Sports Nutrition and Specialty Diets

Originally Published: November 15, 2019
Last Updated: February 4, 2021

MARIE SPANO, MSC, RD, CSCS, CSSD, leading Sports Nutrition Expert began her talk, “Sports Nutrition and Specialty Diets: From Keto to Vegan,” by emphasizing that protein isn’t only for bodybuilders. Sports nutrition and specialty diets play a powerful role in weight management; functional living as we age; and disease prevention. Spano is the Sports Dietitian for the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Falcons, so she has varied experience with nutrition issues, from top athletes to the general population.

Research shows low protein intake is associated with a reduction in muscle mass and strength throughout the lifecycle. Cortical bone increases up until age 25-30. Women and men lose 35 and 23% of cortical bone with aging, respectively. Protein makes up about 50% of bone volume and 33% of bone mass. Elderly persons who have osteoporotic hip fractures are often undernourished.

In senior hip fracture patients, protein supplementation (20g) resulted in fewer deaths, shorter hospital stays and attenuation of proximal femur bone loss (Schurch et al. 1998. Ann Intern Med.

Protein is also beneficial for weight management. Protein improves satiety; helps retain muscle mass when dieting; and more calories are burned when digesting protein. Spano described the thermic effect of food (TEF), noting that 1lb of fat burns 2 calories/day at rest, whereas 1lb of muscle burns 6 calories. Further, she said, “TEF of protein and carbs is not significantly different between lean and obese people, but the TEF of fat is significantly lower in obese subjects, suggesting a reduced thermogenic response to fat”.

Muscle protein synthesis rates are lowest first thing in the morning. So, after an overnight fast, a higher protein breakfast has the added benefit of up-regulating muscle protein synthesis, advised Marie Spano.

The timing of protein consumption will affect satiety. Under conditions of energy balance, higher protein meals (0.6g of protein/kg/day) made no difference in postprandial or overall fullness. However, during energy restriction, a higher protein breakfast had the greatest effect on meal-related fullness and overall fullness over a 15-hour period (Leidy et al. 2009. Br J Nutr.

Spano went on to emphasize, “Because rates of muscle protein synthesis are lowest first thing in the morning, after an overnight fast, a higher protein breakfast has an added benefit of up-regulating muscle protein synthesis” (Layman DK. 2004. J Am Coll Nutr.

Healthy athletes don’t need protein powders, as long as they get enough from meals. The peak muscle-building period is likely less than two hours after finishing training for trained individuals (Mori H. 2014. J Physiol Anthropol. http://

“Consistently eating protein soon after body building has a small-to-moderate effect on muscle growth and may have a positive effect on muscle strength, either due to timing or by contributing to greater total protein intake over the day,” she stated.

Moving onto keto diets, Spano explained that, traditionally, these are 80-85% fat and 10-15% protein which, when plant-based, focus on nuts, seeds, avocado and olives. Paleo diets can be high-protein, yet plant-based or vegan, by using nut and seeds. Or they can be keto-friendly when using fish and oils from nuts and fruits.

Spano stressed combining plant proteins to get all EAAs and eating more total protein to make up for low bioavailability, if relying on plant proteins (with the exception of soy, which is a complete protein). “Pulses,” she noted, “are hot. And, in their whole state, they offer fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant compounds; they are non-GMO, gluten-free and clean label.”

Microalgae are a novel source of protein and a diverse group of species that doesn’t require arable land or water to grow. However, “Protein digestibility in the raw, unprocessed state is poor, and they are low in lysine and methionine,” said Spano.

Nutrients from dairy foods are difficult to replace, because they provide “shortfall” nutrients—calcium, potassium and vitamin D. Spano stated, “Almond milk is water plus a few almonds, with added vitamins, and the calcium settles to the bottom of the container.” Other nutrients of concern include magnesium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamins A and B12.

In the development of products for weight loss, Spano suggested that more protein is better but does tend to reduce the moisture, which can result in a dry product. Also, she said, “Add fiber for satiation, not satiety; use natural sweeteners with no added sugar.”

Spano also advised that older consumers should consider easy-to-open, ready-to-eat products that require minimal preparation and that are soft and easy to chew. Consider protein “compliments,” as it is hard for many to eat a high-protein meal.

“Sports Nutrition and Specialty Diets: From Keto to Vegan,” Marie Spano, Sports Nutrition Expert

This presentation was given at the 2019 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. To download presentations from this event, go to

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