Protein Supplementation for Athletes

Throughout the United States, athletes of all abilities are swarming to local supplement shops to buy protein powders.


But Why Should Athletes be Concerned about Protein?

Protein is essential in any diet, especially for athletes. While it provides a smaller amount of energy that is not a readily available as carbohydrates, two major roles of protein in the body is the building and repairing of body tissue. Because of this, protein supplementation is quickly becoming the number one nutrient most athletes think they need in order to be competitive.  However, before going to a supplement shop, athletes should be aware of the several ways that they can obtain protein without supplementation throughout their daily lives and know the facts verses the myths of protein intake.

The following are a few examples of what an athlete should try and should avoid.   

What to Do:

  • Choose lean protein and low-fat dairy sources like seafood, white meat poultry, eggs, beans, pork tenderloin, soy, low fat milk, low-fat yogurt and lean beef. When an athlete is attempting to add more protein into their diet, the healthiest way is to eat lean protein sources.  They are an excellent source of protein and other essential vitamins and minerals. Plus choosing lean protein and low-fat dairy sources are lower in cholesterol and fat.
  • Learn evidenced-based nutrition: A study examining the prevalence of nutrition education among teenage athletes found that only 6% of the athletes knew that carbohydrates were the body’s main source of energy (Martin, 2015). An education in sound basic nutrition principles from a credible source (e.g. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) can help when supplementing protein in order to know how to do it right. 
  • Eat breakfast and drink plenty of water: According to a study of NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) Division III athletes, only 28% of athletes eat breakfast daily and only 49% of athletes were drinking the appropriate amount of water (Wall, 2010). The addition of breakfast and drinking plenty of water can help an athlete to compete better while also getting some more protein through another meal.


What Not to Do:

  • Don’t exceed 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight of protein each day: Healthy People 2020 suggests the recommended daily allowance for protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (Healthy People 2020). Though controversial, some studies have shown additional dietary protein for athletes was not beneficial in either endurance or resistance training (Healthy People 2020; MacKenzie-Shalders 2016).
  • Don’t consume high protein foods or protein shakes prior to, or during exercise: Protein is the absolute last nutrient burned for energy. Taking a protein supplement before or during a practice or event will not help but perhaps hinder athletic performance. The athlete will not burn the protein until much after the practice or event.
  • Don’t cut out all other nutrients: If an athlete were to eat nothing but high protein foods and protein shakes, they would be cutting out most carbohydrates and fats. While they might think this is helpful, they are losing immediate energy usage through their lack of carbohydrates while also losing out on the greater energy potential of fats.

Collegiate athletes in specific must be especially careful when consuming protein powders from a nutrition store. The NCAA has a very specific banned substance list that allows the organization to suspend athletes if they find traces or elevated amounts of a substance in a drug test. While many employees selling protein supplements are very knowledgeable on the products, they often do not know the full ingredient list.  It is important for the athlete to know exactly what they are buying.

Below is a list of the substances banned by the NCAA. The full list for 2015-2016 as well as examples and explanations of each category can be found here:


NCAA banned substances:

  • Stimulants
  • Anabolic Agents
  • Alcohol and Beta Blockers (banned for rifle only)
  • Diuretics and Other Masking Agents
  • Street Drugs
  • Peptide Hormones and Analogues
  • Anti-estrogens
  • Beta-2 Agonists


To learn more about your specific protein needs, please contact a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist on the Idaho Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website by clicking Find a RD.

Written by Idaho State University Dietetic Student and Collegiate Track Athlete,

Timothy Ankenman


  1. Healthy People 2020 [Internet]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion [cited March 29th 2016]. Available from:
  2. MacKenzie-Shalders, K. L., King, N. A., Byrne, N. M., & Slater, G. J. (2016). Increasing Protein Distribution Has No Effect on Changes in Lean Mass During a Rugby Preseason. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 26(1), 1-7. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0040
  3. Martin, Ş. A., & Tarcea, M. (2015). Consequences of lack of education regarding nutrition among young athletes. Palestrica Of The Third Millennium Civilization & Sport, 16(3), 241-246.
  4. Wall, C. C., Coughlin, M. A., & Jones, M. T. (2010). Surveying The Nutritional Habits And Behaviors Of NCAA-Division III Athletes. Journal Of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins), 241. doi:10.1097/01.JSC.0000367234.76471.44
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