When creating a nutrition plan, it can be overwhelming trying to meet the needs of every nutrient and food group. For those with dietary restrictions, it’s even more difficult. Thankfully, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in EvanstonMonique Ryan assures athletes that protein is found in more than just chicken and red meat, making it an easier nutrient to obtain.
Q: How important is protein for endurance athletes? How much do they need to consume in one day?
Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle tissue that tears in a workout. Many assume that occurs more often in weight training, but muscle breakdown also happens during longer runs, and if someone doesn’t consume enough carbohydrates. [Endurance athletes] have higher protein needs than sedentary people, but it’s not hard to meet those needs if you’re just eating a variety of foods.
Q: What are some main sources of protein?
Well the obvious ones, like chicken, fish, turkey and red meat; eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk are all great source too. There are some greens that are higher in protein than others, like quinoa. I also love legumes and beans because they’re a great source of carbs for training and fuel and protein. Nuts and hummus are good too.
Q: Obviously there are a lot of options, but how can those with dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian or vegan, ensure they’re getting enough?
Vegetarians can certainly get the protein they need, they just need to know that plant sources of protein are not as concentrated as animal sources; for example, chicken usually has 20 to 21 grams of protein, but beans have like three, so you have to eat enough plant sources, and know how much you need to get throughout the day. Milk has protein, and a lot of vegetarians do consume dairy; I always recommend Greek yogurt over regular yogurt as it is higher in protein.
If their diet is vegan and it is more restrictive, they have to be aware of how to balance their diet for training. They really need to education themselves, and make sure they’re having enough calories too, otherwise the protein will turn into fuel.
Q: Is there an unhealthy way to consume protein – too much, or bad protein?
There are definitely protein foods that have a lot of fat in them, so it’s good to focus on lean protein. Fish is a great source of lean protein and healthy fats; you don’t need a 16-ounce steak in a meal. It depends on the meal, and what you’ve done that day, but your body has to break down all foods, so if you eat more protein than your body needs, it’ll be stored as fat or converted to carbohydrates. Everything is about balance.
Q: How do you feel about protein powders?
I think they can be good and convenient if used properly; powders can be used in a shake or smoothie as recovery after resistance training. If I had somebody who was vegan and had high energy needs, powder in a shake for some extra calories can definitely be helpful. People often overuse protein powder though – you only need one scoop at a time, not two or three.
Q: Any other advice?
Well, it’s definitely not the hardest nutrient to get in your diet; carbohydrates are what will change your workouts. Just choose lean sources of protein because you can get healthy fats from other foods. And, every endurance athlete should incorporate plant protein sources into their diets because they are a great source of nutrients.