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From ATA World Volume 20, Number 2 – Summer 2013


Protein is an essential part of human life. You have it in every cell, muscle, and organ in your body. You need it for growth, for strength, and for energy. Which means it’s an essential part of our diets—particularly for athletes who want to stay strong and sharp.

“In general, protein is important for building just about any of the tissues in the body, including the cells that support our immune system and organ health,” says Tom Nikkola, senior director of nutrition and weight management at Life Time Fitness. Protein also helps repair muscles after strenuous exercise, which then allows athletes to get back to training sooner.

How Much?

The answer varies based on your age, gender, weight, activity level, and training goals. The Institute of Medicine recommends 46 grams a day for women and 56 for men, but active athletes can often benefit from more. Nikkola says the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests up to .8 to .85 grams per pound of body weight. That would mean about 130 grams of protein for an adult male weighing 160 pounds.

Senior Master Nominee Jack McInerney, a 7th Degree Black Belt and owner of two Taekwondo schools in New Jersey, says protein makes up about 40 percent of his diet. Breakfast is often an egg white omelet with spinach and full-fat cheddar cheese, while lunch might be canned tuna with mixed greens and half a slice of whole wheat toast. Dinner is usually a 4-ounce chicken breast or 6-ounce whitefish fillet with veggies and whole-wheat toast. “With this current diet, my energy level is huge,” he says. “I’m 63 years old, and I just climbed a mountain with all the other Master candidates at Red Rock Canyon.”

When?

Including protein at every meal is a smart strategy, says Nikkola, and it’s also important to have protein shortly after a strenuous workout. Research shows that refueling with both carbs and protein post workout is better for your body’s recovery than carbs alone. While the carbs help replace glycogen burned off during exercise, the protein helps repair muscle tissue and speed up recovery. “It’s wise especially within 35 to 40 minutes to get in high-quality protein,” says Nikkola. “If it’s a real strenuous workout where you’ve got some muscle damage going on and intensity is really high, it’s hard to beat a whey protein shake.” Fast digesting whey, a milk byproduct, gives a quick protein boost that’s easier for the body to digest than solid foods.

Other Effects?

Protein can help regulate blood sugar levels, manage weight, and make you feel full longer—which helps keep you in top form. Master Nominee Thomas Jacobs, a 6th Degree Black Belt and self-described “gym rat,” has seen that effect in his own life. After putting on weight a few years ago, he fine-tuned his diet to include more lean protein and fewer processed foods. He was able to shed his extra pounds and feel better overall. “I like the fact that I can wake up and I’m ready to go, I’m not sluggish anymore,” he says. “I’ve really seen the difference that the quality of food I eat makes.” ATA