The Protein Obsession: A Food First Approach

One of my first, and only, pieces of dietary advice in high school basketball was to eat chicken after practice to recover from training.  This made (some) sense, providing protein to recover muscle damage (in a good way) that incurred from training.  Protein is one nutrient needed, along with carbohydrates and some fat, to aid in the recovery from training and exercise.  It’s  specific functions in this process is to attend to muscle synthesis (building muscle) and preventing muscle breakdown.  Protein also has a variety of other really important functions in the body including cell activity (enzymes), organ and tissue maintenance, immune function and nervous system functions.

The athletic and fitness industries are kind of protein obsessed, and I got that first glimpse of it in high school sports.  Working as a trainer, I felt left out that I was not habitually supplementing protein, a practice many people think they absolutely need to gain muscle, strength and/or lose weight.  In our more is better society, of course the idea of more protein is better has entered that mentality.  While I do advocate from a food first approach, depending on your goals activity level and diet, a protein supplement may be useful.  Before diving into an expensive protein powder regime, let’s check out the recommendations and how we can get that from food.

First, how much protein do you need?

That depends on your body, goals and activity level.  With the current RDA for protein set a 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, as active individual, you may benefit from higher protein consumption.  These higher needs can range from 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram per day (1).  These levels can be reached with proper nutrition through whole foods.  For example, an active 135-pound adult may need between 75-120 grams of protein per day.

The timing of protein ingestion can be important for optimal growth and recovery.  In the first two hours after training, it is recommended that an individual consumes 15-25 grams of high quality protein to effectively stimulate the muscle rebuilding mechanism (1).  Continual feeding of approximately 20 grams of protein 3-5 hours apart has been shown to maximally stimulate this muscle building mechanism (2).  There is not sufficient evidence that higher doses (ie 40 grams) has been found to further enhance this mechanism (1, 2).

Here’s a quick food first approach to getting 20 grams of protein:

What equals 20 grams of protein_ (1)

If I do need a supplement, what should I be looking for? 

There are some reasons when a quality protein supplement may be necessary.  Access to protein rich food after training or a workout can be challenging due to time or lack of appetite.  Intense exercise can suppress appetite, and in this case a protein supplement with carbohydrate can be useful to ensure your body gets nutrients and calories to recover effectively.

With so many proteins on the market, making a decision can be overwhelming.  What has found to be most effective are 100% whey protein isolate for individuals who can tolerate whey.  If you prefer a non-dairy supplement, there are a variety of vegan protein supplements that are nearly just as effective as whey isolate.

Since the protein supplement industry is highly unregulated, many NCAA and even FDA banned substances can make their way into their protein supplements.  In a response to this practice, I tend to recommend a supplement that is NSF Certified for Sport (www.nsfsport.com), which is a third-party testing company that tests what is on the label is actually in the bottle.  They also only list supplements that are safe for athletes looking to avoid banned substances.  If you are not an athlete, this is recommended for your health and safety.  Consumer Lab (consumerlab.com) is another third-party company, which requires a membership, that tests and reviews the quality of supplements for safety and efficacy.

It is always best to work with a nutrition profession like a Registered Dietitian to assess and help you plan your nutrient needs.  Remember, protein is just one of the essential nutrients your body needs to perform.  A well-balanced diet will incorporate a combination of foods to reach your needs and reach you goals and determine your appropriate macronutrient needs.


(1) Thomas, D. Travis, et al. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 116, no. 3, 2016, pp. 501–528., doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006.

(2) Areta, José L., et al. “Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis.” The Journal of Physiology, vol. 591, no. 9, May 2013, pp. 2319–2331., doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897.

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