July 25, 2024
a close-up of scrambled eggs with herbs and seasonings on whole grain toast

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I’ve taken up running and signed up for a half-marathon to keep me motivated. I know training puts a lot of wear and tear on the body, and I’ve heard protein is essential. How do I make sure I’m getting enough protein so I can perform at maximum ability?

ANSWER: As you prepare for your upcoming distance race or any other athletic event you may be looking for ways to fine-tune your training program and up your performance. Since nutrition is such an important component of training, it is a great idea to undertake a review of what you’re eating to maximize your efforts.

Do you know how much protein you need when exercising? Judging by all the protein bars, shakes and powders out there, you could be led to believe you need a protein supplement.

Contrary to the hype that everyone needs more protein, most people in the U.S. meet or exceed their needs. This is especially true for males ages 19–59. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 indicate that men in that age range exceed their protein recommendations, especially from meat, poultry and eggs. Even athletes often get more protein than they need without supplements because their calorie requirements are higher. With more food comes more protein. However, being mindful of the type of protein is important. So, too, is knowing how much protein you actually need.

Where does protein come from?

The healthiest protein options are plant sources, such as soy, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. But lean meats, such as skinless, white-meat chicken or turkey; a variety of fish or seafood; egg whites; and low-fat dairy are also excellent protein sources.

It is better to meet dietary protein needs with whole foods like these rather than with the use of supplements. Manufactured supplements are no more effective in building lean muscle mass than whole foods, as long as you’re eating enough whole foods each day. Supplements also don’t contain the additional nutrients you get from whole foods.

How much protein do you need?

Review the following statements to help you assess just how much protein you need.

  • True or false: Bigger steaks equal bigger muscles.


    Although adequate daily protein is necessary, extra strength training leads to muscle growth not additional protein intake. You can’t build muscle without the exercise to go with it.

    The body can’t store protein, so once your needs are met, any extra is used for energy or stored as fat. Excess calories from any source will be stored as fat in the body.

    Extra protein intake also can lead to elevated blood lipids and heart disease because many high-protein foods you eat are high in total and saturated fat. Excess protein intake, which can tax the kidneys, poses an additional risk to people predisposed to kidney disease.

  • True or false: 50% of daily calories should come from protein.


    Anywhere from 10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. So, if your needs are 2,000 calories, that’s 200–700 calories from protein, or 50–175 grams. The recommended dietary allowance to prevent deficiency for an average sedentary adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person weighing 165 pounds, or 75 kilograms, should consume 60 grams of protein daily.

    People who exercise regularly have higher protein needs, about 1.1–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. People who regularly lift weights or are training for a running or cycling event need 1.2–1.7 grams per kilogram. Excessive protein intake would be more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight each day.

    Once you reach ages 40–50, sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass, begins to set in. To prevent it and maintain independence and quality of life, your protein needs increase to about 1–1.2 grams per kilogram body weight or 75–90 grams per day for a 75-kilogram person.

    If you’re overweight, your weight is adjusted before calculating your protein needs to avoid overestimating. You can consult with a dietitian to help develop a personalized plan.

  • True or false: Planning meals with 15–30 grams of protein is complicated.


    Here’s what 15–30 grams of protein looks like:

    Breakfast: A banana, Greek yogurt and a hard-boiled egg will get you 19 grams of protein on average. Start your day with an easy veggie egg bake. Each serving has 17 grams of protein.

    Lunch: An egg and bean burrito with a glass of milk is about 28 grams of protein. These black bean quesadillas have 14 grams of protein. Boost the protein by adding chicken or shrimp.

    Dinner: A 3-ounce chicken breast with a half-cup of rice and a half-cup of vegetables amounts to 25 grams of protein. This main dish grilled chicken salad gives you 27 grams of protein.

    As you can see, getting the recommended 15–30 grams per meal is easy. Most people — even athletes — can reach their protein needs by including a serving of dairy at each meal and a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards at lunch and supper.

    Protein shouldn’t be the entire meal, but should be paired with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you think you need more protein, consider adding more beans, lentils, soy or seafood rather than processed supplements.

    If you choose to use a protein supplement, look for a complete protein source whey, casein, soy, among others; about 200 or fewer calories; 2 grams or less of saturated fat; no trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils; and 5 grams of sugar or less.

Need additional advice and recommendations for building a nutrition plan to support your training program? Consider consulting with a dietitian. Joel Hollow, R.D.N., Clinical Nutrition, Mayo Clinic Health System, La Crosse, Wisconsin

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