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Why Protein is Important for Athletes: Deeper Dive into Different Protein Sources and Much More!

Introduction:

When it comes to achieving optimal performance and muscle growth, protein plays a crucial role in the diet of athletes. In this article, we will discuss key benefits to consuming dietary protein, as well as, highlight the major differences between plant and animal proteins. Additionally, we will explore how different types of protein, timing, and resistance training affect protein utilization in the body.


Why Protein is Important for Athletes:

Protein plays a big role in normal bodily function by acting as building blocks for tissues, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies. With intense exercise, our body needs adequate protein in order to support the overall increase of demands from various biological systems. When an athlete consumes an adequate amount of quality protein, they may reap the benefits listed below: 

  1. Muscle Growth and Repair: Protein provides the amino acids necessary for muscle growth and repair. During exercise, muscle fibers break down, and protein helps to rebuild and strengthen these fibers, leading to increased muscle mass and strength.

  2. Improved Recovery: Intense exercise can lead to muscle damage and inflammation. Protein consumption post-workout aids in reducing muscle soreness and promotes faster recovery.

  3. Enhanced Strength and Power: Protein intake is closely linked to increases in strength and power output. This is particularly important for athletes participating in strength-based sports or activities that require explosive movements.

  4. Optimal Energy Levels: Protein-rich foods provide a more sustained source of energy compared to carbohydrates. This can be beneficial for endurance athletes who require long-lasting energy throughout their training or competition.


Difference between Amino Acid Composition of Plant and Animal Protein:

Muscle protein synthesis is largely impacted by 1) the amount of protein ingested,  2) the digestion and absorption kinetics of different proteins, and 3) the amino acid compostition–protein sourcing (4). Both plant and animal proteins are sources of dietary protein, but they differ in their amino acid composition and bioavailability which in turn effect their quality. You may have heard of “complete” or “incomplete” proteins, but what does this mean?


Plant Protein:

  • Plant proteins, such as those found in beans, lentils, and tofu, are considered incomplete proteins. They lack one or more of the 9 essential amino acids, which are those that the body cannot produce on its own and must be obtained from the diet. 


*Check out this article on the current protein scoring systems used to anaylze protein quality. PDCAAS is an older system and uses fecal nitrogen digestibility values, while DIAAS which uses ileal nitrogen digestibility values. The DIAAS model has been proposed to replace the PDCAAS [used in nutrition labeling] due to several shortcomings found in this older model. 


  • However, by combining different plant protein sources, it is possible to obtain a complete amino acid profile without any apparent deficiencies (4).

  • It is recommended to consume 4X as much of the same protein in order to compensate for the lower protein quality found in plant-based proteins which are typically low in both lysine and methionine (4).


Figure 1. Comparable serving size of various dietary protein sources. van Loon, L. J. C. (2021, November). Plant versus animal-based proteins to support muscle conditioning. Retrieved December 18, 2023, from Gatorade Sports Science Institute website: https://www.gssiweb.org/en/sports-science-exchange/Article/plant-versus-animal-based-proteins-to-support-muscle-conditioning.


Animal Protein:

  • Animal proteins, such as those found in meat, dairy, and eggs, are considered complete proteins. They provide all essential amino acids in sufficient amounts.

  • Animal proteins are often regarded as the gold standard for protein quality due to their complete amino acid profile and higher bioavailability.

  • Animal proteins consist of bioactive molecules that help reduce and prevent exercise induced muscle damage (1).

Figure 2. Bioactive molecules found in animal-based sources. di Corcia, M., Tartaglia, N., Polito, R., Ambrosi, A., Messina, G., Francavilla, V. C., … Albenzio, M. (2022). Functional properties of meat in athletes’ performance and recovery. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(9), 5145. doi:10.3390/ijerph19095145.


How Different Types of Protein, Timing, and Resistance Training Affect Protein Utilization in the Body:

The type of protein, timing of consumption, and exercise regimen can impact the body's utilization of protein.


Protein Types:

  • Whey Protein is quickly absorbed by the body, making it an excellent choice for post-workout recovery. It contains all essential amino acids and is rapidly digested and utilized by the muscles.

  • Casein Protein is slower-digesting and provides a sustained release of amino acids. Trommelen et all., found that the ingestion of casein protein improves whole-body protein synthesis rates [but not myofibrillar protein synthesis] and allows for a positive overnight whole-body protein net balance in a male-only study (3). 


*For those who are lactose intolerant, opt for lean animal proteins [i.e. chicken, canned tuna, turkey] for quicker digestion and to reduce gut discomfort during post-exercise. Additionally, choosing a high quality plant protein powder could be an alternative option. 


Timing of Consumption:

  • Pre-Workout: Moderate consumption of protein before a workout helps provide the necessary amino acids during exercise, reducing muscle breakdown and supporting energy production. 

  • Post-Workout: Recovery nutrition is important within 45-60 minutes after a workout, but also throughout the next 24-48 hours (2).


Resistance Training:

  • If you want to build muscle, incorporating resistance training is key, as well as, consuming enough protein to support muscle growth. 

  • Resistance training creates micro-tears in muscle fibers which is needed for muscle growth. Consuming protein after resistance training facilitates muscle repair and growth, as the amino acids are used to rebuild and strengthen the damaged fibers. This leads to a positive net muscle protein balance.


Conclusion

Protein is a vital macronutrient for athletes, playing a crucial role in muscle growth, recovery, and overall performance. Understanding the differences between plant and animal proteins helps athletes make informed choices when it comes to meeting their protein needs. Additionally, tailoring protein intake to specific types of protein, timing, and exercise regimen can optimize protein utilization in the body, leading to better athletic performance and overall health.


References


  1. di Corcia, M., Tartaglia, N., Polito, R., Ambrosi, A., Messina, G., Francavilla, V. C., … Albenzio, M. (2022). Functional properties of meat in athletes’ performance and recovery. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(9), 5145. doi:10.3390/ijerph19095145

  2. PERFORMANCE NUTRITION INFOGRAPHICS: Tips for Athletic Trainers and Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2023, from Sportsrd.org website: http://www.sportsrd.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PerformanceNutritionInfographics_ForWeb_FINAL.pdf

  3. Trommelen, J., Kouw, I. W. K., Holwerda, A. M., Snijders, T., Halson, S. L., Rollo, I., … van Loon, L. J. C. (2018). Presleep dietary protein-derived amino acids are incorporated in myofibrillar protein during postexercise overnight recovery. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 314(5), E457–E467. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00273.2016

  4. van Loon, L. J. C. (2021, November). Plant versus animal-based proteins to support muscle conditioning. Retrieved December 18, 2023, from Gatorade Sports Science Institute website: https://www.gssiweb.org/en/sports-science-exchange/Article/plant-versus-animal-based-proteins-to-support-muscle-conditioning


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