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Proper Protein Fuels the Body for Exercise

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Proper Protein Fuels the Body for Exercise

If we took a quick cross section of the nation, we would find that most people get enough protein. But what if you are more active–engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise efforts three to five days per week? You might be considered an athlete, and you may need more protein. A dietitian has the expertise to help you determine how much to take in on a daily basis and creative ways to get the job done.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

The current dietary reference intake (DRI) for protein for people 18 years of age and older is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (i.e., 80 g of protein for a 220-pound person). To make the math easier, divide your weight in half and that is the number of grams of protein we would start with in your diet.

Many sports dietitians who work with a more active population find that the science suggests using a higher protein intake–more like 1.2-2.0 grams/kg. The research on this topic can be found in detail in this joint position statement.

The additional protein that may be needed for more vigorous exercisers helps to promote muscle adaptation during recovery from exercise in several important ways:

  • Supports the repair of exercise-induced damage to muscle fibers
  • Provides additional energy for refueling
  • Promotes exercise-induced adaptations in muscle fiber synthesis

Higher Protein Needs in Older Adults

Another population who might benefit from slightly more protein is active adults age 60 or older.  Adequate protein benefits bone health. Protein is also as important as calcium and vitamin D to help maintain muscle mass and prevent sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). We start losing muscle after the age of 30, which is why resistance training or weights are so important to our strength and health. 

We can learn from the research done by Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, a professor in the department of nutrition and metabolism at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who says people who are inactive begin to lose muscle over time is inevitable.

Start the Day with Protein

Paddon-Jones says breakfast can be the most neglected meal of the day when it comes to protein. Are you eating 1 cup dry cereal (4 grams), ½ cup berries and 1 cup low-fat milk (8 grams), or two slices of whole-grain toast (6 grams) with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (7 grams) and a banana? These are great breakfast options but they fall short in the protein department. Shoot for closer to 20-30 grams of protein at breakfast. An example of this may include one scrambled egg (6 grams), two low-fat veggie sausage links (9 grams), ½ cup of berries and a cup of cooked oatmeal (6 grams). Now that’s a "breakfast of champions!" 

Protein by the Numbers

Below are protein examples.

  • 3 oz. chicken = 28 grams
  • 3 oz. turkey = 25 grams
  • 3 oz. salmon = 22 grams
  • 6 oz. 0% fat Greek yogurt = 15 grams
  • ½ cup pinto beans = 11 grams
  • 1 cup milk = 8 grams
  • ½ cup black beans = 7 grams
  • 2 Tbsp. peanut butter = 7 grams
  • 1 oz. almonds = 6 grams
  • 1 low-fat string cheese  = 6 grams
  • 1 egg = 6 grams
  • ½ cup green peas = 4 grams

Even if you are a vegetarian, you can get quality protein from many sources, such as lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, nut butters and soy products like tofu. The best strategy is to divide up your protein between multiple meals to reachr to your daily personal needs.

Meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist to create the best eating plan for you that includes a balance of all three macronutrients–carbs, protein and fat. You can reach and achieve your health goals with professional guidance, and Cooper Clinic registered dietitian nutritionists are here to help. For more information about Cooper Clinic Nutrition Services, visit or call 972.560.2655.

Article provided by Meridan Zerner, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD