S-521S.

Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27.

Tarnopolsky, MA; Atkinson, SA; MacDougall, JD; et al. Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes. J Appl Physiol. 1992 Nov;73(5):1986-95.

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