High Protein Diets for Athletes

In recent years, particularly after the low carb diet wave settled down, the popularity of high protein diets has waned in part due to increased health risks associated with excess intake of protein and saturated fats and insufficient carbohydrate intake.  So if a high protein diet is not recommended for the general population because of health concerns, why is it recommended for athletes?

The answer: Protein needs for an athlete are greater than for the average sedentary individual.  This is a result of the effects of exercise on metabolism.  Endurance athletes metabolize protein differently during long-lasting activity.  For strength-training athletes’, muscles tear during a workout and protein is required to repair and rebuild these muscles.

How high is ‘high’?

The average person requires 0.8g of protein/kg body weight per day.  Protein recommendations for endurance athletes are slightly higher at 1.2-1.4g/kg body weight2, and recommendations for strength athletes have a higher upper limit at 1.2-1.7g/kg body weight2

For example:


Sedentary Individual

(g/kg body weight/day)

Endurance Athletes

(g/kg body weight/day)

Strength Athletes

(g/kg body weight/day)

55kg (120 lbs)           44           66-77           66-94
70kg (154 lbs)           56           84-98           84-119
90kg (198 lbs)           72           108-126           108-153

What does this mean?

While athletes do need more protein, most people already consume more protein than is required.  This means that athletes don’t necessarily need to drastically increase protein consumption in order to meet recommendations.  In addition, there are many foods that contain protein that are often not be thought of as a source of protein.  The table below identifies common and less known sources of protein.

Food Grams of Protein2
6oz canned tuna           40
4 oz chicken breast           35
3 oz beef           26
250 ml garbanzo beans           15
125 ml cottage cheese           14
250 ml yogurt           10
125 ml tofu           10
250 ml milk           8
250 ml milk           8
50 g cheddar cheese           7
1 egg           6
250 ml white rice           5
1 slice deli meat           4
250 ml pasta           5
1 slice of bread           3

A serving of yogurt and granola, a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of milk would provide sufficient protein for one day for a 55kg (120 lb) inactive individual.  For an endurance or strength training athlete of the same weight, only an additional 3 oz. chicken breast would be needed to meet the higher protein requirements.  As illustrated, for teh vast majority of active people, protein requirements can be easily met by food alone. Protein supplements are generally not necessary. 

What if more protein is consumed?

There is no scientific evidence indicating that consuming more than the recommended amount of protein has additional benefits3.  The body doesn’t utilize excess protein for energy or muscle, and because it can’t store excess protein, some of it is excreted while some is stored as fat or converted to glucose4.

Kathy Ho and Vivian Yeung are UBC Nutrition Students working with Patricia Chuey, MSc., RD

1 Manore, M.M, Barr, S.I., Butterfield, G.E. (2009) Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the American Dietetics Association. P. 509-527.
2 adapted from
3 Tarnoposly, M.A. (2008) Building Muscle: nutrition to maximize bulk and strength adaptation to resitance exercise training. European Journal of Sport Science. P. 67-76
4 Sherwood, L. (2004). Human Physiology: From Cells to Systems. Nelson Thomson Learning, Toronto, ONT. P. 722.


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