Protein is always at the forefront of every athlete’s mind, especially female athletes. As a dietitian, I always get questions about how much protein is needed for female athletes, best food sources, and how to increase protein in the diet.
While a blog post can never personalize recommendations, I do want to discuss why protein is important, general protein needs, and helpful strategies for consuming recommended amounts.
What is protein and what does it do for the female athlete?
Protein is a highly metabolically active macronutrient that provides the body with energy and is fundamentally crucial to the structure of our bodies. Protein is made up of 20 different amino acids, or “building blocks.”
Protein is important for many body systems, including the cardiovascular and immune systems! When we think about our muscles, protein helps to make the muscle produce work and provides the physical structure of the muscle.
At rest, protein is only used as an energy source if calories are insufficient to meet demand. Energy is primarily provided by the breakdown carbohydrates and fats. Your specific protein needs are based on the length and intensities of your sport activities.
How much protein do you really need as a female athlete?
The perfect amount of dietary protein is an elusive target, but we can consider different types of exercise and provide a general range. For most weight stable individuals, protein needs will be about 0.25-0.3 g/kg of body weight per meal or somewhere between 1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight per day, provided in frequent doses throughout the day (Tipton & Witard, 2007, Thomas et al., 2016).
For a 140 pound female this would be about 76-127 grams, or 16-20 grams per meal and snack, assuming three meals and one snack per day. This number will increase in certain situations depending on goals, exercise or sport type, injury status, protein source, and age.
Unfortunately, most of the research related to nutrition needs and athletes has been done on the male population. So, as we wait on the research for more definitive guidance for females, we can use this information to make informed choices.
Generally, a female athlete can ensure that they’re getting enough protein, without a supplement, by doing the following three things:
- consuming protein at each meal and snack
- ensuring total caloric intake is sufficient
- choosing a variety of protein sources throughout the day
For female athletes protein needs can vary during different phases of the menstrual cycle as well as different phases of life. During the luteal phase of menstruation, during pregnancy, and during and after menopause there is an increased need for protein intake.
- Luteal phase: Higher end of recommended intakes (1.7-2.0 g/kg/day)
- Pregnancy: +25g/day in the second half, potentially more depending on training volume and intensity
- Menopause: Higher end of recommended intakes (1.7-2.0 g/kg/day)
Having an extra protein-rich snack or bumping up your protein serving during meals may be a helpful strategy during these times. Women who are dieting or choosing a vegan diet are more likely to be under consuming protein and should pay extra attention to protein needs.
But what about the flipside, can you get too much? And the answer is yes!
How much protein for female athletes is too much?
Over prioritizing protein, such as with low-carbohydrate or Paleo diets can leave little carbohydrate to fuel the muscles well. While protein is important, carbohydrates are a necessary fuel so that your muscles can work at their best. Too much protein can also lead to amino acids spilling out into the urine, making some expensive pee (not to mention an annoying side effect during training)!
Tips to guard against overconsuming protein include:
- Consuming protein from food sources
- Consuming 3-4 ounces, or 20-30g at each meal and snack
- Using supplements sparingly
- If increasing protein intake, increase fluids as well
What are the risks of too little protein for female athletes?
Too little protein impacts a multitude of processes as you can imagine after we discussed what protein does and how it works in the body. This is usually due to female athletes trying to eat a low-calorie, “clean” diet that doesn’t allow for enough energy or protein to be consumed.
Risks of not eating enough protein include:
- Loss of menstrual cycle
- Poor impact on bone, leading to stress fractures
- Poor recovery
- Poor performance
- Poor immune response
- Low iron
What does a typical serving of protein look like for a female athlete?
A helpful strategy I use with my athletes is to think about the protein source size and compare it to your palm. A serving of protein the size of your palm provides about 25 grams of protein.
Some examples include:
- Skinless chicken breast, 3 oz – 28 grams
- Steak, 3 oz – 26 grams
- Eggs, 3 large – 18 grams
- Greek yogurt, 6 oz – 18 grams
- Skim milk, 1 cup – 11 grams
- Tuna, 3 oz – 22 grams
- Edamame, shelled ½ cup – 13 grams
- Plain soy milk, 1 cup – 8 grams
- Lentils, 1 cup cooked – 18 grams
- Nuts, ¼ cup – 4-6 grams
- Seeds, 1 oz – 5-9 grams
- Peanut butter, 2 oz – 14 grams
Does protein timing matter?
Once you have met your protein needs with a meal, extras will not be stored. Many studies have shown a plateau of protein synthesis around 40 grams depending on body size and muscle mass (Moore et al, 2008), meaning there isn’t any benefit of higher protein intakes.I know that this can come as a shock to the fans of high-protein shakes!
This is also important to consider if you are attempting a diet strategy such as intermittent fasting, where the eating window is restricted. Do you have enough time to spread out your protein intake so that you can properly repair and refuel your muscles in response to your training?
Muscles respond to two stimuli when it comes to building muscle, which are tearing down the muscle through exercise and eating protein(Tipton et al., 2001). To take advantage of this, consuming protein early in the post-exercise period is probably to your advantage.
The window of potential likely lasts up to 48 hours post strenuous resistance training, but considering a high quality protein and carbohydrate-rich snack post-workout can help generate the maximum effect in regards to muscle growth. For shorter, more power-based workouts like lifting weights or sprinting, having a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack 1-2 hours before training likely will elicit a similar response (Wohlgemuth et al, 2021).
Research shows us that the branch-chained amino acid, leucine, is the trigger for building muscle, so providing a source of leucine during this window is important as well (van Vliet et al., 2015). Leucine can be found in a variety of protein sources listed below. In general, providing a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack in the ratio of 2 or 3:1 is recommended. This would look like about 40 or 60 grams of carbohydrate to 20 grams of protein or:
- Greek yogurt + fruit
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread + ½ banana
- 2 slices of whole grain toast with cottage cheese, honey, and pistachios
For more recipes and fueling ideas, check out my latest article here.
Bottom line: Protein is essential and must be supplied in high quality amounts consistently throughout the day.
Best sources of protein for female athletes
Protein quality is an important factor to consider when identifying ideal protein sources. Lean protein sources are not only lower in saturated fat, they are also more bioavailable for muscle building. High quality protein sources ensure that all essential amino acids are present and an abundance of essential amino acids creates a preferable muscle building environment (Biolo et al., 1997).
High quality protein sources include:
- Meat like chicken, pork, and lean beef
- Soy products like edamame, tofu, and tempeh
High leucine containing foods include:
- Dairy (whey)
A sample day might look something like this:
6:30 AM – Pre-training snack of banana with nut butter and coffee
8:00 AM – 3 mile run + 30 minutes of cross training
9:30 AM – Breakfast of veggie omelet and whole grain toast
11:30 AM – Lunch of Grain Bowl with mixed vegetables, 4 oz lean protein, and avocado with a side of fruit
3:00 PM – PM snack of whole grain toast with peanut butter
5:30 PM – Dinner of stir-fried vegetables, 2-3 oz rotisserie chicken over cooked quinoa and a side salad with favorite dressing
8:00 PM – Pre-bed snack of Greek yogurt, berries, and sliced almonds
Do I have to consume complementary proteins as a female athlete?
Animal proteins have all of the amino acids that our body is not able to make – we call those amino acids “essential” because we need to get them in our diet.
Incomplete proteins come from plant foods, such as beans and peanuts. You can actually combine two different incomplete proteins to make a complete protein. Complementary proteins are those that complement one another and make complete proteins from two sources of incomplete proteins. Incomplete protein sources do not provide all of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts and therefore must be supplied elsewhere in the diet.
Examples of complementary protein sources include:
- Grains with beans, dairy, or nuts/seeds
- Nuts/seeds with dairy
- Legumes with dairy, nuts/seeds, or grains
By pairing beans and rice, peanut butter and whole wheat bread, or yogurt with nuts a complete protein is created! It is not necessary to pair incomplete proteins at each meal, but rather over the course of the day ensure that all amino acids are provided.
Do I need to supplement with protein powder as a female athlete?
Before considering a supplement, an important question to ask yourself is if you are able to meet your needs with food first. If this is possible, food is preferred to supplementation.
While protein powders and supplements sure do have good advertisers, they’re just not the same as real food. It’s impossible for a company to recreate the food matrix (i.e. the extra nutrients within whole foods and the work the body has to do to break them down) in a manmade supplement (Burd et al., 2019).
As we discussed above, extra protein beyond what the body needs for repair and rebuilding can’t be stored. Sometimes a supplement may be necessary, for example if schedules allow for minimal cooking and prepping or if certain dishes need a protein boost (like oatmeal or smoothies).
Here are some high protein snacks for inspiration!
As a dietitian who works with athletes, I know how important protein is as well as how confusing it is. If I were to summarize my most important recommendations about protein, I’ll leave you with these four thoughts.
- Be sure to have a protein source at each meal and snack
- Eat whole food protein sources first before considering a supplement
- Aim for the protein source to be the size of your palm
- Choose lean protein sources
Does any of this confuse you or are you looking for a more personalized plan? I can help you audit your training schedule and what you are already doing nutritionally and optimize it for your specific goals. I understand how time consuming your training already is, so having an outside voice to help you put your best foot forward through nutrition support might just be the training edge you need. Click here to schedule a call with me!
Biolo, G., Tipton, K. D., Klein, S., & Wolfe, R. R. (1997). An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. The American Journal of Physiology, 273(1 Pt 1), E122-129. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.1997.273.1.E122
Burd, N. A., McKenna, C. F., Salvador, A. F., Paulussen, K. J. M., & Moore, D. R. (2019). Dietary Protein Quantity, Quality, and Exercise Are Key to Healthy Living: A Muscle-Centric Perspective Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6, 83. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00083
Moore, D. R., Robinson, M., Fry, J., Tang, J. E., Glover, E., Wilkinson, S. B., Prior, T., Tarnopolsky, M. A., & Phillips, S. M. (n.d.). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men | The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition | Oxford Academic. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/89/1/161/4598235
Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(3), 543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
Tipton, K. D., Rasmussen, B. B., Miller, S. L., Wolf, S. E., Owens-Stovall, S. K., Petrini, B. E., & Wolfe, R. R. (2001). Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281(2), E197-206. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.2001.281.2.E197
Tipton, K. D., & Witard, O. C. (2007). Protein requirements and recommendations for athletes: Relevance of ivory tower arguments for practical recommendations. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 26(1), 17–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.csm.2006.11.003
van Vliet, S., Burd, N. A., & van Loon, L. J. C. (2015). The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. The Journal of Nutrition, 145(9), 1981–1991. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.204305
Wohlgemuth, K. J., Arieta, L. R., Brewer, G. J., Hoselton, A. L., Gould, L. M., & Smith-Ryan, A. E. (2021). Sex differences and considerations for female specific nutritional strategies: A narrative review. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 27. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-021-00422-8