How to Make Protein Work for You: What to Eat, How to Combine, and When to Consume

beans legumes proteinLooks we opened a whole can of Whoop A… er, I mean… Energy with that last post about protein. Many people are in the dark when the subject of protein comes knocking. Below are some FAQs I get in regards to protein sources, amounts, consumption and timing needed to make your meals work for you.

How much protein is needed for each type of person?

In general, 10-35% of daily ingested calories should be protein. But that’s a big span. Instead,

think of it this way:

* A normal person (non-athlete) needs approximately .8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (one pound is equal to 2.2 kg)

But some athletes have elevated requirement levels…

* Endurance athletes require 1.2-1.6 g/kg and

* Strength athletes need 1.6-1.7 g/kg

And, protein requirements for pregnant women are even higher, as they are instructed to have 71 grams of protein a day.

When are the best times to consume protein to gain lean muscle? And what times should you eat surrounding workouts?

There are several timing calculations to take into account when choosing when to eat. First and foremost, eat breakfast! Breakfast should be a mixture of carbs, protein and moderate fat.

My top breakfast picks

1. Oatmeal, almonds/walnuts, blueberries

2. Eggs, Ezekiel bread, grapefruit

3. Granola, plain Greek yogurt, strawberries

Next, a small carbohydrate/protein snack after 30 minutes of an intense workout is critical. This may seem counterproductive, but the snack is part of a larger picture; a meal consisting of protein, carbs, fluids and moderate fat should follow within the next 4 hours. The carbohydrates are important immediately following (endurance) exercise to refuel the body with energy. The protein in the meal helps to rebuild the torn, broken down muscle fibers from your (strength) workout.

My top post-workout snack picks

1. Banana with almond butter

2. Home-made fruit/veg/protein smoothie

3. Hummus with veggies

Despite these guidelines, smaller, frequent snacks/meals are the best way to nosh throughout the day, making convenient food and portion control crucial to success. To keep your body constantly in positive nitrogen balance, you should consume a complete protein every 3 hours. For some people, eating this often may seem nearly impossible, whether due to a busy schedule, or just the feeling like they may be eating too much. But as long as there is balance and portion control, stick to the plan.

What About BVs, Whey Protein, and Amino Acids?

Don’t be mystified by BV ratings boasted on packages of protein supplements. Biological Value, or BV, is a measure of protein quality often used to rank foods and supplements. In short, the number refers to how much nitrogen is absorbed from the food and used for growth and maintenance of muscle. The highest BV value is 100, so if a company touts a number above, be warned of the quality/honesty of the product. Eggs rank the highest, with a 100 BV.

Whey proteins are also a great source of BV insured proteins. Whey has concentrated protein, which is convenient, and has a high BV rating, minus the fat and extra calories found with some other protein shakes. Rather than relying on it entirely for protein needs, you can try adding a little to your whole-food based smoothies for an extra boost because a little goes a long whey… (get it? haha) But, be sure to choose wisely if you do go that route.  *See earlier post for recommendations on safer brands.

Amino acids can also be used as a ploy to sell more of a product. Rather than some Miracle Gro for your muscles, amino acids are broken down or predigested amino acids that are supposed to be better absorbed by your body. But the best route for gaining amino acids is through whole foods (such as eggs, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, etc)  rather than supplements – imagine that! Your body will absorb the amino acids at the correct rate for your person and even spend energy (calories) breaking them down! This is known as the thermic effect.. for you scientific folks.

 Why is it important to eat by listening to your body’s needs rather than eating emotionally?

So many of us seem to struggle with emotional eating as we listen to our hearts, our guts, and the thoughts in our heads. This is one time to listen to your physical body. Your body knows what nutrients are needed, but it is too often that the mind does not follow the body’s needs and eats to ‘feel’ better. While in reality, your body really wants to eat to ‘feed’ better.

Therefore, to meet your body’s nutritional needs and optimal performance as an athlete and even just as a person. *Bottom Line: Listen to what your body needs!

A few tips for listening to your body and not just your mind:

• Make sure that you are eating in accordance to your body’s timeline and truly hungry feelings and not taking advantage of boredom, emotions, convenient food or an overactive appetite.

• Before starting to eat, take into account how you’re feeling; those chocolate cravings may curb themselves if you picked up the phone and talked out your emotions instead of mindlessly eating junk in hopes to satisfy your hormones/emotions.

• Eat with respect to appetite + real hunger + calorie concerns, and take into account your hydration status.

• Aiming to eat daily recommended values of veggies, fruits, and striving to meet micronutrient needs like calcium, fiber, vitamins and minerals will help keep you on track.

• If you absolutely must have something sweet and a handful of fresh strawberries just won’t do the trick, remember this: PORTION CONTROL, and CHEW A LOT.

What are some healthy complete snacks/meals to coincide with that lagging energy feeling?

Convenience is king, in this regard. Easily stored or quickly attained foods are most helpful for sticking with your healthy habits. Make sure you take the time to PREpare your meals and snacks ahead of schedule if you know you will be short on time during the week.

On-the-go Snack Ideas:

– raw or roasted almonds

– Ezekiel bread, almond butter, banana

– edamame beans

– avocado, tomato, cucumber salad

– plain Greek yogurt

– plain or home-made hummus w/ veggies (carrot, radish, snap peas, cucumber, celery, tomato)

– Banana or apples and almond butter

– plain or home-made granola with nuts and dried fruit (trail mix)

Quick Meal Ideas:

– Chicken breast, green beans, sweet potato with cinnamon

– Wild Alaskan salmon, asparagus, and quinoa

– Black beans, brown rice, and sauteed spinach with onions

– Kale greens salad, portobello mushroom and black rice

** Good Rule of Thumb** Choose a meal that combines protein, complex carbs (vegetables, fruits, grains), and moderate fats (unsaturated). Look to add fiber and calcium, and you’ve done yourself a huge favor!