Athletes have higher protein requirements than the general population. Protein helps repair muscle that has been damaged during exercise. After exercise, there is an increased muscle protein turnover. There is a breakdown of damaged muscle and an increased synthesis of muscle to replace it. Without the consumption of protein, the body is unable to synthesize new muscle to replace the muscle that was broken down.
Many athletes think that protein is only important for resistance exercise, such as weight lifting. However, this increased muscle protein turnover also occurs post endurance exercise. In fact, endurance athletes may have higher protein requirements than strength based athletes because of the use of muscle protein as an energy source during prolonged exercise. Athletes who are trying to lose weight have even higher protein requirements, as eating a high protein diet will help preserve muscle mass so that more of the weight lost is body fat.
Before we can explain plant versus animal protein for athletes, the amount of protein recommended needs to be explained. Protein requirements are often given in total amount of protein to consume per day. However, looking at protein distribution throughout the day is often more useful because the body can only use so much protein at once. Going over this amount will not provide any advantage for helping muscle recovery. For most athletes, this usually works out to about 20-30 grams per meal. Because muscle remodeling continues for 24-48 hours after exercise, this amount of protein should be consumed not only after exercise, but every 3-4 hours.
So what does 20-30 grams of protein look like in real food examples? Checkout the picture below.
As you can see, getting this amount of protein from animal products, such as meat and dairy products, is very easy. On the other hand, excluding soy protein, a high quantity of plant products needs to be consumed to get the same amount of protein. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, for many athletes, this amount of plant based protein just isn’t realistic. In addition, for athletes who are trying to lose weight, this will also blow their calorie budget. For instance, 2 cups plain low fat Greek yogurt is about 300 calories, while 2.5 cups chickpeas would be about 700 calories (and cause a lot of gas).
Another potential advantage of animal protein over plant protein is the leucine content. Leucine is an amino acid that plays a key role in muscle protein synthesis. Typically about 2.5 grams of leucine is recommended. Not all protein types have the same leucine content. For instance, 2.5 grams of leucine can be found in 1 cup Greek yogurt versus approximately 12 slices of bread or 1 cup of peanuts.
Please don’t think that I’m saying it’s impossible to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. This is certainly not the case. As I mentioned above, soy protein, such as tofu or soy milk, is a great option for athletes and research has shown that it’s just as effective as animal proteins for muscle protein synthesis. And yes, soy is safe to consume (for more on that, click here). The updated Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing plant proteins over animal proteins. The main reason for this is to help lower saturated fat consumption, which may increase cholesterol levels and impact cardiovascular health. However, as I mentioned last week, Canada’s Food Guide isn’t always suitable for athletes because of the demands of training (for more on that, click here).
Protein intake is important for all athletes, even those not looking to build muscle, in order to ensure that damaged muscle is properly repaired after exercise. Ensure that not only your post-exercise recovery meal, but each meal, contains good quality protein, so that you can get the most out of your training.
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