Protein is a hot topic in gyms and fitness circles everywhere, but what exactly is it about this nutrient that is so buzzworthy? Is it so important that I should be slurping it down after every workout? This article covers all the protein basics - what it is, when to, and how to consume it effectively.
What is Protein Anyway?
Along with carbs and fat, protein is a naturally occurring essential nutrient that is required for several activities in the human body. While it’s main job is to build and maintain muscle tissue, according to LiveScience, it also plays a part in in blood clotting, fluid balance, hormone and enzyme production, and cell repair. For these reasons, it’s important for everyone to consume protein on a daily basis. The more active you are, the more important protein’s role in your body becomes, because every time you exercise your muscle fibers are broken down, depleted, and in need of repair. Nutrients Review also shares that it is this very effect activity has on muscle fibers that cause us to feel soreness after a tough workout.
When Should I Consume Protein?
As you’ve probably heard before, most athletes agree that there is a 30-minute window that exists after you finish your workout where your body is prime for nutrient absorption. This is why many advise that runners consume somewhere between 15-20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing their workout. While the 30 minute window theory hasn’t necessarily been proven or disproven, it’s gained enough support over time that it’s advisable to consume protein immediately after a workout - it definitely can’t hurt you! Body Building.com also reminds us that in addition to protein you also need to replenish carbs and electrolytes after a workout. In fact, most fitness experts recommend that you consume a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein following a workout (that’s 80g of carbs for 20g of protein). Replenish electrolytes with a sports drink, banana, or coconut water
However, immediately after a workout isn’t the only time you should be thinking about protein. The body can only absorb and use a certain amount of protein at once. For this reason, it’s important to spread your protein intake out throughout the day. Don’t try to get it all in at breakfast, or right after you finish running. Aim for 20-25 grams of protein at every meal, as the body can’t typically absorb or use more than 30 grams of protein at one time
How to Consume Protein
While protein powders, bars and supplements make it seem like you must purchase special items to consume ample amounts of protein, you are probably far from being protein-deficient if you already eat a well-balanced diet. Protein rich foods include poultry, red meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. By utilizing these foods in every meal and keeping in mind not to overdo it (as excess protein can be turned to fat), you should have no problem meeting your protein needs. Since there are an abundance of protein rich foods out there, special protein products definitely aren’t necessities, but they do come in handy when you need a quick protein fix (such as after a workout) or if you have a special diet that cuts out many natural sources of protein (such as vegan and gluten-free diets)
How Much is Enough?
The amount of protein a person should aim for depends on the person's weight and how active they are. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This is the minimum amount of protein needed for meeting nutritional requirements. For athletes, it's recommended to bump your intake up to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Just remember, that no matter how much protein you aim to consume in a day, you shouldn't consume more than 30 grams in one sitting
More About Protein Shakes, Powders and Supplements
There is a booming industry for on-the-go and quick protein intake solutions such as protein bars, drinks, powders, and supplements. They provide an easy way to consume ample amounts of protein when you just don’t have the time or energy to whip up a whole food meal. Many athletes swear by these products and use them daily.
A majority of these protein products are made using three common protein sources: whey, casein, and soy - the latter being the only plant based product, as whey and casein are both derived from milk. While these proteins are all naturally sourced, they are often heavily processed. Highly processed foods are often more difficult for the body to recognize and use, and contain harmful preservatives that lead to disease-causing toxicity and acidity in the body
So to answer the initial question of this post: yes and no. You should definitely consume protein after a workout, but protein shakes aren’t the only (nor the best) option. While protein shakes and other products aren’t necessarily bad, whole food options will always be a better option. For a great recovery drink, reach for a tall glass of organic chocolate milk, or flavored kefir, or a fruit smoothie made with greek yogurt instead. You could also go for a snack like a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter. Or whole grain crackers with cheese and turkey slices. Or a cup of greek yogurt with fruit and granola. All of these whole food drink and snack options provide ample amounts of post-workout protein and carbs. If you want to try protein shakes or powders (or are already hooked on them) look for those with limited amounts of preservatives. This also goes for all the food products I mentioned above
If you like using protein powders already, try a hemp seed powder - a less processed natural and vegan solution that provides 14 grams of protein in only 3 tablespoons (as well as other health benefits). The video below breaks down what the difference between the different types of protein powders.
But as I advise every time I write about diet habits as they relate to running, you should experiment and take notes as you find what works best for you. Maybe you have friends who swear by protein shakes and you want to give them a shot - more power to ya! But if you already use protein powders, consider an alternative and see how it works out for you. Best of luck for which ever route you chose. Just be like Michelle Tanner.