5 Key Benefits of Protein for Health and Athletic Performance

5 Key Benefits of Protein for Health and Athletic Performance

We can all say that protein is important and necessary in our diets, but the reasons why might be a bit more complex. What does science say about the role of protein in our bodies? What are some advantages of a protein-rich diet for an active person wanting to become stronger?

To answer these questions, let’s go back to the basics and take a look at what protein is, so we can determine why and how it benefits us.

What is Protein and Why Is It Important?

Protein is one of the three major nutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat, in our diets. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of them as building blocks that can be broken down and re-assembled in different ways.

Protein and amino acids are the main components of our muscles, bones, skin, tissues, and organs. When we eat protein, our body breaks it down into individual amino acids during digestion and then uses these amino acids to create new proteins where needed.

If we don’t eat enough protein, our body will start to plunder it from within – beginning with the breakdown of muscle.

Benefit #1 – Protein Makes You Feel Full

Protein promotes satiety, or the feeling of fullness, more than both carbohydrates and fat. This can be beneficial for athletes who are often fueling their bodies for long stretches of time.

Protein’s ability to reduce appetite and hunger levels can help reduce calorie intake – a key factor for individuals trying to achieve weight loss.

Benefit #2 – Protein Boosts Metabolism

Along with reducing appetite, eating protein temporarily boosts metabolism. The body uses energy to digest and make use of the nutrients in food. This is called the thermic effect of food (TEF), and protein’s thermic effect is much higher than at of carbohydrates and fat.

Whether you’re an elite athlete working towards an ideal body composition or just someone trying to lose a little belly fat, consider replacing some of your carbs and fats with protein in your daily meals and snacks.

Benefit #3 – Protein Helps Maintain Your Muscles

Since protein is the building block of your muscles, eating adequate amounts of protein helps maintain your muscle mass and prevents muscle wasting. So if you walk a lot, enjoy cycling, or do any sort of exercise to stay active, you need to eat protein.

Protein helps with muscle growth

Athletes and individuals with more muscle need to eat larger amounts of protein daily to maintain their higher muscle mass.

Benefit #4 – Protein Aids with Muscle Recovery and Growth

Not only does eating protein help prevent muscle breakdown, but it can also help build and strengthen muscles. Combining regular activity and exercise with high protein intake promotes muscle growth and strengthening.

High-quality proteins contain all of the essential amino acids and are rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise. These high-quality proteins exist in animal-based protein foods such as lean poultry, beef, fish, dairy, egg products, and whole eggs.

High-quality plant-based options include soybeans and tofu. Protein powder supplements are also commonly used by athletes, especially post-exercise when real food sources of protein tend to be less accessible.

Protein shakes are extremely convenient, making them useful for active individuals and athletes who are constantly on-the-go. If choosing a protein powder supplement, whey protein and plant-based proteins such as soy or pea have been shown to most effectively promote muscle growth and recovery.

Benefit #5 – Protein Is Good For Your Body

Protein forms the main building blocks of your tissues and organs. Eating a high-protein diet can help your body repair quicker after injury.

Doing a workout together

Finally, there is the misconception that high protein intake harms your kidneys. This idea comes from the recommendation for people with poorly functioning kidneys (usually from pre-existing kidney disease) to eat a low-protein diet. However, while protein can cause harm to people with kidney problems, it does not harm those with healthy kidneys.

How Much Protein Should You Consume and How Often?

So now that we’ve covered the many benefits of protein, let’s talk about how much you need, especially if you’re using it to supplement your workouts.

If you’re a moderately active adult, I recommend between 0.5 – 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you’re regularly doing resistance training, you’ll want between 0.8 – 0.85 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Eating more than 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight has not shown to have any additional benefit.

Timing of protein intake is especially important for athletes or anyone trying to build muscle. Exercise, especially resistance training, stresses the muscles. Eating protein after a workout helps repair the muscle breakdown that has occurred and further builds upon that muscle.

You should aim to consume at least 20 grams of protein within a half-hour after exercising. Choose high-quality proteins after training and at mealtimes.

Nicolette LefflerMS, RDN – Sports Performance Dietitian and Education Coordinator

Nicolette Leffler oversees the sports nutrition program for the Los Angeles Galaxy, a principal Herbalife Nutrition partner, to enhance athlete performance, promote recovery, and develop the nutritional literacy of all players. She is a passionate athlete, as shown through her experience as a 4-year member and captain of the UCLA Dance Team and professional dancer with the Los Angeles Laker Girls.