Sports Nutrition: Protein

It is common knowledge that protein is an essential part of an athlete’s diet, but exactly why do athletes need protein?


Not all protein is created equal. Protein is made up of building blocks, called amino acids. There are 21 amino acids; the body makes 12 of them, which are called nonessential amino acids; the other nine your body cannot make on its own.

To help you get all the essential amino acids your body needs, choose high-quality protein, including animal foods, such as dairy foods (milk, yogurt, and cheese), eggs, lean beef, pork, skinless poultry, and fish. High-quality protein supports strong muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons; muscle recovers; moving oxygen to muscles; nutrient metabolism; and healthy immune function.

Deeper Dive: Another factor is the amino acid leucine. Leucine is one of three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that make up one-third of the protein found in muscle. BCAAs are the preferred fuel for muscles and dairy contains high levels of leucine.

Athletes should aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal and after workouts. You can reach this amount by following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which include three daily servings of milk, yogurt or cheese. Recovery foods should be consumed within 15-60 minutes of exercising and again 3-4 hours after to allow for ideal recovery.

For plant-based or lacto-ovo vegetarian athletes, including dairy in the diet helps to meet their nutritional needs. Plant-based does not mean plant-only and instead encourages increasing plant foods in the diet, including fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, while also including animal-based foods if you choose. A 2017 study modeled a food system without animals and concluded that when diets contained only plant-based foods, a greater number of nutrients fell below recommended levels, most notably calcium, vitamins A and D, and B12. Another study concluded that a mix of dairy foods and plant-based foods had the best chance of closing nutrient gaps to support healthier Americans.

Plant-based meal and snack ideas to help reach protein and other nutrient goals: 

Related FAQs

Is milk good before a workout?

Pre-workout nutrition is important to prepare the body for working hard and energy expenditure. Carbohydrates provide fuel for exercise and are the main source of energy for muscles. Throughout the day, focus on a varied diet filled with whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy. Include high-quality protein at each meal to help repair and build muscles. As you get closer to your workout, focus on foods low in fat and fiber to avoid stomach upset.

During exercise, focus on replacing fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates as needed. Based on the duration of the activity, recommendations will change. Make sure to always have water and fuel on hand.

Dairy is a great choice for exercise recovery. The carbohydrates in milk refuel muscles and replenish energy stores while the high-quality protein repairs and rebuilds muscles. Milk also replaces electrolytes lost in sweat. Learn more about hydration and recovery here. 

Is chocolate milk good for recovery after a workout or endurance activity?

When refueling after a run, your goal is to replenish glycogen stores with carbohydrates and rebuild muscle with protein. Chocolate milk contains an ideal 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein for this purpose. A study found that runners who consumed fat-free chocolate milk after a strenuous run, “ran 23% longer and had a 38% increase in markers of muscle building compared to when they drank a carbohydrate-only sports beverage with the same number of calories.” Chocolate milk also replenishes electrolytes which are important for runners to prevent muscle fatigue and cramping. 

Is milk good for athletes?

Milk packs in 13 essential nutrients in every serving, including, protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin D, which contribute to healthy immune function. Milk’s nutrient package make it an affordable and accessible source of fuel for an athlete. 

Is whey protein good for athletes?

Whey protein is a high-quality protein naturally found in dairy. It is a complete protein containing all of the essential amino acids (“building blocks”) your body needs and is easy to digest. Whey protein is also one of the best sources of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) including leucine, which has been shown to stimulate muscle synthesis.

Whey is a fast-acting protein that can be absorbed into the bloodstream and arrive at the muscles very quickly. Whey is fast fuel for the muscles. Research shows that whey can help build and repair muscle after workouts. 

How much milk should an athlete drink per day?

Throughout the day, athletes should focus on a varied diet filled with whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy. They should include high-quality protein from animal-sourced foods like dairy at each meal to help repair and build muscles.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends three low-fat or fat-free dairy servings in the Healthy U.S. and Healthy Vegetarian patterns, and two to two and a half servings in the Healthy Mediterranean for adults, and three servings for those 9 to 18 years of age.

What nutrients does dairy have?

Dairy is nutrient-rich and its health benefits are supported by a robust body of science that continues to grow. View the individual nutrients for milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter!