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Athletes need more protein

Most Kiwis get enough protein in their diets, but how much more do serious athletes need?

There has been a lot of research done on the protein needs of athletes. Some sportspeople have double the protein needs of less active people because of increased protein requirements for muscle building and a higher use  of protein for energy. However, recommendations vary for different sports.

For those doing strength training, like body-builders, it's been found that more protein is needed in the early stages of training, but the body adapts over time. Once the athlete is well-trained, maintenance levels of protein are not that much more than for generally active people.

These are expressed in grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg per day):

  • For strength training the recommendation is to consume around 1.6-1.7g/kg protein per day.
  • Endurance athletes (eg marathon runners) need around 1.2-1.4g/kg protein per day.
  • For adolescent athletes who are growing as well as training, the recommendation is 2g/kg protein per day.

Compare this to the mean levels by different age groups in the National Nutrition Survey: for women the means ranged from 0.9 to 1.2g/kg per day; and for men the range was from 1.1 to 1.5g/kg per day. For both men and  women the highest levels were in the younger age groups and the lower levels in the older age groups, reflecting the lower amounts of energy consumed as we age.

Athletes sometimes believe they need a lot more protein than they actually do, but eating a high-protein diet (more than 2g/kg per day) does not increase muscle mass or strength.

For an 80kg athlete a maximum of 160g of protein per day is recommended (and generally less). This can easily be obtained from a daily intake of 3-4 serves of meat products, 3 serves of dairy, 6 serves of breads and cereals, 1 serve of legumes and 1 serve of nuts.