Protein

Protein is important in sports performance as it can boost glycogen storage, reduce muscle soreness and promote muscle repair. For those who are active regularly, there may be benefit from consuming a portion of protein at each mealtime and spreading protein intake out throughout the day.

As some high protein foods can also be high in saturated fat, e.g. fatty meats or higher fat dairy products, it is important to choose lower fat options, such as lean meats. Most vegans get enough protein from their diets, but it is important to consume a variety of plant proteins to ensure enough essential amino acids are included. This is known as the complementary action of proteins. More information on vegetarian and vegan diets is available here.

 

Whilst there may be a benefit in increasing protein intakes for athletes and those recreationally active to a high level, the importance of high protein diets is often overstated for the general population. It is a common misconception that high protein intakes alone increase muscle mass, and focussing too much on eating lots of protein can mean not getting enough carbohydrate, which is a more efficient source of energy for exercise. It is important to note that high protein intakes can increase your energy (calorie) intake, which can lead to excess weight gain.

The current protein recommendations for the general population are; 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day for adults and most people are consuming more than this, so it’s unlikely that you need to eat extra protein if doing activity within the current guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. If you are participating in regular sport and exercise like training for a running or cycling event or lifting weights regularly, then your protein requirements may be slightly higher than the general sedentary population, in order to promote muscle tissue growth and repair.

For strength and endurance athletes, protein requirements are increased to around 1.2-2.0g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The most recent recommendations for athletes from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) also focus on protein timing, not just total intake, ensuring high quality protein is consumed throughout the day (after key exercise sessions and around every 3–5 hours over multiple meals, depending on requirements). In athletes that are in energy deficit, such as team sport players trying to lose weight gained in the off season, there may be a benefit in consuming protein amounts at the high end, or slightly higher, than the recommendations, to reduce the loss of muscle mass during weight loss.

Timing of protein consumption is important in the recovery period after training for athletes. Between 30 minutes and 2 hours after training, it is recommended to consume 15-25g of protein alongside some carbohydrate. Although they may be useful for convenient protein intakes around exercise, protein supplements can’t provide all the different components found in protein-rich foods so focussing on a ‘food first’ approach is optimal. A whey protein shake contains around 20g of protein, which you can get from half a chicken breast or a small can of tuna. For more information on protein supplements, see the supplements section.

 

The table below shows the protein content of some common foods:

Food source

Serving size

Protein content (g) per serving size

Chicken breast grilled

120g

38.4

Salmon fillet grilled

120g

29.5

Rump steak grilled

130g

40.3

Tuna canned in brine

60g

15.0

Baked beans

200g

10.0

Almonds

20g

4.2

Eggs

120g

16.9

Half fat cheddar cheese

30g

9.8

Semi skimmed milk

200ml

7.0

 

Vegetarian and vegan diets for athletes

There has been a rise in media interest around the use of vegetarian or vegan diets to improve sporting performance, however, this remains a new area for research and there have only been a few studies that have looked at vegan/vegetarian diets for athletes.

To date, there is no clear evidence to suggest that vegetarian or vegan diets impact performance differently to a mixed diet, although it is important to recognise that whatever the dietary pattern chosen, it is important to follow a diet that is balanced to meet nutrient requirements. More research is needed, to determine whether or not vegetarian or vegan diets can help athletic performance.

For the general population, while you don’t have to cut out meat or dairy to have a healthy diet, eating a more plant-based diet, provided it’s healthy and varied, has the potential to benefit health.  More plant-based diets can provide a wide variety of nutrients and natural phytochemicals, plenty of fibre and tend to be low in saturated fat, salt and sugar. For more information on vegetarian and vegan diets in the general population, click here.