How much protein do I need when exercising?
The widespread public opinion is that people who regular ecersicing need much more protein than the recommended daily amount published by the Nutrition Society.
When I see the number of suppliers for "protein products" and the products in the grocery store with the label "high in protein" and the associated health claims, I am also very tempted to think that this is the truth. But just because something that is excessively advertised doesn't mean it's right.
The question we want to discuss today is, if an "athletic" person needs more protein and why?
The recommended daily amount of protein
The DGE (German Society for Nutrition e.V.) recommends that adults, regardless of gender, consume around 0.8g/kg body weight per day (ages between 19-65). This means that a person who weighs 70 kilograms should consume around 56g of protein per day. Exceptions are for young and elderly people as well as for pregnant women, who have an increased need for protein, but for very different reasons. There is also a reference to the fact that the information relates to the "normal weight". The BMI (Body mass index) is used for this and it is stated that a person with a BMI greater than 25 should use the reference weight as orientation. It remains unclear whether this also applies to people with low weight, i.e. people who are underweight.
This already shows that the need depends very much on age, gender and other living conditions. Unfortunately, the gender-specific component is rarely considered in the following studies and we can only distinguish between active and non-active people.
How many grams of protein should I be consuming when exercising?
The literature says that an athlete should only consider slightly increased amounts of protein if they regularly exercise for more than 5 hours a week. Being physically active for 5 hours is already quite a lot of time, which as an ultra trail runner, I don't always achieve in my taper and recovery weeks, even though I mostly run 6 days a week.
It is undisputed that in active people, the essential amino acids that are required for muscle function and the nervous system are broken down/required to a greater extent, since the muscles are stressed much more frequently.
If you regularly work out more than this, you will find many numbers on the Internet and science also indicates an increased amount of protein between 1.2g/kg and up to 2.0g/kg body weight.
Here it is very important to differentiate between endurance sports and strength sports. For endurance sports, however, it is pointed out that you should orient yourself at the lower end, which means the 1.2g/kg. For weight training, the higher amount is recommended due to the higher amount of muscle and the goals associated with that. But keep in mind that your body weight no longer corresponds to the BMI, since muscle mass is significantly heavier. Keep in mind that the BMI is quite questionable and not widely accurate.
To manifest yet another upper amount of daily intake. There is currently no evidence that consumption above 1.6g/kg will have any further positive effects, both in strength and endurance sports.
The bottom line is that more protein is only recommended if you train regularly and quite a lot of hours. Again, the amount should be adjusted to the workload. So if you train more, you can also take in a little more protein and if you reduce the time, you should also reduce the amount of protein.
However, keep in mind that you may also be able to get the protein from your normal food. You have to do your homework and establish a healthy and balanced diet. This also has many other advantages.
If you train a lot, you also need more food and can probably cover the need without the use of expensive powder. So choose wisely veggies with high amounts of protein for your diet before supplementing with protein powder.
Negative consequences of excessive consumption of protein
It's also important to note that consuming too much protein over a long period of time can have negative effects on your health. It is therefore advisable not to exceed the maximum of 2g/kg, even if there is no official upper limit. Especially when there is no indication that the long-term consumption of 1.6g/kg is still beneficial.
- When the body needs to digest excessive amounts of protein, the waste products are excreted through the kidneys. Consuming too much protein means more stress for your kidneys.
- If you eat a lot of protein, you also have to drink more. Studies have shown that high conumptions of protein increase your water excretion. If not drinking enough this can lead to very dangerous dehydration, especially for endurance athletes. This is probably associated with the increased load on the kidneys, which now require more fluid.
- Excessive intake of animal proteins, such as from red meat, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is also proven by many studies.
- If you eat too much protein, it can create a calorie surplus, which logically leads to weight gain. However, this can also be desired in some sports, such as weight training.
Therefore, try to control the amount and the origin of proteins. Don't forget that with a healthy diet, you can cover your protein requirements and no powders should be necessary.
Positive properties associated with protein
Protein is an important nutrient that is essential for the body, just like fats and carbohydrates. Here are a few beneficial properties and functions where protein plays an important role.
- Protein is an essential building block for muscles, bones, skin, hair and nails. The body needs it to build new and repair damaged tissue.
- Some hormones in the body, such as insulin and glucagon, are made of proteins. Protein also helps in the production of other important hormones like adrenaline and serotonin.
- The essential amino acids are components of proteins and are vital for us.
- Proteins play an important role in absorbing and transporting nutrients around the body, including oxygen, iron and vitamins.
- Proteins are important for the immune system and help in the formation of antibodies and other defense mechanisms against pathogens.
- If the body does not have carbohydrates and fats as an energy source, it can use proteins for that.
It is therefore vital to get enough protein from the diet to meet the body's needs and maintain good health. So make sure that your protein also contains all the essential amino acids. It is even suggested to go for plant-based proteins as they contain other nutrients that are important to us. It has also not been proven that animal proteins have an advantage.
Only for people who are active more than 5 hours a week it can be recommended to increase the amount of protein. However, this should be ingested through a healthy diet and thus throughout the daily meals. So before you use expensive powders, check which foods have a lot of protein and incorporate them into your everyday life and make sure you establish a balanced diet. The real foods are often more tasty than a powder with flavor enhancers and often lots of sugars.
Links to the articles of our research.
Foto von Jonathan Farber auf Unsplash