Protein Facts and Fallacies for Athletes

Research shows that strength training, endurance events, and some sports increase your need for protein. While the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is roughly 60 grams, many of us require more.

Factors affecting an athlete's protein needs include:

  • Body composition: More protein is required to maintain greater muscle mass and size.

  • Intensity and duration of exercise

  • Starting an endurance or strength training program: Protein needs are increased at the start of an endurance or strength training program. Increasing muscle mass requires much more protein than maintaining muscle mass.

  • Amount of carbohydrates and fat in the diet: If the body does not get enough carbs (and fat) for fuel, it will use protein as an energy source.

  • Recovery from illness or injury: An athlete who is recovering from an injury or fracture will need more protein for healing.

  • Growing teenage athletes: Teenage athletes need enough protein for their sport as well as for growth.

    While it's important to get enough protein, many athletes involved in strength training and bodybuilding may be getting too much. Protein that is not needed by the body, and is not burned off, will be stored as fat.

    Probably the biggest risk of excess protein is not getting the carbohydrates needed to maintain and replace muscle glycogen stores. You need the energy from carbs to fuel and build muscle!

    Risks of excess protein

  • Kidney damage

  • Dehydration

  • Calcium loss

    Listed below are general guidelines for protein intake. This of course should be individualized based on an athlete's specific needs. These are not minimum requirements.

    Grams of protein per pound of body weight

    Current RDA for sedentary adults: 0.4

    Recreational exerciser, adult: 0.5 - 0.75

    Competitive athlete, adult: 0.6 - 0.9

    Growing teenage athlete: 0.8 - 0.9

    Adult building muscle mass: 0.7 - 0.9

    Athlete restricting calories: 0.8 - 0.9

    Maximum useable amount for adults: 0.9

    (Lemon et al., Walberg et al.)

    Protein facts

  • To add 1 pound of muscle, the body needs an additional 10 to 14 grams of protein per day. This is equal to about 2 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish; one large egg; or 1 cup of beans.

  • The body can only add 2 pounds of muscle per week.

  • Vegetarian athletes who eliminate animal protein without substituting with vegetable protein sources are not likely to get enough protein. It's important to include beans and peas, along with soy products and/or meat substitutes.

  • Egg whites contain one of the highest-quality proteins.

  • Protein intake alone will not build muscle. It's also necessary to get adequate amounts of carbohydrate (for extra calories) -- along with a strength-training program, of course.

    Protein content of commonly eaten foods (grams of protein)

    Egg white, one: 3.5

    Cheddar cheese, 1 ounce: 7

    Milk, (1%) 1 cup: 8

    Hamburger, 4 ounces, broiled: 30

    Chicken breast, 4 ounces, roasted: 35

    Tuna, 6 ounces: 40

    Beans, 1 cup: 12

    Tofu, 3 ounces: 11

    Pasta, 1 cup: 7

  • Active logo Eat right and perform better. Find a nutrition plan for you.

    Barbara Lewin, R.D.,L.D. is a registered dietitian and consulting sports nutritionist with over 18 years of experience in teaching athletes effective and realistic ways to improve their health and optimize performance.She can be reached at 954-531-0477 or at

    Discuss This Article