Protein Packs a Punch

By Garrett Weber-Gale – March 13, 2013

This critical nutrient can impact your training
Hot topic: Athletes and protein—better yet, people and protein. Time and time again, I’m asked the following questions: How much protein should I eat? What’s the best source of protein? Can I have too much protein? I have a question of my own: How did we ever get on this trail? While protein is essential and something we need to survive and promote a healthy lifestyle, it’s not the only critical nutrient. However, since it is such a point of interest for so many people (athletes and non-athletes alike), it’s a perfect topic to delve into when discussing nutrition.

First off: Yes, protein is important. As an Olympic athlete, I have a very close relationship with protein. Working out upwards of five hours per day causes a lot of stress on my body and significant muscle breakdown. Therefore, I make a concerted effort to replace what I lose as quickly as I can, immediately after working out. I’ve been seeing nutrition experts for over ten years, and each of these experts has told me that it’s most beneficial to replace as many nutrients lost during exercise within one hour of finishing activity. Ultimately, you want to replenish within 30 minutes. The closer you can get, the better.

When I finish exercising, I do two things. First, I eat something that contains simple sugars, most often fruit, in order to replenish my glycogen stores (the most readily used energy source when we work out). My favorite fruit of choice is dried mangos. I also eat oranges, bananas, grapefruits, and dried strawberries. While fruit juice also contains simple sugars, some are artificially sweetened (not what we want), and the juice rarely contains as much fiber as does natural fruit, so stick with the whole fruits. Second, I immediately drink a 100 percent whey protein shake to help promote muscle growth to repair the breakdown my body’s musculature system just incurred. I will also often bring a Tupperware container of beans, rice, and vegetables to eat within ten minutes of finishing my workout. If you want ultimate performance, you must take care of the details and do a bit of prep ahead of time; making a bean and rice dish like this is an easy thing to do on a Sunday, and that advance effort can provide readily available nutrients almost whenever and wherever we need it.

I teach cooking classes in Austin fairly regularly, and participants always want to know “How much protein is enough?” Many Americans have come to believe that a large part of their diet should be made up of protein. The truth is that most people these days really aren’t doing enough physical activity throughout each day to warrant a great deal of protein in their diets. You might actually be surprised by how little protein is required to maintain the tissues in our body. Many professionals recommend that between 10-35 percent of a daily diet be made up of protein, depending upon how much you exercise. Jess Kolko, a registered dietitian who often works with us at AthleticFoodie, has some really great insight on protein needs:

Daily protein intake needs are about 0.8 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight. Therefore, a 180-pound male needs roughly 65 grams of protein per day.

An elite athlete may require up to 1.2 grams or more of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight. A 180-pound male athlete would require 98 grams in order to maintain his muscular system.

No matter if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or a committed carnivore, you can fulfill your needs from any of these sources. Yes, it is true that vegetables are missing one or more essential amino acids (the muscle’s building blocks), and this depends upon which vegetable, as they are all different. Therefore, keeping a wide variety of foods in your diet is a fundamental practice to keep.

Now that we understand how much we need, what happens if we take in too much protein? Let’s think back to the point in time when humans were scavengers. When we could find or kill food, we ate as much as possible, and this excess was stored as—you guessed it—fat. The same holds true of excess nutrients, and this is where being conscious of and focused on what we’re consuming makes a big impact on our overall health and ability to perform.

I realize most people are not about to start keeping track of all the calories, much less protein, they consume in a day. I’m not telling you to. Begin by occasionally doing an Internet search for the protein content in different foods you regularly eat. Getting a rough understanding of how much protein is actually in the foods you’re eating makes a big difference on your ability to decipher how much of these you should actually be eating. Nutrition supplements are easy to gauge, as the information is printed on the label. Once you get started, keep a close eye on your weight as well as your physical appearance. If you begin to notice changes in your body that you like, keep up the good work. If you are unsatisfied with results, make subtle adjustments; success is all about fine-tuning in small ways. I’ve been a professional athlete for six years, and I’m still regularly using trial and error to help make adjustments to my eating habits. Continue learning and working to hone your skills in eating for performance and you will see a tremendous difference! afm


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