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  Latest update: 3/12/2023

Building Blocks of All Foods


Protein is one of the three major food constituents (the other two are fats and carbohydrate) and is essential for cell repair. It is particularly important for the athlete to repair the microscopic trauma that occurs with exercise and training. It is NOT a good energy source.

Protein are built from amino acids molecules. There are over 500 natural amino acids but just 20 are used to build all the proteins in our body. Of these 20, the body can synthesize 11. The diet has to provide the other 9 which is why they are called "essential" amino acids.

The proteins in our food are broken into their component amino acids in the small intestine. Individual amino acids are then absorbed through the intestinal lining cells and transported to cells throughout the body to rebuild and repair cellular proteins. The body cannot store unneeded protein which means cell repair requires amino acids provided by protein eaten that day or from amino acids scavenged from cells elsewhere in the body. Excess dietary protein - beyond that needed for cell repair - is converted into carbohydrates (gluconeogenesis) or fat.

We measure a persons nitrogen balance to assess protein metabolism. A negative nitrogen balance indicates that protein requirements are not being met by our diet and protein is being scavenged from healthy tissue to maintain essential body functions. A negative nitrogen balance will impair training gains in muscle mass and strength.


This is a nice summary of how answer to that question has changed over time.

The average adults (not a participant in a regular program of resistance or aerobic training) needs 0.8 - 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or 0.4 grams per pound of body weight) per day. That equates to 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams for men.

Those on a regular resistance training program as well as endurance athletes require more than the average individual. Training induced micro trauma repair as the growth of muscle tissue are assumed to be the reason for the higher requirement.

A 2018 meta analysis of 49 studies on a total of 1800 weightlifters, who lifted at least twice a week for at least six weeks found that doubling the recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein increased strength gains by nine percent and added about a pound of muscle, with no obvious benefit from additional dietary protein (supplements or meat/plant based).

The average 70 kg (154 pound) recreational cyclist needs 80 to 100 grams of protein per day. And for those at the elite level, the requirement may be as high as 120 grams. As active athletes consume more Calories/day than a normally active individual, a balanced diet (without supplements) should meet these needs. Even in extreme endurance activities such as the Tour De France, estimated protein needs of 1.5 gms protein/kg body wt/day were easily met by a normal (or "unsupplemented") diet that met total daily Caloric needs.

A literature review fails to support the need (or benefit) of protein supplements for athletes on on a balanced daily diet (a normal distribution of protein/carbohydrates/fats). In fact it has been suggested that too much protein may DECREASE overall performance as the appetite suppressing effects of a high protein diet decreased carbohydrate intake (and pre event muscle glycogen stores).

There may other health risks from eating too much protein.

My Conclusions?


So it's relatively easy to meet your basic protein requirements from 6-8 ounces of meat, 2-3 servings of dairy products, and 6-10 servings of cereal per day.


The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 0.8 g/kg/day for adults. But as we have just read, this may be on the low side for an athlete. How did that happen? Most likely as the recommendation is based on nitrogen-balance studies in average young adults who almost certainly have varying athletic leanings.

And it is probably too low for older adults who are less efficient in their protein digestion and absorption. It has been speculated that too little dietary protein and as a result being relatively relative protein deficient, may be an aggravating factor in the loss of muscle mass that accompanies aging.

Taking both aging and activity level into account, an international panel of experts recommended protein intakes of 1.0 - 1.2 g/kg/day for all adults 65 years or older, with even higher intakes for those who are more physically active.

So for all of us who are riding regularly, and often competitively - even if just with friends on the weekend, it is important to keep an eye on the protein content of our diets.

I have never been a fan of the over response with the paleo diets as the red meat comes along with a lot of undesirable fats. So if you want to err on the side of caution, there are plenty of non meat sources of protein to add to your diet.



We know that those with diets higher in plant foods (and lower in animal foods) have a decreased risk of heart attack and stroke (as well as less diabetes and even cancer). The favorite culprit is the high fat and cholesterol content of animal meats. A second is high-temperature cooking (pan-frying, grilling) producing cancer causing and other harmful intermediary compounds.

Although both may be contributing factors, more and more evidence is pointing to two proteins found in all red meat - carnitine and the cell sugar-protein molecule Neu5Ac - as the root cause of severe blood vessel disease.

Carnitine is a muscle protein. After digestion, carnitine absorbed and processed in the liver into trimethylamine (TMA) which is in turn modified by colon bacteria (our microbiome) into trimethyl n-oxide (TMAO).

In lab experiments, TMAO is directly toxic to blood vessel lining cells. The injured cells absorb fats from the circulation which results in the formation of blood vessel plaques, and in the presence of high blood fat and cholesterol levels, the process is accelerated.

A clinical parallel has been identified in studies on patients seen in hospital ERs for chest discomfort. Those with the highest blood levels of TMAO (compared to the lowest) are six times as likely to die within the following month and twice as likely to die within seven years.

Vegetarians as a group have the lowest average blood levels of TMAO. Interestingly, when given a single dose of carnitine (a piece of steak) their blood TMAO levels barely budge. The reason? A person's microbiome responds to their diet. Expose the colon bacteria to more of a specific food and those that thrive on it multiply. Being exposed to only small amounts of carnitine in a no-meat diet, there are very few carnitine metabolizing bacteria available to process that occasional steak. This suggests that an occasional meat containing meal should be less harmful to your blood vessels than when it is part of your daily diet.

The second meat protein is Neu5Gc, a cell surface protein found on all non human mammalian cells (but not chicken or fish). Eons ago a genetic mutation in humans led to its modification to a similar molecule (Neu5Ac). As this new protein provided some protection against malaria, it became the dominant form.

Our immune system recognizes invading germs by their cell surface proteins. When it detects proteins that are different from our own, antibodies to kill the invading germs are produced.

With this change in our cell sugar-protein, the immune system now sees all non human mammal meat as "different", the immune system revs up, and antibodies are formed. The result is that those who regularly eat beef (a mammal meat) have blood markers reflecting a state of chronic inflammation.

A side effect of the overactive immune system is collateral damage to cells throughout the body. In the blood vessels this means more atherosclerosis with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, and in other cells the damage increases the risk of cancer.

Supportive evidence once again comes from the laboratory where mice, genetically altered with the human gene mutation and placed on a meat diet have twice the heart attack risk of genetically unmodified mice on a similar diet.

These two harmful effects of a mammal meat diet are moderated to a degree by small molecules produced from the metabolism of fiber by our microbiome. But with most red meat containing diets being lower in fruits,vegetables and whole grains, this protection is weakened. The effect is observed in those on a strict paleo diet (high red meat and no whole grain) who have much higher blood TMAO levels than those who eat even a small amount of whole grain.

What does this body of work suggest as far as healthy diet changes?



There are two ways to express the daily intake of protein (P), carbohydrates (C), and fats (F). One is as the absolute number of Calories derived from each dietary component. The other is to express the balance of P/C/F as a relative ratio of the percent of total daily Calories from each. As most diet analyses are expressed in relative terms, let's use that to define a high protein diet.

What is the balance of protein/carbohydrates/fats in an "average" diet? For the average active individual, not those participating in endurance sports, on a Calorically balanced diet, not trying to lose weight, we find that Carbohydrates make up 45-65 percent of daily Calories, Fat 20-35 percent of Calories, and Protein 10-35 percent.

The current controversy on healthy eating is over the appropriate balance of total Carbohydrates versus total Fat in that average diet. There is solid evidence that IF you are not eating extra carbohydrate Calories to support special athletic energy needs, you may be healthier if you change that balance towards fewer carbohydrate Calories (neared lower range of 40 or 45 % of the daily total) with more Calories from dietary fat (nearer 35 or 40%). In a Calorically balanced diet, protein remains between 10 - 30%.

What about higher protein diets?

The Zone Diet

A couple references:

Dr. Sear's diet is based on a rigid Caloric ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat along with an emphasis on carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (providing a slow release of sugar and minimal an insulin surge), lean protein, and fat that is monounsaturated. It is similar to a Mediterranean Diet.

The term diet can be used in two ways. It can refer to

The Zone diet can be used for both purposes. To lose weight you keep the correct ratio and focus on a negative Caloric balance. If you are at your ideal weight, you eat a Calorically balanced diet and move the focus to the P/C/F ratio.

Used to lose weight, evidence suggests that the Zone diet's emphasis on high protein and fat may have an advantage over other weight loss programs, not the result of the original conjecture that it facilitated fat metabolism as much as from a blunting of appetite which translated into the intake of fewer Calories per day than the comparison diets.

After analyzing the dietary intake of the groups, the research team realized those on the high protein diet had eaten less food. This accounted for the greater weight loss. There were several possible explanations for this reduction in food intake. Protein has a higher satiating (pronounced effect than carbohydrate. In other words, you feel less hungry when consuming a diet high in protein. And a high protein intake seems able to suppress the following days energy intake to a greater extent than carbohydrate.

For an athlete on any weight loss program, there is a significant risk of riding in a metabolic state similar to that experienced with being "bonked" (when your glycogen is depleted and no external glucose has being taken in). Dr. Sear's feels that it is this lack of glycogen that forces the body to "burn" extra fat assisting with weight loss. Riding bonked is just part of what one should expect - on the Zone or any other weight loss diet.

If you are not trying to lose weight, keeping the exact Zone ratio is alleged to provide the health benefit from a decrease in total body inflammation and an increase in a sense of "well being". These claims have yet to be proven in long term observations.

How about a Calorically neutral Zone diet and the athlete? Where Calories eaten are adequate to replace those expended each day?

Although the Zone Diet claims to improve performance, a study on athletes following the diet lost endurance. Why is that the case? The problem is in the rigid P/C/F ratio of 40/30/30.

If you want to maintain your weight (not gain weight) your daily Caloric expenditure and intake have to be in balance. Applying the Zone ratio to supply these Calories, an endurance athletes will not eat enough carbohydrate Calories (at 30% of the total daily Calories eaten) to meet their higher level exercise needs. With fat metabolism being less effective than carbohydrate metabolism to support high level (>50 - 60% VO2max) activity, you bonk or run out of gas.

This is demonstrated in this study "The acute 1-week effects of the Zone diet on body composition, blood lipid levels, and performance in recreational endurance athletes." Limiting daily carbohydrate Calories available (by sticking to the correct Zone ratio) led to slowly progressive glycogen depletion.

The bottom line - To lose weight, using the Zone ratio with a negative daily caloric balance works. But on a calorically adequate daily diet it is unrealistic to expect that athletes will experience significant improvements in performance. The recommendations for both carbohydrate and Caloric intakes are not sufficient to meet the energy requirements of a regular daily training program. Go high protein/low carbohydrate and you'll be chronically bonked.

The Paleo diet

The paleo diet is the ultimate high protein approach to making diet choices.

It is based on the unproven assumption that our ancestors ate a high meat diet and thus our metabolism is optimized for protein. But the data is not there to support that assumption.

First we have the facts from many population studies that demonstrate a strong correlation of health status with dietary intake - specifically the negative impacts of a high meat diet versus the positive benefits of being a vegetarian.


In his review of the literature (original abstract) on dietary protein supplements, Dr. Richard B Kreider PhD (Department of Human Movement Sciences & Education, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee 38152. Email: concluded that "dietary supplementation of protein beyond that necessary to maintain nitrogen balance does not provide additional benefits for athletes."

Here is an excerpt of his review:

BACKGROUND. Protein and amino acids are among the most common nutritional supplements taken by athletes. This review evaluates the rationale and potential effects on athletic performance of protein, purported anabolic amino acids, branched-chain amino acids, glutamine, creatine, and hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB). LITERATURE. Two books, 61 research articles, 10 published abstracts, and 19 review articles or book chapters. FINDINGS. Dietary supplementation of protein beyond that necessary to maintain nitrogen balance does not provide additional benefits for athletes. Ingesting carbohydrate with protein prior to or following exercise may reduce catabolism, promote glycogen re-synthesis, or promote a more anabolic hormonal environment. Whether employing these strategies during training enhances performance is not yet clear. There is some evidence from clinical studies that certain amino acids (e.g., arginine, histidine, lysine, methionine, ornithine, and phenylalanine) have anabolic effects by stimulating the release of growth hormone, insulin, and/or glucocorticoids, but there is little evidence that supplementation of these amino acids enhances athletic performance. Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) and glutamine may be involved in exercise-induced central fatigue and immune suppression, but their ergogenic value as supplements is equivocal at present. Most studies indicate that creatine supplementation may be an effective and safe way to enhance performance in intermittent high-intensity exercise and to enhance adaptations to training. Supplementation with hydroxymethylbutyrate appears to reduce catabolism and increase gains in strength and fat-free mass in untrained individuals initiating training; as yet, limited data are available to decide how it affects training adaptations in athletes. CONCLUSIONS. Of the nutrients reviewed, creatine appears to have the greatest ergogenic potential for athletes involved in intense training. FURTHER RESEARCH. All supplements reviewed here need more evaluation for safety and effects on athletic performance.

Potential risks of excessive dietary protein or protein supplements include:

What about protein in combination with carbohydrates in energy and post recovery drinks? It had been suggested at one time that protein/cho mixtures were more effective than CHO alone in repleted or supplementing muscle glycogen stores. The final word, in my mind, is a review of 26 studies, published in 2014. The conclusion: "When carbohydrate is delivered at optimal rates during or after endurance exercise, protein supplements appear to have no direct endurance performance enhancing effect. " And in addition, they expanded that conclusion to include supplements while riding as well as in the post ride recovery period: "...when carbohydrate supplementation was delivered at optimal rates during or after exercise, protein supplements provided no further ergogenic effect, regardless of the performance metric used."

Theoretically, in intense exercise, protein post ride may help jump start the muscle repair process. But this is theory and I am unaware of any studies that support this idea. The one reason protein might be considered in a supplement or recovery drink in conjunction with CHO would be to improve taste and in that way optimize supplement use (maximizing Calories replaced) both during and after a ride. This could be especially important for those riders who do not tolerate very sweet sugary drinks.


Cholesterol and saturated fats have been tagged as major risk factors for blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis) for decades. But recent work suggests they are not the most important factor in all those heart attacks. Merely a late stage contributor to damage already well under way.

The results of numerous studies and investigations points to Trimethylamine N-Oxide (TMAO) as the real culprit.

There is proof of cause and effect. In an experimental mouse model, raising blood TMAO levels by dietary manipulation increased blood vessel disease in the absence of any changes in the cholesterol or fat content.

Numerous clinical studies of heart disease (chest pain in the ER, progression of known atherosclerotic heart disease) show a direct correlation between increasing blood levels of TMAO and cardiovascular disease.

Carnitine, a protein found in red meat and to a much lesser degree in chicken and fish, is the source of TMAO. Any dietary carnitine not digested and absorbed in the small bowel passes into the colon where bacteria (our microbiome) metabolize it to an intermediate molecule, TMA. TMA is in then absorbed and modified further in the liver to TMAO.

There is a similar pathway for the production of TMAO from lecithin, a protein found in egg yolks.

Solid evidence supports diet as the major determinant of blood TMAO levels. A recent study documented that a diet low in red meat and eggs lowered TMAO levels independent of the amount of cholesterol or saturated fats in those diets.

TMAO production can be reduced with oral antibiotics (which alter the makeup of the microbiome) or by decreasing the dietary intake of carnitine. Vegans as a group have the lowest blood TMAO levels (and the lowest rate of cardiovascular diseases) while those on a regular red meat diet the highest. just replacing red meat with chicken will lower the amount of TMAO excreted in the urine by two thirds.

What does this suggest for your diet?

  1. Saturated fats, found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods, do play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease, but there risk has been overstated.
  2. Your decision on the source of the third component of the daily diet, protein, has considerable impact on your health. We know that vegetarians have the lowest levels of blood vessel disease, and your goal should be a move toward a meat free diet. But that does not mean you have to move to a full vegetable protein oriented diet. You can cut your risks by adding one or two meat free dinners a week. Or decrease red meat portion sizes. And now we know that your choice of animal protein should focus on substituting chicken or fish for red meat as much as possible.


Protein is necessary for the active athlete, but more is not necessarily better. And for meat protein, chicken and fish are safer for your health than red meat.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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