Quality Protein

Top Tips for Including Quality Protein




Milk and Cottage Cheese Illustration. (Medium)Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD

“Little Miss Swimmer sat at the poolside, eating her casein and whey. 
Along came a rival who sat down beside her and Miss Swimmer blew her competition away.”

(With apologies to fans of nursery rhymes).

Swimmers of all ages are asking about the proteins whey and casein. Are they the super stars of proteins? Should swimmers use whey and casein supplements for training and recovery? My answer is yes and no to these questions. No, supplements are not needed, and we all know that supplements can be unsafe and expensive. The “yes” part of the answer is that dairy foods are great sources of these proteins, so it is easy, less expensive and decidedly tastier to get these proteins from foods.

Dr. Stu Phillips, an expert in protein and exercise at McMaster University in Canada describes protein’s role in muscle building in this way:  “The provision of protein is absolutely necessary for optimal adaptation to exercise training. The remodelling of proteins is how our muscles and bones adapt to the stress of exercise and efficient remodelling is part of efficient recovery. Milk proteins – whey and casein – are the highest quality proteins available and are unique in their capacity to promote muscle protein remodelling. The rapidly-digested whey protein is high in leucine, which when it rises in the blood and muscle triggers the process of protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is then sustained by the amino acids that follow, which come from the more slowly digested casein protein.”

Milk protein is often considered an ideal protein source for athletes because milk contains both whey (18% of cow’s milk is whey) and casein (82%). Milk also has the advantage of containing carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals, and contributes fluid and electrolytes lost during exercise to aid in hydration. About 2 cups (16 ounces) of milk provides about 20 grams of protein, the amount needed to stimulate muscle protein building. The whey portion of milk is rich in the amino acid leucine. 

Casein, the other protein in milk is more slowly digested than whey. New research shows that consuming casein before bed allows additional benefit in improving muscle protein synthesis and overnight protein balance. A rich source of casein, in addition to milk, is cottage cheese. Try blending cottage cheese with your favorite fruit for a bedtime smoothie. 

To get the benefits of whey and casein on muscle building, eat protein throughout the day. Aim for about 20 grams at each of three meals and bedtime snack of about 40 grams of protein. Here is what that might look like with the protein portion (many swimmers need more calories than found in these examples.)

Breakfast: 1 hard-boiled egg, a cup of Greek yogurt with a nutty granola mixed into the yogurt.

Lunch: 2 ounces of lean roast beef with 1 slice of cheddar cheese on whole grain bun

Dinner: 3 ounces of chicken breast with brown rice, steamed veggies and green salad

Bedtime snack: 1 cup cottage cheese with fruit and almonds 

Chris Rosenbloom is a professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University and provides sports nutrition consulting services to athletes of all ages. She has no ties to the dairy industry aside from liking milk. She is the editor-in-chief of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition and editor-in-chief of an online Sports Nutrition Care Manual for health care professionals. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at [email protected].

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