Protein is a vital macronutrient that plays several roles in the body. Not only does protein transport nutrients in the bloodstream and assist in promoting blood clotting, but it also aids in fluid, electrolyte and pH balance. All of the three macronutrients, which consist of protein, carbohydrates and fats, play crucial roles in the body. Protein also has other important roles too. These include the growth and maintenance of lean muscles, bones, nails and the very important muscles of the heart. Athletes, especially those participating in high intensity, weight-bearing sports such as running, are constantly breaking down muscle tissue and consuming 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 exactly protein’s function is in the body, how much is necessary and what is the best way to incorporate it into a healthy diet.
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 optimal fuel for strenuous exercise. Below are some tips to help you in making smart choices to keep your body healthy and strong. The chart below is a helpful guide to determine the protein needs of adult men and women.
|Gender||Age Range||Serving Size|
|Women||19-30 years old|
31-50 years old
51+ years old
|5 ½ ounce equivalents
5 ounce equivalents
5 ounce equivalents
|Men||19-30 years old|
31-50 years old
51+ years old
|6 ½ ounce equivalents
6 ounce equivalents
5 ½ ounce equivalents
These amounts are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs (protein data provided by ChooseMyPlate).
What Does a One-Ounce Equivalent Look Like?
In general, 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish, 1/4 cup cooked beans, 1 egg or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter counts as a serving. Use the chart below for more sources:
|Amount That Counts as 1 Ounce Equivalent||Common Portions and Ounce Equivalents|
|1 ounce cooked lean beef|
1 ounce cooked lean pork or ham
|1 small steak (eye of round, filet) = 3 ½ to 4 ounce-equivalents
1 small lean hamburger = 2 to 3 ounce-equivalents
|1 ounce cooked chicken or turkey, without skin|
1 sandwich slice of turkey (4 ½" x 2 ½" x 1/8")
|1 small chicken breast half = 3 ounce-equivalents
½ Cornish game hen = 4 ounce-equivalents
|1 ounce cooked fish or shell fish||1 can of tuna, drained = 3 to 4 ounce-equivalents
1 salmon steak = 4 to 6 ounce-equivalents
1 small trout = 3 ounce-equivalents
|1 egg||3 egg whites = 2 ounce-equivalents
3 egg yolks = 1 ounce-equivalen
|½ ounce of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves)|
½ ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)
1 Tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter
|1 ounce of nuts of seeds = 2 ounce-equivalents|
|¼ cup of cooked beans (such as black, kidney, pinto, or white beans)|
¼ cup of cooked peas (such as chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, or split peas)
¼ cup of baked beans, refried beans
¼ cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu
1 ox. Tempeh, cooked
¼ cup roasted soybeans 1 falafel patty (2 ¼", 4 oz.)
2 Tablespoons hummus
|1 cup split pea soup = 2 ounce-equivalents
1 cup lentil soup = 2 ounce-equivalents
1 cup bean soup = 2 ounce-equivalents
1 soy or bean burger patty = 2 ounce-equivalents
As many athletes believe, more is always better. For endurance athletes, additional protein is usually necessary, but probably not as much as you may think. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8-gram (g) 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 20% of your daily calories to come from protein. 50% from carbohydrates and the final 30% from fat and of which, less than 10% 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 are excellent. 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 80% of these proteins are bio-available, or digested and absorbed. Vegetarians, and specifically vegans, 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.
Use These Tips To Help You Make The Healthiest Choices:
- Go lean with protein! The leanest beef cuts include round steaks and roasts (eye of round, top round, bottom round, round tip), top loin, top sirloin, chuck shoulder and arm roasts. The leanest pork choices include pork loin, tenderloin, center loin, and ham.
- Choose lean ground beef. To be considered “lean,” the product has to be at least 92% lean (8% fat).
- Boneless skinless chicken breasts and turkey cutlets are the leanest poultry choices.
Vary Your Protein Choices:
- Choose seafood at least twice a week as the main protein food.
- Choose beans, peas, or soy products for a main dish or part of a meal often. Chili with kidney beans, stir-fried tofu and split pea soup are excellent.
- Choose unsalted nuts as a snack, on salads, or in main dishes. Use nuts to replace meat or poultry, not in addition to these items.
- Have an egg! 1 egg a day, on average, doesn’t increase risk for heart disease, so make eggs part of your weekly choices. Only the egg yolk contains saturated fat, so have as many egg whites as you want.
- Eat plant protein foods more often. Try beans and peas (kidney, pinto, black, or white beans, split peas, chickpeas, hummus), soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers), nuts, and seeds. They are naturally low in saturated fat and high in fiber.
Now that you are armed with the above information, consuming the appropriate amount of protein for your activity level should be super easy. 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 for your protein needs!