Q: I have been training for my first marathon and am a bit confused as to what I should be eating. I know that protein is important and that I should be eating more, but how much is enough? What are the best foods or supplements to choose?
A: Most athletes should focus on carbohydrates and spread protein throughout the day. There is a difference between having higher protein requirements and needing to eat more protein. It is true that athletes and those who train hard have higher protein needs than someone that is sedentary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to eat more protein. Depending on the sport and training, athletes need about 1.2 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight versus 1 gram per kilogram of body weight for those that are inactive. (To find your body weight in kilograms, divide body weight by 2.2).
The typical American diet provides enough protein for the majority of the population. If you are active, you are likely eating more food overall which provides you with more protein. Also note that it is more relevant to look at spreading your protein intake throughout the day to maximize muscle recovery and maintenance.
For athletes exercising longer than one hour at a time, a post-exercise protein fix is crucial to help repair and build muscles. Most current research suggests 20 to 30 grams of protein is initially enough for adults after exercise. Eating smaller amounts throughout the day are best since your body can’t use much more than that at one time.
Ensuring that you are eating enough (quality) carbohydrates throughout the day should be the focus. No matter what the sport, carbohydrates are the fuel for workouts. Each sport or style of training differs in the amount of carbohydrates that is needed depending on intensity and duration.
Eating too much of any nutrient (carbs, protein or fat) can lead to unwanted weight gain. Restricting your carbohydrate intake is not necessary for weight loss and will be harmful for sports performance.
Remember, protein can be found in many foods besides the traditional meat, fish and eggs. Protein is also in whole grains (the average slice of whole wheat bread has 4 grams protein), diary (8 ounces of milk offers 8 grams protein) and beans (1/2 cup black beans has 8 grams protein). To fuel your day, try to incorporate a source of quality carbohydrate and a source of protein with each meal or snack.
April Graff, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian at both Mankato Hy-Vee stores and can be reached at AGraff@hy-vee.com or call 625-1107 or 625-9070. Send her questions about food and nutrition, recipes, meal planning and healthy shopping.