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Why is protein important? What is too much? What is too little?

Athletes Need Protein in their Diet. When we eat protein, it is turned into over 20 different amino acids which become the body's amino acid pool. The body draws on this pool when it needs a particular amino acid to do a one of it's many jobs. Some of the jobs that proteins and amino acids do: Maintain the body's water balance

Work as building blocks for antibodies which maintain healt

Enable digestion and the workings of the body's cells

Build and support body tissues including muscles, bones, and organs

Transport vital nutrients in our blood

Make and support hormones, which run numerous body functions

Don't try and out think your body by taking amino acid pills to increase a body function without your doctor's order. Your job is to eat right and let your body choose what it needs from your amino acid pool.

Meats, milk products and eggs are complete protein, and will allow our body to build a complete amino pool. Beans and grains are not complete proteins. Vegetarians must mix beans and grains at each meal to ensure their body has a complete amino acid pool.

A diet that does not include enough protein to produce and maintain the amino acid pool will will eventually cause problems. Some symptoms of a diet low in protein include:

Loss of muscle

Water retention, swelling (edema)

Changes in hair and nails

Skin changes, rashes

Lower resistance to illness

Athletes who train hard will eat more to fuel their extra energy use. If these athletes are eating a balanced diet, they will normally get enough protein. Some risk groups for low protein have been identified as: Young athletes who need protein for growth and increased training

Athletes cutting weight, or people training to change their body profile


Too Much Protein:
Mayo Clinic, Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D:

Your body can't store excess protein. During digestion and metabolism, protein is broken down into amino acids — the building blocks of protein. Your body uses these amino acids to make enzymes and other proteins. But, any "extra" amino acids are stripped of nitrogen. The non-nitrogen parts of amino acids are used for energy or converted into fat, and the remaining nitrogen is eventually excreted by your kidneys and liver. These waste products have been shown to cause kidney injury, and in the presence of liver disease, excess nitrogen can cause further problems. High-protein diets may also increase the risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis.

When the body burns protein, it makes ammonia, a toxic substance that must be converted to urea by the liver and shipped to the kidneys, and excreted in the urine.

Another problem with too much protein is water loss and dehydration.  The process of excreting excess nitrogen takes water, which reduces the water available for the athlete. This process also uses calcium, and can cause osteoporosis.

So, we don't want to have too much protein in our diet, and we want protein we eat to work as it should.

Recommended Protein Intake for Athletes
A recommended level for non athletes is 15 percent of total calories. If someone is eating 2000 calories per day, then they need 300 calories of protein. Protein yields 4 calories per gram, so the average person who is eating 2000 calories per day needs 75 grams of protein per day.
A rough rule of thumb for non athletes is .3 - .4 grams / lb. of body weight. So, a 100 lb. non athlete needs 30-40 grams of protein per day.

Athletes need approximately twice the protein as the non athlete. Athletes have a higher ratio of muscle (higher lean mass) which uses more protein. Athletes need extra protein for tissue repair, and also because a small amount of protein is burned during training.

Protein Requirements for Athletes Daily Protein Requirement per lb. of body weight

Endurance athlete                      .55 - .64 g

Strength & powder athlete          .64 - .90 g

Athlete on fat loss program         .72 - .90 g

Athlete on weight gain program   .81 - .90 g (1 gram /lb is widely accepted)

*(Hergreaves & Snow, 2001; Lemon, 1998; Williams & Devlin, 1992; Williams, 1998; ACSM, 2000).

The Bottom Line on Protein:
As an athlete you need at least .6 grams for every pound you weigh.  If you weigh 100 pounds, you need at least 60 grams of protein per day.  The most you need is one gram of protein per day; if you weigh 200 pounds you can eat 200 grams of protein per day.  If you are carrying more fat than if you were in top condition, reduce the weight for your calculations to a body weight that is closer to your competition weight.  Your extra fat does not need protein.

Use the list below, and read the food product label to begin your study of protein in your diet.  Remember that vegetarian athletes need to pay attention to where their proteins are coming from.

Food for Protein:

Approximate Grams of Protein per Serving Size

Cooked red meat:  7gr. / oz

Cooked chicken meat:  7gr. / oz

Cooked fish:  7gr. / oz

Canned tuna: 40 gr./ 6 oz. can

Yogurt: 10 gr. / cup

Cottage Cheese: 15 gr. / half cup

Medium Cheese: 8 gr. / oz.

Milk: 8 gr. / cup

Eggs: 6 / one large

Cooked beans: 20 gr. / cup

Grains: 12 - 20 gr. / cup

Fruits: 1 gr. / one piece

Vegetables: 1 - 2  gr. / cup

Nuts: 6 - 8 gr. / quarter cup