Athletes young and old who want the best performance from their bodies have to consider protein.
“Protein plays a big role in rebuilding your muscle mass after it’s broken down from exercise,” says Carrie Garvin, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. A half hour or so after an intense workout, she suggests a snack containing about 15 grams of protein combined with a carbohydrate, to help your body retain and rebuild muscle. Some of her favorites: peanut butter with a banana or toast, trail mix or yogurt.
Garvin cautions not to eat too much protein prior to an exercise session. “Protein stays in the stomach longer than carbs, and that might lead to cramping. It’s good to have a snack a half hour to an hour before exercise that’s mostly carbohydrate-based because it will be digested and used as glucose.”
It’s also important for athletes to skip low-carb diet trends. If your body does not have enough carbs to convert for fuel, it turns to protein. The amino acids that comprise protein can be converted into glucose. If that happens, you risk losing muscle mass.
The amount of protein you need each day varies depending on your weight and overall health. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general good health. But for someone who lifts weights regularly or trains vigorously, the American College of Sports Medicine bumps up that recommendation to 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.
Garvin advises spacing out your protein consumption across the day, so your body has time for absorption.
What happens if you eat too much?
The body stores excess protein as fat, so weight gain is a possibility. And, if you follow a high-protein diet, you may increase your risk of kidney disease, cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease.
What else do you need to know about protein?
It’s made up of 20 different amino acids, and they fall into two categories. The Food and Drug Administration explains:
“Essential” amino acids are required for normal body functioning, but they cannot be made by the body. They must be obtained from food. Nine of the 20 amino acids are considered essential.
“Nonessential” amino acids can be made by the body, using essential amino acids that are consumed in foods, or through the normal breakdown of body proteins. Eleven amino acids are nonessential.
Foods that contain all nine of the essential amino acids — including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy — are “complete proteins.” Vegetarian or vegan options include a mixture of legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
How do you know you’re eating enough protein? Upstate’s Garvin says if you eat an adequate amount of calories, if your energy level is strong and if you are not losing weight, you are probably getting enough.
The bottom line:
Carbs before workout; protein after.
Your body uses carbs for fuel, but if you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will use protein for fuel instead of using it for repair and growth.
Include a mix of carbs, protein and fat at every meal.
Some examples of protein sources:
An egg has 6 grams;
3 ounces of beef, chicken or fish has about 21 grams;
1/2 cup of kidney, black or cannellini beans has about 8 grams;
2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 7 grams;
1/3 cup of quinoa has 6 grams;
8 ounces of milk has 8 grams;
6 ounces of regular yogurt has 5 grams, but Greek yogurt has about 15.