By Britt Richardson (@a.full.bite)
Britt just completed her dietetic internship and is feverishly studying for her exam to become a Registered Dietitian. Her passion is helping women to improve their relationship with food and their bodies.
Bring up the topic of protein at the gym and you’re likely to get lots of chatter and dozens of opinions. “You need protein before your workout.” “No, after your workout is better.” “Whey powder is best.” “No, try plant-based protein.” “Drink chocolate milk after your workout.” “No, a protein shake.” Ugh.
What you won’t get is much clarity about what’s right for you and your body. With all of the protein “noise” out there, it’s tough to know what to believe. That’s where we come in.
Let’s start with some basic facts. Everyone needs protein in their diet to repair tissues and cells and to rebuild/build muscles and organs. Proteins are made up of tiny building blocks called amino acids that link together. Chains of amino acids then fold up to make different shaped proteins which have distinct functions in your body. So we need a variety of amino acids to link up in the right order to form the protein shapes that keep our bodies humming.
Some of these amino acids are considered “essential” – meaning our bodies can’t function properly without them. Lucky for us, we can get all of the essential amino acids in the protein foods we eat. Some foods have all of the essential amino acids we need – eggs, meats, milk, and fish, for example – and some have fewer – beans, nuts, grains. Eating beans or nuts together with grains gives us all of the essential aminos, so plant-forward eaters can get their needed proteins, too. That’s why eating a variety of foods is important – so that we balance out our bodies’ needs over time.
What foods are the best sources of protein?
Lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products like milk, yogurt and cottage cheese, nuts, lentils and beans are all good sources of protein. Animal products contain more of the essential amino acids, but vegetarian proteins like beans and nuts, when mixed with grains, can deliver high quality protein as well.
Let’s look at why milk can be a good choice for athletes. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, drinking milk can help you recover from exercise and increase glycogen stores – the little carbohydrate energy banks we have in our muscles. Milk’s water content also rehydrates us, and milk’s proteins help the body make muscle, which improves strength. Vitamins and minerals in milk also support bone health and muscle contraction, which are undeniably important to athletes.
Eggs are also a very high quality protein, rich in essential amino acids. They’re also cheap, full of vitamins and minerals your body needs, and extremely versatile. Omelets, frittatas, hard boiled, Benedict, in pancakes, french toast, souffles…you can incorporate eggs into lots of delicious dishes that deliver protein and satisfaction, too.
Nuts, beans and grains are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and other plant chemicals that are associated with disease prevention and good health. They also interact with the good bacteria in your gut to help your immune system. Besides that, they are also a great source of energy no matter what your sport is.
So, getting a mix of foods as protein sources in your diet makes sense from a health perspective. Foods provide so much more than just a certain gram weight of protein, carbs or fats. Flavor, satisfaction, energy, nutrients and fullness are all part of the equation.
Should I eat more protein because I work out?
It depends. Scientists have studied muscle building by giving different doses of protein to study volunteers and then having them perform weight bearing or endurance exercise. They’ve tried small protein amounts, large amounts, powder supplements, whole meals, pre- and post-workout protein and still there are no definitive guidelines for all people. Long-term studies have not shown the same results that some short-term studies show.
With higher levels of protein consumption, some of the protein may get stored (as glycogen or fat) or used for energy rather than for muscle building. Some may be excreted as waste. So, just because you eat more protein, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll build more muscle. In short, the science shows that results can vary and protein intake should be individualized.
Are protein powders and shakes worth the hype?
We all have some athlete friends that come to workouts with their protein shake in hand. They swear by powder X or shake Y. These protein powders are cleverly marketed (and, therefore, expensive), highly processed and may not be necessary for the casual athlete. Much of the research on protein supplementation is inconclusive and almost entirely funded by – maybe you guessed it – the supplement companies. Chew on that for a bit.
Perhaps even more important, drinking a shake before or after every workout may be overkill. When we’re thinking of getting the right dose of protein, replacing parts of a meal with powder may feel like the right answer. But, overdoing it may lead to imbalances in the diet, frequently at the expense of getting enough fiber or carbohydrates to properly fuel your workouts and your digestive system.
So, to answer the question, are powders worth the hype? Unless there is a reason you cannot get enough protein in the form of food, powders and supplements may be an unnecessary waste of money.
What’s the deal with BCAAs and other supplements?
Some of the essential amino acids are known as Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA). Leucine, isoleucine and valine are the BCAAs. Some evidence indicates that consuming BCAAs can help in muscle recovery between high-intensity workouts. According to one study (funded by supplement companies), high quality proteins containing these BCAAs “are critically needed for achieving maximal rates of MPS” – that just means we need these BCAAs for muscle-protein synthesis (aka muscle building). Consuming high-quality protein sources that are rich in all the essential amino acids is important. But supplements aren’t the only way to get BCAAs, as we’ve just reviewed. “Even whole milk can evoke an anabolic response that can be similar or greater in magnitude to free form amino acids,” the same study went on to say. So, unless you are headed to the Olympics or the NFL, spending your cash in the supplement aisle may be unnecessary. Buying foods high in protein and eating them prior to or after your workout may be all that you need.
How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein your body needs to build muscles and tissues is very dependent on LOTS of factors: your body size, sport of choice, frequency of exercise, performance goals, and many other factors. There are new studies being published every day that look at the timing of consuming protein, amounts of protein for women versus men, and evaluating protein for endurance athletes, HIIT exercisers and resistance training. Your friends at the gym and on Instagram, while well-meaning, may not have all the information they need to help you fuel yourself properly. It’s most useful to get recommendations from your NYAN registered dietitian, who can evaluate your unique situation and goals while interpreting the latest science available.
Gwin, J. A., Church, D. D., Wolfe, R. R., Ferrando, A. A., & Pasiakos, S. M. (2020). Muscle Protein Synthesis and Whole-Body Protein Turnover Responses to Ingesting Essential Amino Acids, Intact Protein, and Protein-Containing Mixed Meals with Considerations for Energy Deficit. Nutrients, 12(8), 2457. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082457
Jäger, R., et.al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Osmond, A. D., Directo, D. J., Elam, M. L., Juache, G., Kreipke, V. C., Saralegui, D. E., Wildman, R., Wong, M., & Jo, E. (2019). The Effects of Leucine-Enriched Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Recovery After High-Intensity Resistance Exercise. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 14(8), 1081–1088. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2018-0579
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15, 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
8 High-Protein Foods to Reach for (Dietitian Approved). Skip the shakes and powders and choose these whole foods instead. November 19, 2019: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/8-high-protein-foods-to-reach-for-dietitian-approved/
Protein hype: shoppers flushing money down the toilet, say experts: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/26/protein-hype-shoppers-flushing-money-down-the-toilet-say-experts