The Athlete’s Kitchen-Fads, Facts and Fallacies
Brought to you by Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD.
Many of today’s athletes believe protein should dominate a sports diet. True? Not quite.
What percent of my calories should come from protein?
Dietary guidelines recommend 10% to 15% of daily calories should come from protein. In truth, athletes should base their protein needs on body weight, not percent of calories. The target for most athletes is about 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.0-1.5 g pro/kg) per day. Athletes who restrict calories or are new to lifting weights might need a bit more protein—but most hungry athletes consume that much—plus more—within the context of daily food choices.
Can I get enough protein without protein shakes, bars and powders? Yes!
I rarely meet athletes who consume too little protein. Those who might benefit from a supplement include athletes with anorexia (who consume too little of most nutrients), dieting vegetarian athletes who fail to consume adequate plant protein within their restricted calorie budget. That is, for 125 calories, you can consume 25 grams of protein from a can of tuna but less than 4 g protein from the dollop (0.25 cup) of hummus on a salad.
Can vegan athletes perform as well as meat-eaters?
For certain, as long as they consume adequate protein, iron, calcium and B-12, among other nutrients. Not hard to do if the vegan is eating responsibly (i.e., not living on “vegan” Coke & potato chips). They might even perform better when they shift from a meat-based to plant-based diet. Plant proteins (such as beans, lentils, and hummus) offer both protein (to build and repair muscles) and carbohydrate (to fuel muscles).
To optimally fuel muscles, athletes who train about an hour a day need about 2.25 to 3.5 g carb/pound of body weight, depending on the intensity of the workout. For a 150-pound athlete, this comes to about 340 to 525 grams of carb a day (1,360 to 2,100 calories from carb). To hit that goal, starchy beans and grains should be the foundation of each meal and snack. Vegan athletes can easily hit that target, while many meat-focused or carb-avoidant athletes end up needlessly fatigued when meat/fish/chicken and salads displace starches and grains. No wonder many athletes report performing better when they switch to a vegan diet!