Protein the forgotten nutrient?
Protein the forgotten nutrient?Protein the forgotten nutrient?

How much have we heard about the benefits of carbohydrates in an endurance athlete’s eating armoury? We need to eat more than half of our food in a pale starchy form in order to excel at our chosen sport according to the world’s leading nutritional authorities: brown rice, wholemeal bread, corn, pasta, cereals, potatoes and not forgetting sports drinks, which are mostly just sugar mixed with water with added colours and flavours.

Expressed in this way, a carb-dominant diet perhaps doesn’t look so nutritious (although some of you may look at the above menu and get excited!). The carb-dominant athletic menu is but a paradigm*, a paradigm that is thankfully starting to pass through, making way for other theories that might nourish our athletic bodies.


Professor Tim Noakes caused an enormous stir within dietetic circles due to his insistence that we should all be eating a high-protein, high-fat diet that is almost devoid of carbohydrates sources. In essence, he has challenged the carbohydrate paradigm in a big way – something he prides himself in doing, considering one of his books is entitled Challenging Beliefs. In my mind, his provoking thoughts have been very healthy for South African nutrition simply because he has questioned the status quo. But, he has gone too far the other way. I’ve written before on genetics of nutrition and one thing that we do know when it comes to nutrition is that we’re all very different in the way that we thrive. Professor Noakes may genetically be a ‘carb-resistance’ type, meaning that he certainly would be better on a low-carb diet. But that is not the case for all of us.


So, nutrition is not so simple one way or another. But, what we do know is that we all need protein in decent quantities in order to optimise our health and to optimise our performance. For example, did you know that protein is required to make: several hormones in our bodies; cell membranes; muscle and all connective tissue; a large chunk of our immune system; our gut lining; neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and detoxification chemicals? Protein, along with certain fats, vitamins and minerals, is essential in our body. Essential means that we will eventually die without it. Carbohydrates don’t actually carry that status. However, considering that a large number of carbs are wrapped up within fruit and vegetables and their wide array of nutrient contributions, we would be extremely unwise to try and exclude them.

One of the best books on this subject is the Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain and renowned triathlon coach Joe Friel. The Paleo diet supposedly represents the way we used to eat about 20 000 years ago, well before the appearance of the agricultural revolution – we were simple hunter-gatherers back then. And guess what? We didn’t eat dairy and legumes (beans and lentils), nor did we eat any kind of grains – we certainly didn’t have a pasta party the night before chasing an antelope for five hours straight (as has been studied in the Kalahari Bushmen). But Joe Friel recognised that endurance athletes did need a decent dose of carbs when putting in a big mileage – these would mostly come from fruit and starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut, pumpkin etc), but some grains would be consumed as required. The emphasis was still on good sources of protein (and essential fats) plus lots of vegetable matter (the gathering part): a pretty simple and nutritious diet.


Back to genetics: The Paleo diet represents a simple and nutrient-dense diet that many people will do very well on. But, we have to recognise that some people have moved on genetically from this 20 000-year-old model and some individuals may actually do quite well on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some people can eat large amounts of grains and legumes and be very healthy, although they are probably the minority of our population. Research will come in time to answer these questions; up until now, research has focused more on the best diet for everybody, which of course is impossible to determine.


When I construct a diet for an athlete, whether I think they are more of a Paleo or a vegan type, I focus firstly on protein before fats and carbs. According to scientific theory, athletes require about 1.4 g of protein per kg body mass per day for essential functions, although this convention is open to some serious questioning. That amount, for example, equates to around 110 g protein per day for an 80 kg athlete.

What does this mean in real terms though? If you take a look at the table, it tells you how many grams of certain foods you’ll need for 20 g of protein – from this you can work out how many grams you get from breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and sports nutrition supplements. As you can see, all you need is a very tiny chicken breast or piece of meat or fish or three small eggs to get 20 g, whereas you’ll need a whole block of tofu, over 1⁄2 litre of milk, 100 g cashew nuts, a large tin of baked beans or more than 1⁄2 kg of brown rice from non-animal sources. As an aside here, if you are vegan, there are only a small number of non-animal foods that will provide you with a complete protein. However, you can also combine a legume and a grain (e.g. lentils and brown rice or baked beans on toast) and the combination will ensure a complete protein source, although as you can see from this table, the quantities required in theory may be unattainable. So, being a vegan athlete is tough, although, for some, a possibility (read Thrive Diet by Brendon Brazier).

Protein the forgotten nutrient?


An example of a diet in which our 80 kg athlete achieves 110 g of protein might be:

Breakfast: 2 to 3 eggs scrambled with wholegrain toast and tomatoes (20 to 25 g)

Snack: a palmful of cashews (10 g)

Lunch: a small 80 g chicken breast with a large, colourful salad plus some brown rice or quinoa (20 to 25 g)

Snack: peanut butter (2 tbsp) on 2 to 3 oatcakes (10 g)

Post-exercise: smoothie with 20 g protein powder, 50 g yoghurt and 2 pieces fruit (25 g)

Dinner: 80 g grilled salmon plus steamed greens and a portion of mashed butternut (20 g).

*A paradigm pertains to the currently accepted practices within science, whereas a paradigm shift means a deviation from the current theories as science evolves.

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