Sports Medicine: What to keep in mind about protein

Today’s athletes are more likely to eat large quantities of meat, in addition to a diet that includes various protein supplements.

Protein 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Protein 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the second article in a series of articles on nutrition in sports. This piece will focus on nutritional goals for athletes, with a specific focus on proteins.
Every athlete will attest to the notion that protein is an important part of their diet.
Whereas in the past, Olympians would gorge large amounts of proteins in order to achieve maximal physical results, today’s athletes are more likely to eat large quantities of meat (probably not cyclist Alberto Contador any longer after almost being banned for eating steroid-tainted meat during the Tour de France), in addition to a diet that includes various protein supplements.
Scientists will often debate how much protein or meat athletes should be eating on a regular basis.
Many scientists are concerned about whether our athletes are meeting their protein goals, working out precise calculations in order to determine that exact amount that will lead our athletes to the finish line. The question is, are athletes even meeting these protein goals in the first place, and if so, how much protein should be a part of their daily diets? When we exercise, the amino acids from the protein already stored in our bodies are used to create new tissue (for instance, muscle) and repair existing tissues.
These amino acids also partake in the manufacturing of enzymes and hormones that are involved in several body functions, such as the regulation of the body’s metabolism. Protein is one of the body’s fuel sources for muscles during exercise.
Studies have shown that most athletes consume far more than the recommended daily protein intake and therefore do not need to worry that they are not receiving enough protein in their diets.
This above-average level of protein does not include the use of protein supplements.
What this seems to indicate is that athletes are aware of the need to incorporate protein in their diets and that scientists do not need to spend time worrying that the average athlete is suffering from a lack of protein.
Scientists recommend for the average inactive person to consume 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (BW) a day. For an average athlete focusing on endurance and resistance-training, the daily recommendation is augmented to 1.2-1.7 grams per kilogram of BW per day.
Some suggest that this need for additional protein results from increased physical activity, while others say that this theory is erroneous and not all athletes need to be consuming more protein.
Such a theory posits that protein requirements in athletes are not being measured properly, which is why many obtain results demonstrating this increased protein need.
The question remains as to whether or not this additional protein is actually helping athletes reach their physical goals, or if this extra protein is doing nothing at all.
Scientists discovered that some athletes who body-build or do resistance-training, eat more than 2-3 grams per kilograms BW of protein a day.
Certainly this extra protein is costing these athletes a lot of money and there is no evidence to date that this additional protein leads to any increase in muscle mass, muscle strength or to enhanced the bodyresponse to training.
Any athlete who is consuming extra amounts of protein must be careful to make sure that it does not come at the expense of meeting other nutritional goals that can severely affect performance.
I should also mention that protein-only powers and aminoacid supplements are very costly and there isn’t much evidence to support their effectiveness.
Many everyday foods can meet the body’s needs and are often drastically cheaper.
Athletes who lack sufficient levels of protein in their diets are usually either consciously restricting their energy intake or are intentionally limiting their diet (for instance, eating only hamburgers).
Restricting levels of energy intake is a noteworthy problem as energy deficiency can constrain the amount of protein absorbed and hurt the protein balance in the body.
What scientists have found is that the intake of a small quantity of a high-quality protein together with a carbohydrate can improve the body’s protein synthesis.
For those whose workout centers on endurance, consumption is recommended to take place soon after the completion of exercise.
For one whose workout concentrates on resistance training, consumption is recommended before training.
It should be noted that much research is still being conducted in this area all the time and that more specific guidelines should be available in the future.
Based on the above recommendations, it seems more logical to spend time focusing on what high-quality proteins, combined with carbohydrates, athletes should be eating, as opposed to focusing on just gorging on large amounts of proteins.
The subject of carbohydrates will be expanded upon in the next article in this series.
The above information is supplied by Yonatan Kaplan PT PhD (Candidate). Director, Jerusalem Sports Medicine Institute, Lerner Sports Center, Hebrew University.

For further details, e-mail: [email protected], call Yonatan at 054-463-9463 or visit