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Think only body builders need protein? Actually, both strength and endurance athletes have increased protein needs. Protein, composed of chains of molecules called amino acids, plays an important role in the building, maintenance, and repair of the tissues of the body, including muscle.
Protein requirements are very individualized and depend primarily upon body size. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for the average sedentary or lightly active adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For most people, this is more than enough.
But some authorities believe that protein needs for athletes may range from 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for the highly active adult athlete. Diets should also be high in carbohydrate to ensure that protein is spared for those activities it does best: the building and repairing of muscle and other body tissues.
Understanding Essential Amino Acids
There are 20 different amino acids in the foods we eat, but our body can make only 11 of them. The nine essential amino acids that cannot be produced by the body must be obtained from the diet. A healthy diet based on a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables easily provides all of the essential amino acids.
It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together to get their full protein value. This method was known as “protein combining” or “complementing.” We now know that intentional combining is not necessary to obtain all of the essential amino acids. Instead, simply consume a variety of nutrient–dense plant foods to meet your energy requirements and you'll also meet your protein needs.
Some protein will be broken down into amino acids for fuel during exercise, but the primary role of protein is for structure and support. While athletes need more protein, they should not consume excessive levels. Adequate intake is about 10 to 15 percent of calories, or enough to meet your calculated requirements.
Which Protein Sources Are Best?
Protein should come from plant sources, rather than meat, dairy products, and eggs, which tend to be high in fat and cholesterol and are always devoid of fiber and complex carbohydrates.
Concentrated protein sources include beans, nuts, tofu, soymilk, tempeh, seitan, and various meat analogues that can be purchased in any health food store or the vegetarian section of your grocery store.
If you aim to boost your protein intake, try these tips:
- Top salads with a variety of beans, including chickpeas, kidney beans, great northern beans, and black beans. Or start your meal with a cup of veggie chili or curried lentils. These legumes have as much as 7 to 10 grams of protein per serving.
- Shake it up! Blend non–dairy frozen desserts or soft tofu with your favorite fresh or frozen fruits and soymilk or rice milk for a thick, delicious, creamy, high–protein shake.
- Marinated tempeh or veggie burgers, grilled on a bun or added to pasta sauce, offer a quick protein boost to any meal.
- On the go? Try an eggless “egg salad” sandwich on whole–grain bread or slices of baked tofu with mustard on whole–grain crackers. In addition, sports bars and soy–powder shakes are quick and convenient supplements that can help increase the protein content of any well–balanced vegetarian diet.