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Understanding the Importance of Protein

By Ryan Hutmacher and Sara Haas

With the season under way, you may be wondering what you can do to improve your performance during this time of intense physical activity.  You’ve heard people talk about protein, but aren’t really sure where to begin.  Perhaps you’re asking yourself how much protein you need, where to find good sources of protein, or whether or not to invest in one of those big canisters of protein powder.  You may end up feeling very confused or even frustrated.

strawberry soup It’s important to have the information you need to make healthy, informed choices about the food that fuels you.  To do that, you need to arm yourself with a little knowledge about protein itself.  Protein is a macronutrient, and is generally lumped into the same category as carbohydrates and fats.  Macronutrients are related to one another because they all supply calories and have similar chemical structures.  However, protein differentiates itself because in addition to containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, it also contains nitrogen.   Nitrogen is the key component to amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of protein.  Amino acids link together to form proteins of varying shapes and sizes.  Their unique structure helps them perform their specific function in your body. Whew, so much chemistry!

Of utmost importance, protein is pivotal in the growth and maintenance of your body’s structures, including muscle and bones.  It helps regulate body processes (think hormones and antibodies) and provides a source of energy, four calories per gram to be exact!  For athletes, adding a small amount of protein to a carbohydrate-rich post-workout meal can assist with muscle recovery.

How much protein do you need?  The American College of Sports Medicine, The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada agree that endurance athletes require 1.2-1.4 grams/kilogram/day (0.55-0.64 grams/pound/day) as compared to the 0.8 grams/kilogram/day (0.36 grams/pound/day) for the sedentary person.   This number may seem high, but is quite attainable.  In fact, most Americans over-consume protein on a daily basis.  How is that possible?  Americans tend to consume large portions of meat, and many of the other foods we consume like breads, cereals, beans and nuts also contain protein.  

If a little protein is good, is more even better?  Not necessarily.  Too much protein can actually be detrimental.  Remember, protein provides calories.  If those calories aren’t utilized, they will be stored in your body as fat.  Also, excessive amounts of protein can lead to dehydration and even cause kidney problems. 

The bottom line is that you will require additional protein as an endurance athlete.  Consume protein from healthy sources such as lean meats, poultry and fish, as well as from beans, nuts and nut butters, tofu, seeds and low-fat dairy.  If you already consume these foods, expensive protein powder supplements are unnecessary. 

Here are some great, lean protein recipes that you can easily incorporate into your diet.

Chilled Strawberry Soup with Tarragon and Citrus
    Makes 4 servings

  • 1/2 lb frozen strawberries
  • 1/4 lb fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
  • 1 2/3 cup water (more to thin, as necessary)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh tarragon
  • 1/3 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
  • sea salt, pinch to garnish
  • fresh orange zest, as needed to garnish

Combine the strawberries, water, sugar, tarragon and vanilla in a saucepan and turn the heat to medium.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries soften and begin to fall apart, 10 to 15 minutes.

Cool the mixture a little, then puree in a blender.  Pass through a strainer to remove seeds and herbs, if desired. Taste and add salt and more sugar if desired.

Chill, then whisk in yogurt.  Serve chilled, garnished with sea salt and orange zest.

Pork Tenderloin with Cherry Rhubarb Chutney

    Makes 4 servings


  • 1 1/4 lb pork tenderloin, trimmed of all silverskin
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

    Cherry Rhubarb Chutney

  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1 cup pitted cherries
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup chopped rhubarb
  • 1/2 serrano or jalapeno pepper, finely minced (more as desired)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 tbsp orange zest

In a medium saucepan combine the apricots, cherries and orange juice.  Cook for about 30 minutes over low heat at a gentle simmer.

Next add the rhubarb, chile pepper, brown sugar, lime juice and ginger to the saucepan and cook an additional 8 – 10 minutes or until mixture is slightly thickened.  Fold in the orange zest.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place a large oven-proof (if available) skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil.  Once oil is hot, add the tenderloin to the skillet and cook for about 3 – 4 minutes per side, searing each side using tongs to turn the meat.  Transfer the pan to the oven (or transfer the pork to a baking sheet lined with foil and coated in pan spray) and bake for 5 to 10 minutes (the internal temperature should reach 155 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer).  Remove from the oven, tent loosely with foil and let rest for 5 – 10 minutes.

Slice the pork on a bias and serve with the chutney.

Chef Ryan Hutmacher is owner of Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago, Ill.  Centered Chef is a wellness focused culinary consulting and educational firm that fuses nutrition with culinary arts.  With a focus on natural ingredients, Ryan celebrates the idea reinventing "health food", proving that nutritious and delicious are equally attainable.  His expertise is notable within the marathon and triathlon community in Chicago, as well as within the corporate sector. 

Along with his staff dietitian and co-writer, Chef Sara Haas (RD/LDN), Ryan appears both locally and nationally on television stations like WGN Superstation, where they give practical solutions to preparing food both easily and healthfully.