Protein as we know is a vital nutrient that plays several roles in the body. Protein transports nutrients in the bloodstream, assists in promoting blood clotting; and aids in fluid, electrolyte and pH balance. Protein has a crucial role in the growth and maintenance of lean muscles, bones, nails and the crucial heart muscles. Athlete, especially those participating in high intensity, weight-bearing sports such as running, are constantly breaking down muscle tissue and protein assists in rebuilding those muscles.
There is no denying that protein is crucial to one’s diet, however, there are some misconceptions-especially around health conscience and physically active people-about what it is, what is protein’s function in the body, how much is necessary and what is the best way to incorporate it into a healthy diet? Following are some tips to help you in making smart choices to keep your body healthy and strong.
Why is protein so important? The human body requires protein to serve as the building blocks for new tissues and to replace worn-out cells. Unlike fats and carbohydrates, protein does not have a set storage form for use as energy. If there is not sufficient protein available from food, the body begins to break down the tissues in the blood and liver, then from muscles and other organs. That is why, as an athlete, you need to consume optimal protein on a regular, daily basis, along with sufficient carbohydrates to provide fuel for strenuous exercise.
As many athletes believe, more is always better. For endurance athletes, additional protein is necessary, but probably not as much as you may think. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 – 1 gram per kilogram (kg) of body weight. In comparison, endurance athletes require about 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg. Optimal protein intake should equal the amount excreted to keep the body in nitrogen balance. Excessive protein intake can be hard on the kidneys and may interfere with calcium absorption.
The easiest way to obtain your daily protein requirements is to think in terms of percentage of calories instead of counting grams of protein. One gram of protein has four calories and you should aim for about twenty percent of your daily calories to come from protein. Fifty-fifty-five percent from carbohydrates and the final thirty percent from fat and of which, less than ten percent should come from saturated fat.
What are the best sources of protein? Protein is available in many foods and is easily accessible. Consuming a varied diet ensures that you are obtaining protein from a wide variety of sources, The protein from animal sources offer a complete protein source meaning all of the essential amino acids or building block of protein, are present. Sources such as eggs lean poultry, beef and fish. Dairy sources, nuts and nut butters and seeds add to the vast selection of protein sources. Legumes are derived from the plants of the bean and pea family that also contain amino acids. Approximately eighty percent of these proteins are bio-available or digested and absorbed. Vegetarians have to be a little more creative when choosing protein sources to ensure they too are getting all the essential amino acids. An easy way to do this is to combine a legume such as beans, lentils, peas, or soy products with a whole grain. These food combinations do not have to be at the same meal but should be consumed over the course of the day. Other great options for vegetarians are tofu, seitan or tempeh, gardenburgers or soy dogs.
Now that you are armed with the above information, consuming the appropriate amount of protein for your activity level should be easy to figure out. With all of the options available to endurance athletes, or weekend warriors, there are more than enough options to choose from so be creative and try a new source!