Richard Stockton College Athletic Training

Sports Nutrition Newsletter
A periodic Newsletter that addresses the Nutritional aspects
of athletic competition.

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Nancy Brinch, MS, RD, LSW, is Richard Stockton College's campus nutritionist. She obtained her BS in Food and Nutriton from the Univ. of Delaware and her Master's in Nutrition from Penn State Univ.

She provides individual, confidential nutritional counseling to students. Her service is free for RSC students. For appointments call extension 5740. Nancy Brinch can be contacted at
Protein: Power or Propaganda?

By Nancy Brinch, MS, RD, LSW

Athletes often are lured to high-protein diets and protein supplements by claims that they will enhance muscle development and improve athletic performance. Bodybuilders, in particular, respond to the message that their protein needs are so great that they can't meet them with food alone.

Is there any truth to the claim that athletes need to consume protein supplements?

Protein is the major nutrient, other than water, found in muscle. Muscle cells use protein to build and repair tissue. Protein also can be used as a source of energy. An athlete who does not consume adequate calories from carbohydrate and fat will use protein for energy rather than for muscle building and maintenance. This is why carbohydrate and fat are referred to as "protein sparing" energy nutrients. An athlete who consumes a high-protein diet and limits carbohydrate and fat intake will convert protein into glucose for energy. This is an inefficient process. It leads to an increased workload for the kidneys because they have to excrete the waste products produced by this process, and it can cause dehydration if water consumption is not sufficient to excrete these waste products. By using protein as an energy source the muscle is deprived of protein needed to build and repair tissue.

Even when carbohydrate and fat intake are adequate, consuming high amounts of protein will not build muscle tissue. Research at Kent State's Applied Physiology Research Laboratory showed that bodybuilders who consumed very high amounts of protein did not increase muscle mass or strength.

The upshot:
When athletes consume adequate calories, especially from carbohydrate, and do strength resistance training, dietary protein will be used to increase muscle size and strength. The amount of protein necessary to accomplish this can be found in foods. Protein and amino acid supplements are not needed.

How much protein does an athlete require? This depends on three factors: 1) body weight, 2) the type of exercise, and 3) caloric intake. Athletes do require more protein than the average sedentary adult. While the average adult needs 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily, competitive athletes need 0.6 - 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Endurance athletes and those doing intense exercise need the higher level of protein intake. For example, a 150-pound marathoner or bodybuilder needs 120 grams of protein daily (150 pounds X 0.8 gram of protein per pound.) The marathoner has higher protein needs because the body begins using more protein to meet energy needs toward the end of an event or training session. The bodybuilder needs additional protein to build muscle tissue. An athlete whose caloric intake is low also has higher protein needs. Because caloric intake from carbohydrate and fat does not meet this person's needs, protein is used for energy. For example, a 140-pound athlete who is on a weight-reduction diet requires 112 grams of protein daily (140 pounds X 0.8 gram protein per pound.)

This amount of protein can easily be obtained from food. The average American man gets about 95 grams of protein daily, and the average American woman takes in about 63 grams. Consider the amount of protein in these foods, and you will see how easy it is to get enough protein in your diet without supplements even if you have greater protein needs:

Food Protein
Poultry, fish, beef, pork 21 grams per 3oz serving
Cheese 7 grams per ounce
Milk, yogurt 8 grams per cup
Egg 6 grams per egg
Baked beans, chick peas, other legumes 14 grams per cup
Peanut Butter 9 grams per 2 tablespoons

What about protein supplements? For years protein powders and bars have been targeted to athletes as a way to build muscle mass. Protein powders and bars are usually derived from food sources such as milk, egg or soy. There is no evidence that powders or bars provide any advantage over natural food sources. Food sources also are less expensive than powders and bars.

The bottom line:
While consuming adequate protein is essential for muscle mass and strength, high protein diets don't build muscle tissue. Training and exercise do that. Total caloric intake, especially carbohydrate, is the single most important nutritional factor affecting increase of muscle tissue and improvements in athletic performance because without adequate caloric intake protein will be used for energy and not for muscle building.
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