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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Mathes


Protein plays a vital role in athletes by repairing muscle and synthesizing new muscle tissue.  Distributing protein throughout the day as part of a healthy foundation diet for an athlete will help recovery, preserve and build muscle tissue.  Protein also plays a large role in providing a sense of satiety, maintaining protein stores (muscle mass), and a helpful tool for weight loss, while maintaining blood sugars.

An athlete’s daily diet should include high quality protein sources at EVERY meal (especially breakfast) and snacks.  Approximately 20-30 grams of protein/meal is suggested, with 7-15 grams per snack, the overall needs for an athlete per day is based on athletic needs of the sport, training and overall health of the athlete.  Needs can be anywhere from 85-150 (1.4-2.0grams/kg is typical range depending on the sport) or more. The benefit of “titrating” protein throughout the day vs. one lump sum (Example: 16oz. steak at dinner), is to fulfill our amino acid pool, continually. Peak time to trigger muscle protein synthesis is approximately 2 hours after consumption of high quality protein. Please don’t get this mixed up with the importance of recovery immediately after a vigorous training session. You still need high quality protein within 20 minutes of exercise to help attenuate muscle protein tissue breakdown. Timing of protein is important and high quality sources that include branched chain amino acids (BCAA), and specifically leucine.  Leucine is an essential amino acid (meaning we don’t produce it ourselves, it has to come from food or supplement sources) that triggers muscle protein synthesis.

High quality protein sources:

  • Dairy products; low fat/ fat free milk, Greek yogurts, kefir (8oz.=10grams)

    • High sources of leucine, a branched chain amino acid, that is crucial in the role of muscle protein synthesis. Cottage cheese is the highest source, with milk and eggs following close behind.

  • Whey protein powders

  • LEAN Meat, poultry, pork and fish (3oz. of any of these foods, the size of the palm of your hand provides 20 grams of Protein)

  • Soy foods and soy protein powders (not as readily absorbed as their animal derived counterparts, so you need more grams)

  • Beans, lentils, chickpeas (1/2 cup= 7-8 grams)

  • Almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews and pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup -8 grams)

  • Protein bars with BCAA’s included in them

High quality protein packed snacks:

  • ½ cup of low fat cottage cheese and ½ cup of berries

  • Apples with 1-2 tbsp. nut butter or whole wheat bread, with peanut butter and honey

  • Greek yogurt with fresh fruit

  • 1-2oz. of beef jerky and a piece of fruit with some fruit and veggies

  • Protein shakes or bars (perfect for those inconvenient times to make a snack, food is always best when you can)

  • Hard boiled egg, fruit and a few whole grain crackers

  • ½ cup of lentil soup

  • ½ cup of edamame

  • Nitrate free, antibiotic free lunchmeat, make a ½ sandwich

  • Kefir with some fruit

  • Bowl of whole grain cereal with milk

Wise, healthy protein food choices timed properly will improve your overall performance as an athlete, by recovering faster, decreasing injury and increasing/preserving muscle mass for optimal performance.

Melissa A. Mathes, MPH, RDN, CSSD

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