Whether filling your tank before a gym session or taking a snack break to ward off the dreaded midday energy lull, small, protein-rich meals are tasty ways to keep on going—and going. It’s not that fruit, whole grains, or even the occasional indulgent treat don’t have a place in the well-rounded diet, but, gram-for-gram and ounce-for-ounce, protein-packed snacks provide longer-lasting energy than their burn-and-crash high-carbohydrate counterparts.
In addition to regulating blood sugar and moderating hunger, protein-rich snacks play a vital role in the recovery diet of an athlete. After an intense workout, race, or competition, it is imperative to top off taxed muscles with foods plentiful in protein. Well-timed protein intake employs amino acids to rebuild damaged muscle tissue while encouraging the hormone activity needed to stimulate muscle growth. A study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that 20 grams is the optimal amount of post-workout protein to maximize muscle growth.
This focus on protein isn’t strictly for strength athletes. While runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes have long known that eating carbohydrates during and immediately preceding hard efforts helps to replenish energy-providing glycogen stores, newer research shows that combining these carbohydrates with a wallop of protein nearly doubles the insulin response—meaning even more energy can be stored in the body along with all the muscle-making perks. The general wisdom from sports nutritionists is to consume a 1:3 to 1:4 protein-to-carbohydrate mini-meal within a 30-minute window of exercise.
So, if all this talk of protein has you wondering just how much of the stuff to eat, keep in mind that athletes require more protein than the sedentary masses. While the USDA’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight) for the general population, the stance of the International Society of Sports Nutritionists is that individuals involved in endurance sports and other high-level training athletes need greater amounts of protein—around 1.0 to 1.6 grams per kilogram a day (or 0.45 to 0.72 grams per pound). That’s about 75 to 120 grams of protein per day for a 165-pound person.
So, to help you pump up your training diet, I’m sharing five of my favorite protein-packed snacks—one for every day of the workweek. Each option is easy to make, free of meat-based protein, and completely portable. Just toss one of these snacks into your gym bag, backpack, or mini-cooler and get after it. There’s a hearty, healthy, and protein-packed reward at the end of your efforts. Your taste buds will thank me while your muscles will thank you.
Hemp Heart and Berry Greek Yogurt
Total convenience in a cup and there’s no cooking involved. Just toss a 6-ounce container of plain nonfat Greek yogurt into a cooler with a baggie filled with 1 tablespoon of raw shelled hemp seeds and a quarter cup of your favorite berries. When you’re ready to snack, peel off the lid and top off the creamy yogurt with the seeds and sweet berries. If you’re not familiar with hemp seeds, you should be; they add a nutty flavor and robust texture to foods and provide a plant-based, complete chain of amino acids. Each single serving has 184 calories and 23 grams of protein.
Garlicky Chili Chickpeas
Whether you call them chickpeas or garbanzo beans, these legumes are stocked with high levels of protein, dietary fiber, and other athlete-important nutrients such as folate, iron and phosphorous. This easy-to-make recipe reminds me of “health-ified” Corn Nuts and will definitely satisfy your cravings for crunch. Each ½-cup serving has approximately 184 calories and 9 grams of protein.
2 (15.5-ounce) cans chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), thoroughly drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place chickpeas in a large bowl and toss with remaining ingredients until coated. Spread chickpeas in an even layer on rimmed baking sheet, and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until crisp. Makes approximately 6 (½ -cup) servings.
Chocolate Almond Java Truffles
You’re no quitter, and this delicious protein treat is proof you don’t have to give up on chocolate. Made with whey protein powder, nut butter, and a little kick of caffeine, these decadent-tasting truffles are a no-bake, protein-pumped incentive for all your hard work. Each truffle has approximately 100 calories and 6 grams of protein.
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 teaspoons water
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup natural, unsweetened almond butter
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
2/3 cup (2 standard scoops) chocolate whey
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
In medium bowl, dissolve espresso powder into water; stir in honey until combined. Add almond butter to this mixture, stirring until blended. Add the salt and protein powder, mixing until completely combined into firm dough. Scoop approximately 1½ tablespoons of the dough, and shape into a 1-inch ball. Roll in cocoa powder until coated. Repeat for remaining dough. Keep in the refrigerator. Makes 12 truffles.
Blueberry Flax Microwave Mug Muffin
With this healthy protein recipe, you can easily bake from scratch daily without any of the guilt or mess. In less than a minute of cooking time, you’ll have a wonderful, warm snack that gets a punch of protein from egg whites and flax seed. Like hemp, flax is a plant-based protein that offers the entire chain of amino acids, making it a great choice for vegetarian athletes.
¼ cup quick-cooking oats
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 packet Stevia
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 egg whites, whisked
¼ cup fresh blueberries
Place first five ingredients in a coffee mug and mix together. Stir in olive oil and whisked egg whites until well combined; gently stir in blueberries. Place mug in microwave and cook on high for 50 to 60 seconds. Let cool for a couple of minutes, and enjoy on the spot or cover with foil to eat later when hunger hits. Each single serving has approximately 240 calories and 15 grams protein.
Lucky Lime Black-Eyed Pea Hummus (with Broccoli)
Traditionally, hummus is made with garbanzo beans, but any bean, lentil, or legume substitutes nicely. This cilantro-lime hummus is always a hit for refueling and, made with black-eyed peas, may quickly become your lucky muscle-making secret. To conveniently take a serving to go, simply place a generous dollop in the bottom of an insulated travel mug and top off with a cup of raw broccoli crowns. Contents will stay chilled for an hour or so and be snack-ready when you are. The hummus has approximately 100 calories and 6 grams of protein for each quarter cup serving. When you add in the broccoli, the total count for a single serving comes to 150 calories and 11 grams of protein.
1 (15.5-ounce) can black-eyed peas, drained, and rinsed
3 tablespoons tahini
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 small clove garlic, minced
½ to 1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Add all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, stopping as needed to scrape down sides. Store in the refrigerator. Makes approximately 6 (¼-cup) servings.