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Sports nutrition’s state of play for proteins and exercise

In June 2017, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) published an updated position paper on protein and exercise. The paper looks to provide an objective, critical review of current knowledge in terms of protein-enriched diets and their optimal use and effect on athletes and others engaged in regular exercise.

Protein position
For the protein and exercise paper, the first edition of which was published in 2007, an ISSN team of scientists summarized available, data-supported insights into a number of position statements relating to the observed effects of ingesting protein on healthy, exercising individuals.

I won’t try to list all the insights here (the full paper, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2017 gets into quite some detail), but will simply highlight some of the key points as an appetizer.

Protein works
As a starting point, the paper determines that people engaging in regular exercise are likely to have an increased need for dietary protein. And, if the rest of a healthy individual’s diet contains a ‘normal’ balance of nutrients, increased intake of protein is both safe and can potentially aid muscles to better adapt to training.

We were able to discern that today’s supplement products are a practical way to provide additional protein to the body. The paper also touches on different types and quality levels of proteins, particularly popular sources such as whey and casein, making the point that the choice of proteins contained in supplements does appear to make a difference. For now, however, when supplements are used to boost protein intake, the ISSN recommends that milk-based proteins are superior to plant-based sources.

Another key aspect of the investigations in the field is the timing of protein intake. What works best – before exercise or after, for example? Here, the ISSN paper makes a number of statements, which I’ll summarize as:

  • Protein doses should be evenly distributed throughout the day (every three to four hours).
  • Response to added protein is likely to vary among individuals, but will generally be highest during the typical 24-hour anabolic ‘window’ following exercise.

Other salient points from the paper include, for example, that athletes should ingest protein sources that contain the full complement of essential amino acids. Further, protein doses appear to have an optimal effect when they include a high leucine content – between 700 and 3000 mg.

Last but not least, I’d like to highlight the paper’s position on branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and other specific amino acid supplements, which may improve performance and recovery after exercise under some circumstances. For instance, BCAA supplementation may reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.

Inside story
The ISSN is an academic, not-for-profit founded around 15 years ago. Its mission is to promote science of sports nutrition through conferences and scientific publications. So when it publishes a paper of this type, it’s a pretty serious body of work.

Every five years or so, we publish papers like this one as ‘position standpoints’ on major categories of sports nutrition. Each is a consensus statement agreed upon by some of the leading influencers in the category, put together by examining available data and arriving at a summary that provides a bird’s-eye view of the topic without getting into too much detail.

It’s a weighty task, to say the least, requiring them to trawl through research paper after research paper in the quest to ensure a balanced viewpoint supported by well designed and implemented studies. No fewer than 21 scientists, for example, worked to review and revise the protein and exercise paper until the final product was achieved.

What’s next?
The topics of the ISSN position papers are selected by considering the most important categories in the nutrition field – typically the ones with the most science behind them. At the moment, we are working on a position paper that addresses the ketogenic diet (a type of diet that forces the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates). And the exciting field of personalized sports nutrition is on the radar, too, most likely for 2018.


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