Protein requirements for athletes and mere mortals

Protein is totally the “in” macronutrient right now, and while there are certainly benefits to focusing on protein intake, I think a lot of people don’t understand how much we actually need, and what that looks like in food terms. Let’s talk about it.

Ugh, how gross does this look???

Raw meat and cooked meat should never ever be near each other like that…*shudders*

Why do we need protein?

First, let’s backtrack. There are three macronutrients that make up all foods – fat, carb, and protein. Carbohydrate and protein have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram. Each of these macronutrients has a different basic chemical structure, and they are each used by the body for different things.

Protein makes up your body structures. Skin, hair, bones, nails, muscles – these things are all made of proteins. Clearly, the stuff is important. Unlike carbohydrate, protein cannot be made from other macronutrients because proteins contain a specific nitrogen-containing component that neither fat nor carbohydrates have. Therefore, these structures can only be made if the body has enough protein, either from other body proteins or from dietary protein. Since you don’t want to break down your muscles in order to make fingernails, it’s really important to eat enough protein.

What foods contain protein?

A lot of people don’t realize this, but there is protein in more than just meat and beans! Check it out:

Food Protein Content
Meat 7 grams per ounce
Milk 8 grams per cup
Cheese 8 grams per ounce
Yogurt, Greek 23 grams per cup
Yogurt, regular 10 grams per cup
Egg 7 grams
Egg white 3.5 grams per one egg white
Tofu 10g per ½ cup
Peanut butter 8g per 2 tablespoons
Bread 3g per 1oz slice
Rice 4g per cup
Quinoa 8g per cup
Beans 13g per cup
Potatoes 4g per 1 medium potato
Nonstarchy vegetables 2g per ½ cup cooked, 1 cup raw

There is a lot of protein in foods that we don’t traditionally think of as “high protein foods”. Even in vegetables!

How much do you need?

The average person needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight. This increases with athletes to 1.2-1.7 g/kg, because they typically have more muscle (more protein to maintain) and break it down more often (more protein to repair). Beyond that, if an athlete is trying to build muscle or lose weight, they need even more protein – up tp 2 g/kg – to make sure that weight lost is not from body proteins being broken down (i.e. to ensure that weight loss is from fat mass) or to make sure that the building blocks are there to add extra skeletal muscle. REMEMBER: in order to gain lean mass, the proper training stimulus must be applied – you need resistance exercise in order to build muscle. Eating extra protein alone will not result in bigger muscles, it will just result in greater net calories and therefore make you fat.

Group Protein requirement in g/kg
Normal people 0.8
Athletes 1.2-1.7
Athletes losing fat mass or gaining lean mass Up to 2.0

What does this translate to in food terms?

In short, a lot less than you think. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples: a 145 pound casual exerciser, a 130 pound runner who wants to gain muscle mass, and a 175 pound soccer player who needs to be strong and fast.

145lb casual exerciser

145lb = 66kg

66kg x 0.8g protein/kg = 53g protein

53g protein table

130lb athlete, muscle gain

130lb = 59kg

59kg x 1.8g protein/kg = 106g protein

106g protein table

175lb athlete

175lb = 80kg

80kg x 1.4g protein/kg = 111g protein

111g protein table

As you can see, NONE of these examples required protein supplements in order to reach their protein goals. In fact, while typing them up I often had to reduce the protein that I had planned for their meals. Do you know how big a 1-oz meatball is? Way smaller than a golfball, that’s for sure. Most people would be able to far exceed these protein goals without even trying.

Things can get tricky, however, when larger athletes want to bulk up – think 200+ pound linebackers trying to gain muscle. These guys can easily require upwards of 200 grams of protein per day  – the equivalent of five chicken breasts. My jaw hurts just thinking about it! In these cases, supplements may be essential. They are not essential for the rest of us, however, as much as the industry would like you to believe.

How much should I eat at one time?

Around 20g results in maximum rates of muscle synthesis. You can see that several of our fictitious meals easily soared over this 20g mark – it’s easy to reach. The point here is that you don’t need to cram in some outrageous supplement in order to ensure that your muscles are able to rebuild to their max.

Why else may I want to increase protein?

There is a lot of hype about protein in the media these days, especially for weight loss and muscle building. We’ve already discussed that protein is essential to build muscle. It can help in weight loss because it keeps you full for longer, which makes you less likely to snack in between meals or overeat at your next meal. Often, when I have patients who turn into a bottomless pit in the late afternoon or when they return home after work, too little protein at lunch is the culprit.

However, you should beware that adding protein for the sake of adding protein is not the best option – it needs to be balanced with overall calories. If you aren’t getting enough protein, you may be getting more starch than you need. A detailed analysis of your current diet is essential – call up your friendly neighborhood sports dietitian!

What is the best type of protein for me?

This is really splitting hairs. For maximum muscle growth, certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein molecules) can stimulate this process better than others. These AAs are the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly Leucine. Leucine is present in high concentrations in whey protein. If you’re looking for a good powdered supplement, go whey protein. If you’re taking a whole-foods approach, include lowfat dairy in your diet. This isn’t something you need to obsess about, as you will gain muscle with resistance exercise as long as you have enough protein around. Like I said, splitting hairs.


  • You probably need less protein than you think you do
  • Lots of foods contain protein
  • If you’re an athlete, you need more
  • We can calculate how much you need!
  • Milk = big stong muscles (mama wasn’t lyin’)

Drink milk, get muscles. Duh.

6 responses to “Protein requirements for athletes and mere mortals

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