Protein - The Ultimate Nutrient?

Is the protein component of an athlete’s diet the be all and end all or is it simply a lot of hot air? Although this appears quite a simple question, the protein debate still looms large and is shrouded in controversy.

Much of this uncertainty arises from cycles of opinion within the media, on the internet and from pseudo-scientists/nutritionists. It is no wonder that many exercisers are struggling to decide just how much protein is enough?

In recent years, scientists have come to a consensus on protein requirements via high quality, well-controlled studies. There is no denying that protein is an essential nutrient in the diet, especially in its pivotal role of building and repairing muscles but does this necessitate the consumption of protein powders, numerous chicken breasts, and raw eggs, by those undertaking strenuous exercise? While it is true that exercise induces the body to consume proteins at a faster rate, it is unclear whether excessively high protein diets offer any performance advantages. In fact, there may be disadvantages to this form of diet.

According to Dr. Michael Colgan, when excess protein foods break down, the amino acids are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and highly toxic ammonia. The ammonia is then turned into urea, which is transported to the kidneys. If you eat protein beyond the capacity of the kidneys to eliminate urea, then you could end up with painful swollen kidneys, or worse, blood poisoning.

Generally protein is the nutrient we need worry least about, as it appears in many of the foods we consume daily. While athletes do need more protein than sedentary individuals, one tablespoon of protein is generally enough to fulfill a day’s requirements. Here is a list of recommendations for protein consumption.

Daily Protein Recommendations g/kg/day
Sedentary to low levels of activity - men and women 0.8 -1.0
Regular activity (>1hour/day) 1.0 -1.2
Moderate-high intensity endurance athletes 1.2 -1.5
Resistance athletes (strength and speed) 1.2 -1.7

These are recommendations and should only be used as a guide. If taken literally, they produce a wide range of protein needs and it is not always easy to categorize athletes into strength or endurance groups. Other issues need to be considered, i.e. one’s sport, the level of training, physical size and body composition and the quality of the current diet, which is where the expertise of a Registered Dietician/Nutritionist should be sought.

Low protein intake, on the other hand, can lead to loss of strength and power or a failure to make optimal gains from training. Although rare, some athletes may have diets which are too low in protein. Some individuals who may be susceptible to protein deficiency are:

  • Low calorie dieters or fussy eaters
  • Strict vegetarians
  • Fad dieters
  • Individuals with allergies/food intolerances
  • Individuals with eating disorders or disordered eating problems

Adhering to the daily recommendations for protein consumption, however, will help to sustain proper protein levels.

As Ron Maughan, professor at the University of Aberdeen said, "The carbohydrate/protein controversy rages but decades of research show -- and muscles insist -- that carbohydrates are truly the active body's preferred source of energy. The single most important factor for muscle fuel and energy replacement is the amount of carbohydrates consumed and it's best to take in your carbohydrates as soon as possible after training." Many individuals search for that magic pill to achieve the competitive edge and often look to supplements or special combinations of nutrients. While protein plays a crucial role in recovery from training and competition, and is a key nutrient in the diet, it is not the magic potion. The common-sense approach to improving performance, backed by copious research, is to rely on a sound, fundamental program that stresses hydration and nutrition as a complement to an effective training regimen.

Ben Wilde is Cybex’s Master Trainer. Liz Purcell is a State Registered Dietician and an Accredited Sports Dietician.