Fueling Athletes—More Protein or More Food?

Do athletes need more protein than you and me, or do they need more everything?

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What's the best post workout fuel?

A common concern in the world of athletics is making sure to get enough protein. The result is the success of a huge industry established to sell powders and supplements adding more and more protein into the demanding diets of athletes, both professional and weekend warriors, just to make sure they get enough. Though this practice has greatly rewarded the supplement industry, it does an athletic body harm. In reality, it’s very hard for athletes NOT to get enough protein in their diets, if they are getting enough calories to support their needs.

The daily recommendation for protein for adults is .8 grams/day per kilogram of body weight, when actually the RDA is adjusted upwards by 2 standard deviations from the Estimated Average.

This RDA of .8 grams per kg of body weight, by the way, is about 8-10% of total diet calories, which is exactly what you find in whole plant foods, and way under the average that most Westerners eat, (17%, or 11-20%).

Resistance athletes may benefit from higher amounts of protein, but not a whole lot – maybe 1.2 grams. But understand that higher protein naturally comes with consuming higher amounts of food, which delivers the extra calories, fat and carbohydrate needed as well.

Because carbohydrate is the basic fuel for athletes, they need lots of it. They may need to build up their glycogen stores by eating carbohydrates leading up to a work out. They also use more calories, so they need more calories. They burn more fat for workouts lasting longer than 30 minutes, and thus needing to break down stored fuel for muscles, so they need more fat. What does this mean? They need more food – healthy food.

There is a plateau to the amount of ingested protein utilized, considered under 20 grams of protein at any one time. So consuming protein supplements may be counter-productive, particularly whey, or other animal-based proteins, which are acid-forming, potentially leading to inflammation, slowing down recovery, and producing more soreness than plant-based proteins.1,2

It is doubtful that athletes need to go after a lot more fat, but they do need to get a supply from food. Higher fat foods may be appropriate, especially after a work-out – like nuts and avocadoes. But more carbohydrate is needed as well, along with protein so that cells can repair and rebuild.

Endurance athletes need more fuel, and they do burn more fat than most. They are an exception in needing more fat, but since they need more carbohydrate also, a safer, balanced way to get fat than from oils would be from high-fat whole foods.

Protein intake (even plant-based) above the body’s requirements can be challenging to the body. As Dr. T. Colin Campbell notes from his research on protein, that while it is possible that performance of certain elite athletes (like professional football players) may benefit from higher protein levels supplemental to a whole food, plant-based diet, they are unlikely to benefit in terms of health. Increased protein intake stimulates muscle growth and that of all other tissues by stimulating the growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is associated with cancer growth.

By Kathy Pollard, M.S.


Burke, L. Deakin, V. Clinical Sports Nutrition, 4th Edition.McGraw Hill Medical Australia. 2010.

Brazier, B. Plant-Based Nutrition and Athletic Performance II: Performance as a Guide. T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutriton Studies. 2012

Bidwell, A. NTR5501 Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. MSACN, New York Chiropractic College. January, 2012.

Campbell, TCC; Campbell, TM. The China Study: Revised and Expanded Edition: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health. BenBella Books. December 27, 2016.

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