How much protein an athlete really needs

Working in the fitness world, I hear A LOT about protein. I hear the whole gamete…”I need x amount of protein every day or I’ll lose muscle,” or, “Vegetarians could never build muscle,” and “I can’t have a single meal without protein!” There are grains of truth to some of these statements…but let’s look at this scientifically, to see how much protein a person really needs, and where they can get it from.

What foods contain protein?

The short answer: almost all foods! Or, at least they contain a partial protein. Almost all have some of the 9 essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. Some foods make up a complete protein-which means they contain all 9 of the essential amino acids. Complete proteins include: Meat, dairy products (cheese, milk, etc), eggs, and soy.

Plant based protein

Although other foods are “incomplete” on their own, they become complete when they are combined with other foods. And you don’t even have to combine them in the same meal. Our body holds onto amino acid stores all day, so if you eat complementary proteins in the same day, they will form a complete protein. And our body doesn’t discriminate whether it’s a plant or animal source…a complete amino acid chain is a complete protein, no matter what the source.

Vega Protein

My favorite protein powder mix.

Can a person have too much protein?

Definitely. In fact, the average American has too much protein in their blood instead of too little.

What are the effects of too much protein?

There are many negative effects to an overage of protein if the system. Here are some of the main problems:

  • Calcium Deficiency: High consumption of animal protein can lead to low calcium levels. This can eventually lead to osteoporosis, or low bone density.
  • Ketones: When the body is starved of carbohydrates, and is using fat and energy for fuel, it goes into a state of ketosis. This can cause glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, which can lead to bigger problems.
  • Kidney Problems: When the body is in ketosis, it enters into a state of dehydration. Also, the calcium imbalance (from excess urinary calcium) can lead to kidney stones.
  • High instance of Free Radicals: Too much protein in the blood equals a larger amount of free radicals, which reek havoc and can lead to many diseases.
  • High Blood Acidity Levels: A high level of acidity in the blood can actually lead to a difficulty in keeping muscle mass. (The opposite of what most athletes desire.)
  • Higher Chance of Disease: I tried, and tried, and tried to find a study that shows the opposite of this. But every pier-reviewed study that I’ve ever found shows that in increase of animal protein consumption equals a much higher rate of disease. There’s a much higher (like, 50% higher) rate of diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and even appendicitis.

How can I tell if I have too much protein?

There’s a variety of ways…the easiest is to get blood-work from your doctor. If your blood protein levels are above normal, and/or your calcium levels are low, you probably get too much animal protein. (It’s really really hard to overdoes on protein from vegetable sources.)Protein

The Anthropology of It

There is a evolutionary reason why humans can easily extract protein from plant sources. In the past, before refrigeration and grocery stores, we had to hunt and gather all of our food. Hunting takes a much larger amount of energy expenditure than gathering. (It burns more calories, takes more time, and often takes more tools.) Also, there was no guarantee that the hunters would be successful. Often hunters came home empty-handed. Also, people did not hunt every day. Most of our ancestors spent a lot of time relaxing, preparing food and weaving. Hunting took a large effort to organize and orchestrate. The majority of indigenous tribes only went hunting once a month or so. Many tribes only ate animals even less than that, or would only eat tiny pieces at a time. Animal are scarce at high altitudes, in the planes, or in dry areas.

Therefore, since meat was not a guaranteed source of protein, our bodies are evolved to extract protein from plant sources. And guess what the most common form of animal protein was/is in indigenous tribes? Bugs!!! So if you really want to “eat like our ancestors,” you can make yourself a hearty plate of grubs and grasshoppers.  Yum yum yum…

This is my own photo from a visit to Thailand. A whole assortment of roasted insects!

This is my own photo from a visit to Thailand. A whole assortment of roasted insects!

How do I know I’m getting the right amount of protein?

It’s actually pretty simple: Eat a variety of foods in every meal! Eat a variety of food groups (different vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, fats, etc), and a variety of colors! As long as you keep your diet varied and healthy, you should get plenty of protein. Also, the quality of food determines the quality of your protein. Dairy from grass-fed cows will be better than dairy from grain-fed factory farm. Organic, colorful corn is far better than GMO yellow corn from mono-cropping. So get your fill on whole, healthy foods, and you should be on the right track! And yes, you can still gain plenty of muscle and keep your explosive strength.