Why Sports Nutrition Needs to Look Beyond Proteins

If you go to the gym a couple of times a week and eat healthy, you can’t help but hear the word ”protein” whenever someone talks about their diet. Of course, we all know that protein is required to build and repair muscle, but many have gone a bit overboard with the amount of protein consumed and its perceived muscle-building properties. There is a large gap between the recommended amount of protein and the actual need. Let’s look at the facts.

Unless you are in a calorie-restricted state, you do not need to consume more than 30% to 40% of your caloric intake in protein as your body cannot process large amounts at a time, let alone convert all that protein into muscle mass. In addition, it has been studied that even calorie-restricted athletes will not use more than 3.4 grams per kilo per day.1,2 This represents around 260 grams of protein for an 80-kilogram (176 lbs) athlete at 10% body fat. If we use the Katch-McArdle method to estimate caloric consumption for this athlete, 260 grams of protein would account for roughly 36% of his caloric intake which leaves us well into our range of 30% to 40%. If we look at the conventional reference range, we would only use between 1.2 grams per kilo to 2.0 grams per kilo for athletes.3

Because protein is just one group of macronutrients, we need to start looking beyond the typical protein intake for sports nutrition. This will allow for a broader look at the bigger picture and also allow sports teams and athletes to work on individualizing their approach to sports nutrition. How should the approach change?

Carbohydrates and Lipids

First, carbohydrates, and lipids will have to be carefully chosen to maximize the performance of an athlete. Gluconeogenesis or turning glucogenic amino acids and/or lipids into energy is efficient, but protein is probably the least favorable source of energy for the body. Athletes will need fuel to perform. This is one of the reasons lipids and carbohydrates are important in sports nutrition. Carbohydrates and lipids are better selections for producing ATP and will yield between 36 and 38 ATP molecules for every one (1) gram. Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel, but may not be the best selection for every athlete in all cases. Athletes who have conditioned themselves to rely on fat as a fuel source (nutritional ketosis) are the exception. As for lipids, the structure of the fatty acids will determine their fuel capacity. For example, palmitic acid is a 16-carbon fatty acid and it will yield around 130 ATP molecules per gram. Likewise, oleic acid is an 18-carbon fatty acid that will yield 146 ATP molecules per gram.

Nutrient Density: Micronutrients

Second, for most people, dietary protein will come from an animal source. If you only take into account the protein intake, how will you regulate the micronutrient intake? The large array of vegetables, fruits, nuts, starchy carbohydrates, etc. will have to be taken into account if you want maximal performance. Nutrient density varies between foods and over-reliance on a single macronutrient will affect micronutrient intake.

Diversity and Quality of Nutrients

Finally, for many, quantification has always been a big issue, but what about quality and diversification? We know that food diversity helps to increase nutrient intake but it also plays a major role in gut health and intestinal flora diversity.4 When we look at nutrition (or any aspect of human health), too narrow of a view will lead you nowhere. While some people may fare well on a high-protein diet, it is not the case for everyone and athletes are no different. Diversity and quality should be more of a concern than the amount of any particular macronutrient.

Mathieu Bouchard and Corey Schuler, RN, CNS, MS, DC

After starting his adventure in the fitness industry, Mathieu Bouchard is now working at his own clinic in Montréal, Québec. He is the founder of Institute AAT, a continuing education institute supporting trainers, naturopaths, and other health-related professions. He is also a graduate of Functional Medicine University.

Corey Schuler is the Director of Clinical Affairs for Integrative Therapeutics. He is a certified nutrition specialist, licensed nutritionist, and chiropractic physician board-certified in clinical nutrition. He has earned degrees in nursing and phytotherapeutics, and has a private integrative medicine practice in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Dr. Schuler is an adjunct assistant professor at the School of Applied Clinical Nutrition at New York Chiropractic College. He volunteers for the Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists and is a member of Institute for Functional Medicine, American College of Nutrition, and American Nutrition Association. He has conducted dozens of national seminars, media, and podcast interviews including CBS-WCCO and other radio stations, Intelligent Medicine, Underground Wellness, Five to Thrive Live, Aging but Dangerous, Rebel Health Tribe, and countless online summit appearances. He is on the board of directors for the International Probiotics Association and an advisor to Functional Medicine University.

1.Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Orris S, Scheiner M, Gonzalez A, Peacock CA. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Oct 20;12:39.
2. Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Mar;103(3):738-46.
3. Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intake, Macronutrients
4. Rodríguez JM, Murphy K, Stanton C, et al. The composition of the gut microbiota throughout life, with an emphasis on early life. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease. 2015;26:10.3402/mehd.v26.26050.

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