As a gymnast, you’ve probably heard that protein is an important part of an athlete’s diet. While this is true, many athletes aren’t familiar with all the benefits of including enough and the right types of protein into their diet – this makes it harder for them to understand just how much protein is needed to achieve proper nutrition. Instead of guessing on what to eat and how much to put on your plate, here is a guide to help ensure you’re fueling your body the best you can!
What is protein?
First and foremost, protein is a macronutrient that provides energy (4 calories per gram) to help your body function properly. Protein is often referred to as the body's building blocks – it’s essential not just for strength and muscles, but for all growth and development. This includes your bones, organs, immune system, muscles, tendons, skin, hair, nails, and more! However, if your overall energy intake is not meeting your needs, protein will be used as an energy source first, and will not be able to do any of these specialized functions.
Let’s break it down even further – the building blocks of protein are called amino acids. In total, there are 20 amino acids: 11 are made by your body, the other 9 will come from food. Protein foods can be complete or incomplete, depending on how many of the essential amino acids they have.
When you eat a complete protein, you are supplying your body with food that already contains the 9 essential amino acids you need. All animal proteins and soy foods are considered complete proteins. These include:
Beef & other red meat
Poultry (like chicken, turkey, etc.)
Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.)
Soy (soy, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, etc.)
Complete protein sources also contain the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and is also a natural source of the compound Creatine, both of which have been shown to be important factors for strength and muscle growth.
You’re missing at least one of the essential amino acids when you eat incomplete proteins. Most plant based sources of protein are considered incomplete, including:
Beans, Lentils, and Legumes (such as black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, etc.)
Nuts and Nut Butter (such as almonds, peanuts, walnuts, cashews)
Seeds (such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seed, etc.)
Grains (such as quinoa, buckwheat, and wild rice)
Vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, potatoes, etc.)
Because incomplete protein foods don’t provide you with all the necessary amino acids your body needs, you’ll need to eat them along with complementary protein foods. Eating the two types of proteins together gives you all 9 essential amino acids. Complementary protein choices include:
Peanut butter on whole grain bread or crackers
Hummus and pita
Black bean burger on a whole grain bun
Tofu with quinoa
Noodle stir fry with a peanut or sesame seed sauce
Chickpeas with pasta
Lentil soup served with bread
Beans with tortillas, rice, or tacos
Plant Based Protein Sources
When choosing your protein, there are certain factors to consider such, as whether it is plant based or from an animal. Plant based sources not only provide protein, but many also contain fiber which promotes healthy gut bacteria and smoother digestion. Plant based sources protein per volume can typically be around the following:
Beans and Legumes: ~7g per 1/2 cup
Nuts: ~7g per 1/4 cup
Nut Butter: ~7g per 2 Tablespoons
Seeds: ~7-8g per 1/4 cup
Grains: ~6-8g per 1 cup (cooked)
Vegetables: 3-5g per 1 cup (cooked)
If you are considering going vegan, vegetarian, or mainly plant based for your protein intake, it is important to be aware of both the benefits and drawbacks:
High in fiber
Low in saturated fat
Ethical and environmental reasons
Need to eat complementary proteins
Need to be strategic in planning meals and snacks
Potential risk for B12 and iron deficiency
Animal Protein Sources
Animal sources of protein are the most protein dense choices, meaning most have about 7 grams of protein per oz. Unlike plant based proteins, animal sources will provide you with the all 9 amino acids your body needs. Check out some the the pros and cons to animal sources:
Easier to meet protein needs
Complete in essential amino acids (including BCAAs and collagen)
Good sources of B vitamins, iron, and calcium
Can be high in saturated fat, which, in large amounts, can be pro-inflammatory have negative long-term effects on heart health
To maximize the pro’s when choosing animal proteins, it is important to choose “lean cuts if meat more often, such as:
Poultry over red meat
Chicken breast or boneless-skinless thighs over wings and legs
Lean beef and pork like tenderloin or >90% lean ground over, roasts, chuck, sausage, or bacon
To further maximize the benefits, try to incorporate seafood into your diet one or more times a week. Seafood products are rich in unsaturated fats, giving them anti-inflammatory properties which promote heart health.
How much protein does a gymnast need?
The biggest debate surrounding protein is not over whether or not an athlete should be eating protein, but instead how much protein a gymnast needs everyday.
Protein needs are determined by many factors including your training (type, amount, intensity), your age, body weight, and body composition. Compared to a typical non-athletic individual, gymnasts do require more protein to support their goals and demands of training in the sport. However, don’t let that scare you into thinking that it is impossible to achieve proper protein consumption. In fact, compared to the standard American diet, protein needs of a gymnast are actually much more realistic than you'd expect.
Energy from protein usually makes up between 10-35% of total energy needs. Most competitive gymnasts need about 1.6-2g of protein per kilogram of body weight (or about .8g of protein per pound).
For a 50lb gymnast, this means eating approximately 37-46g of protein per day, or the equivalent of 5-7oz of meat or meat equivalent
For a 100lb gymnast, this means eating approximately 73-90g of protein per day, or the equivalent of 10-13oz of meat or meat equivalent
For a 125lb gymnast, this means eating approximately 91-115g of protein per day, or the equivalent of 13-16oz of meat or meat equivalent
When you look at it this way, the numbers seem much more achievable. Ask yourself this; How often have you gone out to eat at a restaurant and seen a 12oz, 16oz, or even 20oz steak on a menu (and proceeded to eat the whole thing)?
While eating enough protein each day is crucial for gymnasts, more is not necessarily better. Research has shown that there is a limit of how much protein can be used at one time. Although this limit is based on age, size, and needs, only about 30-40g (max) of protein can be used at one time.
Taking into consideration that your body won’t be able to use all of the protein at once, for the best outcome, it’s not ideal to eat 100% of your day's protein in one sitting. Instead, try including protein foods at all meals and snacks throughout the day. That way, you can really make the most out of your protein.
Before getting into any conversation about protein supplements, it is important to note that they are not for everyone, and for most gymnasts, supplements are not necessary. In fact, MOST GYMNASTS CAN EASILY GET 100% OF THEIR PROTEIN FROM FOOD. Food should always be prioritized over supplements because, along with the protein, you get a whole slew of other nutrients that your body needs.
However, if a protein supplement still feels like something you need to incorporate into your diet, remember to first consult with a registered dietitian (RD) (or at least with one of the two approved databases linked below).
Here are the 3 things you need to consider before adding protein supplements into your daily routine:
1. Product Safety
Unlike food, the supplement industry is not well regulated. These products are not tested before they go on the market. And often, if they are “researched”, these studies are done internally by the company themself (who already have a financial investment on their product working as intended). It is important to take a few things to take into consideration when evaluating a protein supplement or specific product for your gymnast:
Efficacy - will the product work for your athlete?
Who participated in the study - male vs female, athlete vs everyday person, adult vs child
Amount of active ingredient studied compared to what is actually in the product
Do results of studies match what the product/company is claiming?
How were results shared - scientific journal, mainstream media, social media, testimonials, etc.
Many types of protein powders also contain hidden ingredients and dangerous contaminants that the consumer is not always aware of when purchasing the products. Unregulated products may also be subject to harmful ingredient sourcing from less regulated countries, labeling misinformation, issues with product consistency and purity, and lazy manufacturing practices resulting in cross-contamination with banned or harmful substances,
It won’t be until after a problem occurs on a large scale, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will step in. Ignorance is not an excuse for a failed drug test or other unintended consequence. Very low levels of substances can still be detected and you will be subjected to the consequences of your organization or governing body (such as the NCAA, WADA and the IOC).
Instead of being regulated and approved by the FDA, protein supplements can be – but are not required to be – tested by 3rd parties. The best way to guarantee that products are safe, not only for your growing athlete, but to guarantee that there are no unadulterated, unintended, or banned substances, look for one of these 3rd party certifications. This means that a product has undergone an additional evaluation by an outside, uninvested company, to guarantee it's ingredients, purity, and the accuracy of the claims. Look for one of the following stamps of approval either on the packaging or on their online database:
2. Type of Protein
Similar to how plant based protein and animal sources have their unique qualities, so do the various types of protein supplements. While many consist of an animal source such as egg or dairy, there are vegan ones as well. A few of the most common protein supplements are derived from:
Whey: If you’re looking for a protein supplement that is a complete protein, whey is a great choice. Whey is one of the best absorbed supplements and is dairy based.
Casein: With similar characteristics as whey, casein is another option for a dairy based protein supplement. However, because casein forms a gel when interacting with stomach acid, it causes a delay in the bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids. This leaves casein to be absorbed much slower than whey.
Collagen: A structural protein found in connective tissues (like joints, ligaments, and tendons) which can be helpful for those needing extra tissue support. But, collagen protein supplements are often incomplete proteins and can be found in animal proteins like meat, chicken, eggs, fish, bone broth, and gelatin. If taking a collagen supplement, take it with a food or drink containing 50mg of Vitamin C (like an orange, bell pepper or kiwi).
Pea: For anyone who prefers vegetarian or vegan proteins, pea protein is the most complete option. Because it is non-dairy, pea protein is popular among those with allergies or food sensitivities.
Others: Egg, hemp, soy, and brown rice proteins are also viable options that work similarly to the previously mentioned choice.
With any protein supplement, remember to weigh the pros and cons of each and consult in an RD before consuming them.
3. Dose of Protein
Protein supplements mainly come in powder form or a pre-made shake – when using protein power, be sure to confirm the amount of protein per scoop (or shake bottle) and make sure it is appropriate for you. For most gymnasts, a snack sized portion of protein has ~7-14g and a meal sized portion of protein is 21-40g.
Create a protein packed meal plan with Food for Fuel
It’s no secret that a gymnast needs a well rounded, balanced diet to be properly fueled for their practices – and that included eating enough protein. Many gymnasts aren’t even aware of what they’re eating or how it is impacting their performance in the gym. Because protein is such a crucial component of muscle strength, energy, bones, and more, you should make sure you’re giving your body enough of it. Contact Food for Fuel to help you achieve success in the gym through proper nutrition and healthy habits.
Want to feel confident with your fueling plan and learn to fuel success? I help competitive gymnasts fuel their bodies, prevent injuries, and reach their highest potential. Curious about how working together could improve your performance in the gym? Apply to work with me today and let's chat!