If you walk through a grocery store or sports supplement store, the number of products available that claim to improve health or nutrition will overwhelm you. Teen athletes are not immune to this marketing. In fact, they are the specific targets of some of the advertising.
As professionals, we know protein is an important factor to anyone’s diet, but how important is protein for a young athlete? We caught up with Dr. Dennys Maldonado, family/sports medicine physician at Mercy Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center, to explain what we need to know about protein intake for young athletes.
1. Why do we need protein in our diet?
Foods are divided in to carbohydrates, fats or proteins. Our body needs all of these groups to perform efficiently. Protein boosts the immune system, replaces red blood cells, and is necessary for healthy hair and nails. Protein is used as an energy source when the body has depleted carbohydrate stores. Adequate protein is especially important for athletes, as one of its primary functions is to build and repair muscle tissue.
2. How much protein should an athlete consume daily?
Daily dietary protein intake recommendations vary widely from one individual to the next. One standard recommend for a growing teenage athlete is to consume 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. For example, an athlete weighing 150 pounds should consume between 105 and 135 grams of protein per day. Protein intake not only depends on the level of physical activity but also on each individual athlete’s rate of growth or healing. Athletes in their critical growth period, or at or around puberty, or on a restricted calorie diet may need more protein in their diet.
3. So if a little protein is good, is more better?
Some athletes and coaches believe that consuming additional protein will produce bigger stronger muscles. It’s not extra protein that produces bigger muscles; it’s extra resistance training. Consumption of very large levels of protein will just allow the body to use this extra protein as a form of energy or the body will store it as fat. There is no scientific evidence that consuming protein (whole food or supplement) greater than 0.9 grams per pound will be advantageous for the healthy young athlete. Furthermore, eating a diet too high in protein can have negative affects on health and performance.
4. What problems are associated with too much protein?
Filling up on proteins will leave a smaller portion of your daily calories for carbohydrates. Carbs are necessary to provide the energy to exercise and weight train. Too few carbs leads to fatigue and decreased performance levels.
High protein diets can cause dehydration. Athletes who are increasing their protein levels also need to be increasing their fluid intake.
5. The best time to consume protein is immediately after a workout, correct?
To get the necessary amount of protein per day, athletes need to eat small portions of protein throughout the day. The body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at one sitting so consuming larger quantities of protein does not result is building more muscle.
Consuming a post workout recovery drink or meal does have some benefit. It is important to remember that after exercise, the best combination is a food or drink that is about a 4 to 1 ratio of carbs to proteins. Many athletes depend on their shaker bottle with protein powder. While this source works for some people, an 8-ounce glass of chocolate milk or peanut butter sandwich is also adequate.
6. So are there advantages or disadvantages to using protein supplements like shakes or powders?
Consuming your protein needs in the form of a premade shake, powder, or snack can have both advantages and disadvantages. For many, meeting the body’s protein needs can be achieved by eating whole foods. These whole foods are often more capable of providing the body with the other nutrients it needs for good health (such as fiber, vitamins and minerals). Whole foods are often less expensive as well.
One advantage the protein supplements have is that they provide a quick, portable source of protein that athletes often find more convenient than whole foods. It is important for athletes to understand these shakes should not be used as meal replacers and that filling up on protein supplements can cause athletes to be deficient in other areas.
Keep in mind that protein intake is one part of the nutrition puzzle and should be balanced with adequate intake of carbs and fats. Also, hydration continues to be a key component in every athlete’s health and performance. As with any aspect of an athlete’s life, balance is key.
Disclaimer: This article provides general guidelines for the average teenage athlete. Certain individuals may require different recommendations. Athletes should consult a doctor, licensed athletic trainer, or dietician with specific questions.