Have you ever thought seriously about how much protein you need as a woman athlete? Based on my experience, the answer is probably more than you are currently getting. Your protein intake really does matter when it comes to building muscle and recovering better, and by understanding how much protein you should be shooting for throughout the day, you can easily turn your thoughts into habits.
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If You Are Looking to Increase Your Protein Intake:
- Understand the why behind your protein intake so that you can create sustainable habits
- Calculate your protein intake range based on your size, training, and goals
- Stay alert about what you need to do to support your body as a female athlete
Are You Eating Enough Protein?
It is not uncommon for me to see female athletes getting only half or slightly more than half of the protein they actually need, based on their training.
Cutting calories, limiting protein intake, and then training hard on top of that is a recipe for disaster and will result in you not experiencing the results you want to see from your training but also resulting in potential harm to your body.
Using a relative percentage may not account for the necessary amount of protein you need if you are training hard and trying to get stronger.
That’s why it is crucial to calculate your absolute protein needs using a protein intake range based on body weight.
Protein: The Macromolecule of Building
Your protein intake is a truly important part of muscle-building activity, recovery, nutrition, and longevity.
By taking small steps over time, you can create systems, structures, and habits so that you can slowly nudge yourself in a way that is sustainable.
Protein is the macromolecule of building, and it is only by eating enough protein on a regular basis that you can keep the process of muscle synthesis going.
When you start taking your protein intake throughout the day seriously, you will see the results you are looking for and start to feel more confident in applying what you are learning to your routine.
Are you ready to start taking your daily protein intake seriously? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.
In This Episode
- Why you need to understand the rationale behind protein intake to apply what you learn (4:08)
- The three main areas of struggle I see in my clients and community when it comes to their nutrition (6:40)
- How to know if you are eating enough overall total protein (12:05)
- Explore some of the research behind why you need to pay attention to your protein intake (18:37)
- What you need to know and consider about sports nutrition specifically as a female athlete (22:39)
“If there was something I could talk about all day long within the realm of sports and performance nutrition, it is why protein is so damn important and how to work on increasing your protein intake.” (1:57)
“It does take time to learn how to translate quantities into real-life habits.” (7:15)
“It is not uncommon for female athletes who are trying to build strength and muscle to be eating less than half or a little bit more than half of the recommended amount of protein that you need each day.” (12:35)
“You are athletic, you are active, you are not sedentary, you need more energy!” (16:01)
“The worst thing you can do is cut your calories drastically, keep your protein low, and fail to strength train. We do not want you to do that.” (20:40)
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How to Calculate Your Daily Protein Needs Transcript
How much protein do women athletes need? This a very common question. And if you’re like many of my listeners, your personal answer is probably more than I’m currently getting, but not quite sure, about the fine details and how to make it really happen. This is the first in a multi-episode series on protein intake. And today we’re going to be answering that question, how much protein do women athletes need? Why is it important? And how much do you need specifically for muscle-building activity?
If you’re an athletic 40, something woman who loves lifting weights, challenging yourself, and doing hard shit, the fuel your strength podcast is for you. You’ll learn how to eat, train and recover smarter. So you build strength and muscle, have more energy, and perform better in and out of the gym. I’m strength nutrition strategist and weightlifting coach, Steph Gaudreau. The Fuel Your Strength podcast dives into evidence-based strategies for nutrition training and recovery. And why once you’re approaching your 40s and beyond, you need to do things a little differently than you did in your 20s. We’re here to challenge the limiting industry narratives about what women can and should do in training and beyond. If that sounds good, hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And let’s go.
Welcome back to the podcast. Thank you so much for being with me today. Oh, very excited about this topic. Because if there’s something I could talk about all day long within the realm of sports and performance, nutrition, it is why protein is so damn important and how to work on increasing your protein intake, because it really does matter. And also, there’s just kind of a lot of numbers floating around out there. And it tends to stress people out. So I hope that by the end of this podcast today, this first in a series about protein, you’ll be a little bit less stressed, and be able to go out into your life with a little bit more certainty about how much protein you should be shooting for across your day. But before we dive into all the details, a couple of things.
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Why Protein Matters for Athletic Women
Alright, so as I said, this is the first in a multi-part series all about protein. And we’re going to be getting into a lot of detail here. So as I said in the last episode, oftentimes we speak in news cute little taglines, like, eat more, not less, or eat more protein, those sorts of things. And yeah, it’s a quick way to get the point across. However, two things there is nuance in this as always. And secondly, adult learners need to understand the why rationale, if they’re going to accept and start to apply what they are learning. So, yeah, Instagram reels are like a cute five-second way to get a point across, but we really need to go more into depth and frankly, you deserve that. As a female athlete, you deserve to know information like science-based evidence-backed information. All right. So on this podcast, we’re going to be looking more at the why and how much, and then we’ll get into other topics in future episodes to come in this series.
So when it comes to nutrition and fueling your athletic pursuits, I would say most listeners, most people out there most athletic women have an inkling that they need more protein, especially if they haven’t been trying to increase their protein intake because they’re like, Yeah, I know I need more protein. And it’s not the easiest thing to do. And I’m gonna lay it out there right now for you, it’s not the easiest thing to make a consistent effort to get a higher range of protein intake, although I think there’s a lot to be said for nudging it up over time. If somebody tries to tell you tomorrow that you should, you know, particularly if you have a low protein intake, that you should just double what you’re eating, they’re full of shit, because they’re not going to realistically be able to do that. It doesn’t just involve putting the fork or the food in your mouth.
Eating More Protein Requires Change
It also includes things like your shopping habits, your food prep habits, what you have on hand, how you’re used to cooking, and what you’re used to buying, there’s just a lot that goes into this. So I’m a huge fan of the take small steps over time, that way, all of the systems and structures and habits and environment around you will be able to nudge slowly, without this big dramatic change. And then you’re like I couldn’t, I couldn’t do this. This sucks, I’m gonna go back to the way I was doing things. And so just kind of listen to this with an open mind. I would say. Typically, when my clients come in, my students come into strength nutrition unlocked, there’s like two or three main areas that they tend to struggle with the most coming in.
Skipping Meals Makes Getting Enough Protein Harder
The first one is they’re just not eating enough throughout the day, they are skipping meals quite often because their schedule is chaotic. And they tend to fall into the within-day energy deficit category that we talked about in the last podcast. Secondly, they’re not eating enough protein. And they just oftentimes don’t know, like, we just don’t know, like, how much protein do we really need, not just in grams, y’all. But then how do we translate that to servings and like what goes on the plate or what we drink, like, it does take time to learn how to translate quantities into real-life habits.
Alright, and the third one is carbohydrate intake is just sort of like you’re eating enough overall caloric energy, but just we way, way too low in carbs, and you know, carbs and fats, we have some leeway in terms of the amounts and the proportions. But suffice it to say, if you’re just barely eating any carbohydrates, and then going out and doing intense training, you’re not going to feel very good. And so we’re talking about lifting heavy weights, doing high-intensity training, pushing those runs a little bit faster, doing your harder peloton rides, those sorts of things.
Signs You May Need More Protein
So oftentimes, my students and clients will come in and they’re just not recovering really well, they have a lot of muscle soreness, like a disproportionate amount of muscle soreness. Especially if you’re doing training that is not, you’re not doing much, that’s really new, and especially if you are predominantly doing, I would say a lower volume style of training. So really kind of those typical strength rep ranges 567 or less somewhere in that range. If you’re really, really sore all the time, you can’t figure out why, or have persistent injuries or things that won’t heal, it’s really difficult for you to keep muscle mass on or you’re just like shit, I am like lifting my fucking face off here.
And I am not building very much muscle mass, what is going on is a lack of overall training progress and sort of the struggle to put up the intensity that you really need to get results from your training. So oftentimes, people will do more and more and more, and a lot of these can be indicators for protein intake being too low. Of course, there are other issues that could be at play. So we really need to be conscious of protein as the macromolecule. of building. Yes, proteins, specifically certain amino acids can be used for energy production. But this, hopefully, is not a predominant thing that we’re relying on because there is nothing more frustrating than working really hard to build muscle mass and then not eating very much. So then you break down that muscle in order to create fuel. So we really are, kind of, separating the idea of protein on one side, and then carbohydrates and fats on the other.
Protein Helps Build Muscle and Other Tissues
So think about protein as your macromolecule of building proteins, specifically the amino acids that we consume and then we can also make have many different functions and roles in the body everything from of course the S-building muscle protein contractile protein through skin, hair, nails, enzymes, antibodies, so on and so forth, right? So we know we need to consume protein specifically, really need to consume the essential amino acids, of which there are nine. And we will be talking a little bit more about some of these amino acids, in particular, one of our superstar essential amino acids in a future episode, so stay tuned for that.
What are the Essential Amino Acids?
So just to give you that awareness, and then also to remind you that we cannot synthesize the body cannot synthesize those essential amino acids, they are absolutely crucial for muscle protein synthesis, and we need to eat them, we can’t just store them like we can store glucose in our muscle or our liver in the form of glycogen. Or we can store triglycerides and fats in the form of adipose tissue. We can’t just take all this, you know, quote, unquote, extra protein and store it somewhere for later, or in this case, we’re talking about amino acids. There are some, I guess, what would be called transient pools of amino acids in the body.
But we need to eat protein on a regular basis so that we can keep the process of muscle protein synthesis going. So it’s really, really important, especially as we are progressing through our 40s and aging, and going through the process of the menopause transition, so perimenopause into post-menopause, because we are losing that estrogen signal, which is a really amazing anabolic signal. Yes, we can still build muscle, we can still offset that. But we really need to have resistance training and adequate protein intake. And we’re going to talk more about all of that other stuff in future episodes, like kind of the practicalities and the nuts and bolts of that.
Priority 1: Are You Eating Enough Protein Every Day?
But first, we’re going to turn our attention to the idea of ‘are we eating enough total protein’? So first and foremost, when it comes to muscle repair, muscle recovery, and growth? Yes, we do need to be kind of thinking about overall total protein intake. In other words, it is not uncommon for female athletes who are trying to build strength and muscle to be eating less than I would say half or a little bit more than half the recommended amount of protein that they need each day. Some people get really worried about what kinds of protein are the best and how much you should have before or after a workout. So we’re kind of setting the priority here that yes, there is some nuance with the distribution of the protein.
Yes, there is nuance with protein type and quality and timing around workouts. However, if you’re not eating enough protein, you’re not eating enough protein no matter how you slice and dice it and divide it up. So that’s very, very important. Let’s say you require somewhere between 100 and 120 grams of protein a day, but you’re consistently eating less than 60 grams, then it doesn’t terribly matter how much you’re dividing that across the day. In other words, taking an already small intake and thinning it out even more, eating it in small bits here and there tends to work against you when it comes to building and repairing muscle tissue, and building strength.
Calculating Protein Percentages Has a Downside
So historically, speaking, total protein recommendations haven’t been given as a relative percentage of total calories, generally between the range of 15 and 25%. Of daily energy intake. However, there is an absolute requirement for protein. So calculating your needs, and using a percentage of calories can lead to wildly varying numbers. And I do see still many women especially before they come into Strength Nutrition Unlocked calculating a percentage of protein based on a far inadequate amount of daily calories. So for example, to put some numbers on it, let’s say you’ve calculated that you’re going to eat 1200 calories in a day, not suggesting this, do not get any ideas, but just for number’s sake 15% of 1200 calories, then translate it into grams.
Knowing that protein is four calories or kilocalories per gram, would be about 45 grams of protein. So 15% of 1200 calories turned into grams would be about 45 grams As a protein, this is a very different amount if you’re considering a 2500 calorie intake requirement, so if you calculated 15% of 2500, which is not out of the realm of practicality for someone who’s training very hard, or if you’re trying to mass build mass, and be in a slight caloric surplus for a short period of time, that would be about 95 grams of protein. Okay, so both of them are 15%. But the total caloric intake is widely varying here. And I do see that women tend to far undershoot, and far underestimate their caloric needs. And again, we’re talking in the context, you are athletic, you are active, you are not sedentary, and you need more energy.
So sometimes we see that if you use just a straight-up percentage, you are not calculating enough protein. So when your calorie intake drifts lower and lower then trying to use this relative percentage approach could mean under-eating protein, and then of course, consequently, under-eating overall energy.
Athletic Women Need More Protein than the RDA
So, there is, thankfully, a growing acceptance and growing evidence that the commonly cited and referred to recommendation of the RDA for protein is insufficient for almost everyone in the population. And certainly for athletic individuals, including you an athletic woman over the age of 40. And that amount is point eight grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
That is the RDA, it is considered the minimum, the minimum to prevent deficiency, it is not the optimal amount, and it is not the amount that you need to support the added what I would call demands of training. And there is a growing call to increase the RDA for sedentary individuals. Okay, so we have a couple of different numbers here. And this is where we’re going to start to see ranges coming into play. I prefer with my students and my clients to work off of a range. Because just like anything else, we can get too stressed out or start feeling anxious that we’re not hitting the exact amount. And no one needs that no one needs to feel more anxious about trying to eat an optimal amount of protein.
And knowing that some days, you might fall a little bit lower, a little bit higher. And then hopefully, we’re going to be shooting for moving toward the higher end of the range. But you also might be far below where you need to be. So just calculating the top end of the range, and then stressing the fuck out about it is not what we want to do my friend. All right. So it might be for you that you’re going to shoot toward the lower end of the range. And that’s fine. Again, we have to just start where we’re at and slowly improve it over time. And that’s okay. This is not something to get all twisted up into a pretzel about.
How Do You Calculate Protein for Muscle Gain?
Alright, so moving beyond the RDA, there are a couple of things I’m going to talk about here. So the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a range of 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. And most of the what I would say performance in sports nutrition research available right now, points to a total daily protein requirement between 1.4 and up to, in some cases 3.0 grams per kilogram body weight per day, depending on specific goals, health status, whatever you’re trying to do with your training, I would say for most of my students, and most of you out there listening, three grams is going to be very, very high.
So again, if you’re calculating where you’re at now and then you see three grams per kilogram body weight, you’re gonna be like, Yeah, okay, that’s not going to happen. So it can be possible though. So just kind of know that most, I would say most of my female athletes that I work with, were not going to go up quite that high. Just a side note and this is not what this podcast focuses on, however, I know some of you are going to keep this in the back of your mind if you’re undergoing a shift short term energy deficit for fat loss reasons, you must, must, must, must, must, must, and this is something I don’t want to go too far into it because I don’t want this podcast in my coaching to be known for this.
But this is a cautionary tale, you must keep your protein intake on the higher side and do resistance training to minimize losses and lean muscle mass. The worst thing you can do is cut your calories drastically keep your protein low and fail to strength train, we do not want you to do that. Okay. So I would say most of my students get really great results with a daily protein goal of somewhere between 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kilogram body weight per day, as a range. Again, some days, you’re probably going to do better some days, you’re not. That’s all right. We are going to talk about in future episodes how that really actually breaks down meal-wise and what that would look like. So this is a general range.
And where you ultimately sit on this will depend on a couple of things, some people like to use total body weight, and some people prefer to use a lean mass estimation if you are a larger body weight individual, you may, who’s carrying more fat mass, you may want to shoot toward the lower end of the range. Again, there’s going to be variation here. And how we exactly help customize is going to depend on a lot of different factors.
Protein Needs for Athletic Women
But suffice it to say, if you are falling short fall far short of even 1.4 grams per kilogram body weight per day, which I’ve just realized I didn’t say in pounds, we’re talking about point seven to 1.0 grams per pound a day. I know some of us don’t speak metric. So that’s what we’re thinking about there. So there is going to be fluctuation, there is variation.
So what about specifically for us as female athletes now that 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kilogram body weight does come from and is supported by the ISSN, that’s the International Society for Sports Nutrition has cited in their position paper all about protein. But what about us as female athletes? Are there different considerations here? So we do need, we need far more research on female athletes with regard to sports, nutrition, and exercise performance. According to the 2021 Invisible Sports Women’s Study, only 6% of the sports and exercise studies conducted between the years 2014 and 2020 were performed on female-only cohorts. So that is devoted specifically to studying women, we have a long way to go.
Should You Eat More Protein Based on Menstrual Cycle Phase?
There was a 2021 review done in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition again, so that’s JISSN, which is the journal for the ISSN, which covers female-specific recommendations, and it notes these key points. So let’s keep this in mind. During the mid-luteal phase to the end of the cycle, the menstrual cycle, protein requirements may be higher due to an increase in protein oxidation. Some people out in the world turn this into a bad game of telephone and say things like you should double your protein intake in the luteal phase Hokay Hold your horses, not necessarily what I would translate this into is don’t skimp out on your protein range during the middle of your luteal phase to the end of your cycle, especially however, let’s work on being more consistently hitting the range most of the time, okay.
I do not think that we should be stressing about eating in a different way every single day of our cycle. It’s just not practical. And it does not breed consistency, and adherence, which are two of the things that are the most challenging. Anyway, we could probably have a whole podcast all about this and how we, you know, look at cycle syncing and all that other stuff. So maybe we’ll do that in the future. And I can think of a couple of amazing guests I might be able to invite to talk more about that. Also, during exercise in the mid-luteal phase protein usage appears to be higher. More protein is used for building endometrial tissue in that mid-luteal phase and this Paper did conclude that female athletes may require general protein intakes of 1.6 to 2.0 grams per kilogram body weight per day.
Okay, so that’s like point. And again, it’s not an exact conversion here, but it’s roughly point eight and 1.0 grams per pound of body weight. Additionally, the estrogen fluctuation individual declined during perimenopause into post-menopause needs consideration, as I’ve already mentioned, so there’s a strong case that could be made that female athletes over 40 should also aim toward the higher end of the range. And I just stated what that range was 1.6 to 2.0 grams per kilogram body weight per day. If you’re somebody who is really struggling to keep muscle mass on your frame, it’s very important that you are lifting, specifically lifting heavy enough challenging enough weights at whatever rep, and set the range you do.
And including enough dietary protein with some of the other considerations that we talk about further on in this series. All right, so we’ve covered actually a lot of ground in this podcast episode, we’ve talked more specifically about why protein is so important for us as female athletes, particularly female athletes over 40. We then discussed how to calculate a protein intake range roughly, and looked at some of the science to back all of that up.
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I hope you found this podcast informative and useful for you. Make sure you hit the subscribe button on your podcast app. Share this in Instagram Stories and tag me or send this podcast to a friend or a client or a colleague that you know could use this information. And if you’re looking for support to turn this information into practice, to build accountability, to have expert guidance along the way, and in the community at the same time, then I’m going to invite you to head over to StephGaudreau.com/apply and find out more about Strength Nutrition Unlocked, where we really help you to customize and put these practices into action so that you can build strength, add more muscle, have more energy and perform better in and out of the gym. All right, thank you so much for being with me today. Stay tuned for the next episode, where we’ll be covering more about protein in part two of this series. And until then, stay strong.