Protein for performance: The basics

Protein is an essential part of every cell in your body. It helps build and repair tissues, transport nutrients, maintain a healthy immune system, and make hormones and enzymes. When you don’t consume enough calories to meet your body’s needs, your body uses protein for energy rather than muscle repair and growth. This is an inefficient and expensive way to fuel your body, so aim for the “right amount” of protein for optimal performance and recovery. Keep in mind protein needs differ based on body weight, frequency of workouts, and types of workouts.


Daily protein requirements to support muscle growth, recovery, and repair for Military Service Members range from 0.8–1.6 g/kg (0.4–0.7 g/lb) body weight


Eat more protein (at the higher end of the range) with intensified training, more frequent training, new training stimulus, if you’re less trained, or when energy intake (calories) is low.

When you don’t take in enough calories to meet your body’s demands (negative energy balance), you might need up to 2 grams of protein/kg body weight to maintain muscle mass, strength, and performance. When you’re in severe negative energy balance, such as during intense training, missions, or extreme environmental conditions, even extra protein might not be enough to preserve muscle mass. In these settings, it’s best to focus on getting enough high-quality foods and drinks to help meet your energy needs. Eating and drinking more calories helps your body avoid using protein for energy.

Examples of recommended protein intake ranges (0.8–1.6 g/kg [0.4–0.7 g/lb] body weight) for Warfighters:

  • 50 kg (110 lb): 40–80 g
  • 70 kg (154 lb): 56–112 g
  • 100 kg (220 lb): 80–160 g

You can meet your protein needs by consuming nutrient-dense foods and drinks from the commissary, on-base dining facilities, and even mini-markets or convenience stores. Lean meats (“round,” “loin,” or “sirloin” cuts), poultry, fish, beans, nuts, eggs, legumes, and dairy products are great sources of protein. Grains and vegetables contain small amounts of protein as well.

Try to include protein in all your meals and snacks throughout the day vs. consuming large portions a few times per day. For optimal recovery, aim for 15–30 g of protein as part of a carb-rich snack within 2 hours of activity.

When choosing protein, focus on whole foods. However, protein supplements might be necessary when these foods are unavailable, inconvenient, or unable to meet your protein needs. As with any dietary supplement, read the label, so you know exactly what you’re getting. If you look for a protein supplement, pick a whey, casein, protein blend, or plant-based product that’s third-party certified.

For more information:

  • Read HPRC’s in-depth guide to protein for performance
  • Visit Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) at opss.org to learn more about protein supplements

A printable version of this infosheet is available here.

Link to printable version of the infosheet.

References

Headquarters Departments of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. (2017). AR 40–25 OPNAVINST 10110.1/MCO 10110.49 AFI 44–141: Nutrition and menu standards for human performance optimization. Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/AR40-25_WEB_Final.pdf.

Pasiakos, S. M., Austin, K. G., Lieberman, H. R., & Askew, E. W. (2013). Efficacy and safety of protein supplements for U.S. Armed Forces personnel: Consensus statement. The Journal of Nutrition, 143(11), 1811S–1814S. doi:10.3945/jn.113.176859

Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006