Protein is needed for strength, to build and maintain muscle, to aid recovery and in the case of a younger rugby player, protein is also essential for growth and development.
However, one of the biggest myths in rugby nutrition is that large amounts of protein are required to build muscle. Although there is some truth in this, your muscles can only use a limited amount of protein, and the rest will be stored as fat or wasted. Moreover, there has to be enough carbohydrate to fuel the strength training required for your muscles to grow.
By following your prescribed eating plan which includes adequate quantities of protein-rich foods such as lean meat, chicken (skin removed), fish (fresh, frozen, canned e.g. pilchards), eggs, liver, low fat dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt, maas, skim milk powder) and legumes (dried beans, split peas, lentils), you will meet your daily protein requirements without having to resort to expensive protein supplements.
Supplements may contain banned substances that will cause you to fail a drug test or may cause you to gain too much weight which will reduce your speed and increase your risk of injury (see Supplements).
Supplements are therefore only recommended in special situations once both diet and training have been optimised. Only then should supplements be prescribed by a sports dietician or sports physician.
Extra protein may be needed after training or a match and especially if you have experienced any muscle or tissue damage. Muscle damage also interferes with the storage of carbohydrate as glycogen, so together with the extra protein, you should increase your carbohydrate intake by eating in-between meal snacks such as sandwiches with lean protein fillings or low fat yoghurt and fruit.
Choose a variety of protein-rich foods.
Protein should also be distributed throughout the day. Do not let protein dominate all meals and leave enough space on your plate for all the carbohydrate needed.
Always choose lean meats and low fat dairy products as many of these protein-rich foods contain hidden sources of fat.
If you are a vegetarian you need to make a special effort to ensure that your diet provides enough good quality protein. By mixing different vegetable proteins such as baked beans on toast, lentils and rice, or a peanut butter sandwich you will achieve good protein combinations.
Many proteins are expensive so it is important to explore ways of extending or stretching the protein without reducing the nutritional value. Dried beans and lentils can be added to stews and soups. Other good economical sources of protein include pilchards, sardines, eggs and skim milk powder (which can be added to many drinks, cereals and soups). Liquid meal replacements (e.g. Nestle Buildup, Ensure, Complan) that provide both carbohydrate and protein can also be used.
To increase your muscle mass you need to follow your eating plan and training programme. If you only concentrate on a high protein intake without enough carbohydrate, then the protein will be used for energy instead of being used to build muscle! Moreover, too little carbohydrate will lead to low energy levels which will make it very difficult for you to train and perform at your best.
Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.
(Health24, August 2011)