Whether you’re preparing for a grappling tournament, mastering the muscle-up, or just want to look better in a bathing suit this summer, the right nutrition strategy will help get you to your goal. As an athlete – and someone who wants to maintain a lean, healthy body – you realize that protein is important. And you generally know where to get it: chicken breast, not tortilla chips.
Still, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you’re left with some questions: How much protein do I need after a workout? What is the absolute best source? Will too much make me gain weight?
Unfortunately, answers don’t come easy—there are a lot of misconceptions about this macronutrient. Here, we dive into five of the biggest ones:
Chicken, turkey, white fish, and egg whites are great: They’re low in fat, and often contain less cholesterol and fewer calories per ounce compared to fattier sources of protein like red meat and fatty fish. But if you’re forever avoiding fat, you may be missing out on some important health benefits.
The fat in darker meats (think chicken thighs and steak) provides energy and helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins from the foods you eat. Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, are packed with DHA and EPA – healthy fats that help maintain normal cholesterol levels, keep inflammation in check, and have been linked to cognitive and joint improvements.
So, if you can’t stomach the thought of one more grilled chicken breast, you can – and should – switch things up. Varying the protein sources in your diet will help you reach your nutrition and health goals.
Red meat can be a good source of protein, iron, zinc, and B-vitamins, and can be easily incorporated into a healthy, complete diet.
Mixing whey protein into your post-workout meal or snack helps muscles recover—no matter your sport.
Whether you just stepped out of an intense rolling session, wrapped up a weight lifting workout, or completed a long hike on the weekend, your muscles may be damaged, and whey shakes are a quick and easy way to get the branched-chain amino acid, leucine, into your diet. Leucine helps to kick off the recovery process and repair and rebuild muscle—which explains why bodybuilders are so into the stuff.
What’s more, consuming 24g of whey after exercise helps women improve body composition and increase strength and explosive power, according to new research from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
The best part about a shake is that you can add calories—like carbohydrates and fats—or substitute in less calorie-dense options—like mixing with water and ice cubes—to fit your needs, whether you’re drinking it for post-workout recovery or a complete meal on the go.
Soy, hemp, pea, quinoa, brown rice, algae—the number of plant-based proteins on store shelves is enough to make your head spin. But when it comes to body composition, do these vegetarian options work as well as their animal-derived counterparts?
Research on many of these supplements is new—but so far, so good. When combined with resistance training, soy protein helps increase lean muscle mass and aids weight loss, according to a recent study published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Similarly, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found pea protein just as effective as dairy-based whey in adding lean body mass and increasing strength among adults starting a new resistance training program.
If you’re on a mission to lean out, paying special attention to your protein intake is important. Studies suggest that upping your intake aids weight loss by helping the body hang onto lean muscle mass and let go of fat instead. But don’t add an extra scoop of protein to your post-workout smoothie just yet—you’ll need to do some math first.
While there’s no specific recommendation on exactly how much protein you need in order to preserve lean body mass, research estimates range from intakes between 1.3 and 2.0 g of protein per kg of body weight per day—that means getting 25-35% of your daily calories.
Still, there’s no need to go crazy. Stu Phillips, a leading protein researcher, concluded in a research review that “there is scant data to support recommendations for very high protein intakes—more than 2.5 g of protein per kg of body weight a day—at the present time since they offer no apparent body composition or performance benefit.”
So, where in that 1.3-2.0 g range do you fall? It depends on activity levels. The more active you are and what activities you are involved in, the more protein you need. Also keep in mind that in order to lose weight, you need to balance any increase in protein by scaling back on carbs and/or fat. If you are incredibly active, choose carbohydrates that work for you to support your energy needs. Lastly, spread protein intake out over the course of your day.
Finishing off big meals before bed may increase your risk for obesity and other cardio-metabolic diseases. But eating small meals and snacks is a safe and effective way to maintain and gain lean body mass—if your calories are primarily coming from protein. When choosing what to eat here, be aware of your calorie intake for the entire day to make good choices.
When eaten immediately before sleep, meals that contain 40 g of protein are easily digested and absorbed, and can help stimulate muscle-protein synthesis and improve whole-body protein balance after a strength-training workout, according to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Nutrition.
What’s more, research published in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that consuming whey at night (compared to eating nothing at all) elevates your metabolism the morning after.
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