Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Protein has always been a hot topic in the sports nutrition world, and for good reason! Protein plays a number of important roles in the body. They serve as the building blocks for building and repairing tissues such as muscles, hair, skin, and nails. They’re also an important part of enzymes, hormones, and the immune system, all of which help regulate chemical reactions, growth, metabolism and many other functions in the body. I get a lot of protein-related questions from my clients, and some of the most popular ones are: “am I getting enough protein”, “how much do I need”, “what are the best types”, “is timing important”, “should I take a protein powder”. I’ll be sharing the answers to all these questions and more in today’s post!
Let’s start with the basics: what is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids, all of which have different structures and functions in the body. Of those twenty, nine are essential, meaning our body cannot make them, and therefore we must get them through food.
What are the different sources of protein, and are they created equal?
Protein is present in both animal and plant-based sources. The overall quality of protein is based on three things: the types of amino acids present in each food, the amount of those amino acids, and how well they’re absorbed.
Typically, animal sources are considered “complete” proteins, since they contain all nine essential amino acids and are best absorbed. Examples of animal protein sources include meat, fish, milk-based proteins (whey and casein), and eggs.
Plant-based proteins are considered incomplete because they typically don’t contain all nine amino acids, and the amino acids are found in lower concentrations than in animal-based proteins. Examples of plant-based proteins include soy, beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, buckwheat, and quinoa. As a side note, beans and grains also contain carbohydrates, but I'll save those details for another post.
Do I need to eat animal-based protein in order to get all of the essential amino acids?
Nope! Vegan and vegetarian athletes can meet their protein needs and make a complete protein with plant-based foods. The key is to eat a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout day such as: tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, quinoa, nuts, and seeds. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to combine different plant-based foods (i.e. beans and rice) at the same meal to meet your protein needs.
How much protein do I need?
Let me start by saying, the answer to this question is far from one-size-fits-all. It’s also a pretty controversial question in the sports nutrition world, since the research in this area is frequently evolving. However, there is a general consensus among nutrition experts and researchers. The Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, although riders tend to have higher protein needs compared to non-athletes. In addition to riding, there are other things that determine your daily protein needs including: age, length and intensity of physical activity, type of physical activity (riding and/or cross-training), total energy intake, the presence of any medical conditions, and more.
So, depending on all of the above, the range of an individual's protein needs can be as little as 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight up to 2.0 or more grams per kilogram of body weight! That number can also change day-to-day based on the type and intensity of physical activity done each day.
Is protein timing important?
The research has been somewhat split on this, however, according to our current understanding of the science, there is no immediate post-workout window in which you have to eat your protein like we once thought. Meaning? Your muscles will still be sensitive and able to benefit from eating protein even if it's a few hours after your ride/workout. What’s more important than the timing is how that protein is distributed throughout the day. It's important to eat balanced meals/snacks and to avoid going longer than ~4 hours without eating. Protein is an important component of those balanced meals and snacks.
Should I start using protein powder?
I always emphasize meeting your nutritional needs through food first, and using supplements when needed to fill in any nutritional gaps. Protein powder can certainly be considered for someone who can't meet their protein needs through food alone, but it's typically not necessary. It's also important to note that just like every other supplement, protein powders are not regulated by the FDA. This means the quality, potency, and ingredients listed on a product may or may not be what that product actually contains. This topic deserves a blog post of its own, so I'll save details for later.
Can too much protein be dangerous?
Not in healthy people. Also, a common misconception is that more protein equals more muscle, however that’s just a myth. Eating more protein than your body needs to build/repair muscles and other tissues or use for enzymes, hormones, etc. will get stored to be used as a source of energy for later, just like any other macronutrient.
With all this said, there are so many variables to consider when figuring out how much protein riders specifically needs, as well as the best way to meet those needs, so it’s best to consult with a Registered Dietitian for guidance.
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments, so leave them in the comment section below. You can also connect with GE on Instagram by tagging @the.equestrian.dietitian and using #GaviEquestrian.