It’s pretty much gospel that athletes and people who regularly lift weights can benefit from eating higher amounts of protein than the general public. There’s just one glaring problem. Most of the research supporting this advice has been done on men. Not only have scientists neglected women, the marketing and public health messaging about the importance of protein has been focused on men.
Two recent studies are zeroing in on the specific protein needs of women. A 2017 study from Canada set out to determine women’s protein needs during high-intensity sprint training. Six fit women performed an intermittent sprint shuttle test and consumed different protein doses.
Results showed that women have a minimum requirement of 1.41 g/kg a day and a recommended intake of 1.71 grams a day for optimal muscle recovery. Scientists note that this value is higher than the amount of protein needed for non-active adult males and at the upper range of the American College of Sports Medicine athlete recommendations of 1.2 to 2.0 g/kg of body weight.
A second study performed on women who had significant strength training experience found almost identical results. Eight trained women performed a whole body workout and consumed various protein doses. Results showed that women needed a minimum of 1.5 g/kg to ensure anabolism and promote optimal muscle recovery and breakdown.
That means a 130-pound female lifter should be consuming around 88 grams of protein daily. Intakes above this level had diminishing returns in the study, however, there may be benefits for fat loss or weight management because protein has hunger-dampening effects and a higher thermic effect of food, requiring more calories for the body to break it down and assimilate.
Eating enough protein is probably the most important factor for women interested in maximizing recovery and performance. After all, sufficient daily protein intake will ensure the body has baseline levels of the amino acid building blocks it needs to restore tissue and avoid muscle loss. But there are two other factors that should be at the top of every women’s list when planning her protein intake:
Choose higher quality protein sources that are replete with leucine—the most important amino acid for building muscle. Leucine is a powerful stimulator of protein synthesis—the process that leads to muscle building and tissue repair. Animal proteins including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are considered high-quality proteins because they contain a greater array of essential amino acids, surpassing the 10-gram protein threshold that is associated with less belly fat accumulation.
Spread your protein intake out over the course of the day. Based on the availability of amino acids from the protein you eat, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, improving muscle repair. For example, in a study that had participants distribute their protein evenly at all three meals, protein synthesis levels were 25 percent higher than if they skewed their protein intake toward dinner, as most people do.
High-quality protein is just as important for fit women as it is for men. By achieving a threshold dose of 1.5 g/kg of protein a day, distributing protein across all meals, and choosing higher quality proteins, women will optimize body composition and improve muscle recovery.
What does this look like in real life?
A 130-lb. female who should be eating 88 grams of protein a day can meet protein needs with the following protein intake plan:
Breakfast: 3 eggs = 18 g/protein, and 2 slices of bacon = 8 g/protein
Lunch: 5 oz. chicken or turkey = 32 g/protein
Dinner: 4 oz. salmon or cod = 32 g/protein
This doesn’t account for protein from plant sources such as vegetables and beans that will be included in salads and other vegetable dishes. A brief list of other high-quality protein that you could substitute include the following:
Plain Greek Yogurt, 8 oz. = 22 g/protein
Cottage Cheese, ½ cup = 15 g/protein
Almonds or other Nuts, ¼ cup = 7 g/protein
Beef, 3 oz. = 18 g/protein
Malowany, J., et al. Protein to Maximize Whole-Body Anabolism in Resistance-trained Females after Exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2019. 51(4), 798-804.
Wooding, D., et al. Increased Protein Requirements in Female Athletes after Variable-Intensity Exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2017. 49(11):2297-2304.