Protein has become the watchword for anyone who cares about nutrition. The idea of consuming extra protein now extends beyond gym rats to ordinary folks who believe it will help them lose weight, get stronger and avoid muscle loss.
This demand has brought a response from the marketplace: Besides aggressively promoting foods that are naturally high in protein, such as nuts, beef jerky and Greek yogurt, food manufacturers have also added protein to grain-based cereals, crackers and bars. Some companies offer high-quality shakes that incorporate an ever-widening array of protein sources including chia, pea and sunflower.
Driving the Trend
The popularity of low- or no-carb diets is likely one factor in protein’s current popularity. Many carbohydrate-rich foods, especially those made with refined grains such as all-purpose flour and white rice, neither contribute nutrients nor have the substantial satiety factor of higher-protein offerings.
The maturation of the Baby Boomers also propels the protein bandwagon. Members of this generation generally take fitness seriously and thrive on activity, and they don’t want waning strength to slow them down.
“This market demographic is huge, and when boomers are concerned about muscle loss, the food industry listens,” says Kim Larson, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Larson notes that people need more protein after age 50 and that increasing protein intake can prevent or slow the muscle loss (called sarcopenia) that naturally comes with age. This condition can cause seniors to become frail and prone to falls.
At the other end of the life spectrum are Millennials—the “to-go” generation.
“Young adults are used to eating packaged foods, so products like protein-infused shakes, crackers and bars appeal to them,” Larson says. “Many Millennials don’t have the best cooking skills to prepare healthful foods themselves.”
For people of every generation, protein products are convenient. Instead of yogurt, eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, people might grab a protein shake or bar as they head out the door each morning. These items are easy to carry and consume, have long shelf lives and provide a feeling of fullness that keeps hunger at bay longer than donuts or bagels.
The average person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, according to the Institute of Medicine. There’s also a wide range for acceptable protein intake—anywhere from 10% to 35% of calories daily.
Fueling Up for Sports
You’ll probably never step onto the field or into the arena as a pro, but it doesn’t mean you should take your athletic efforts lightly. That requires paying serious attention to the sports nutrition products you use, including shakes and other supplements tailored to an athlete’s special needs.
Getting the maximum benefit from your workouts requires electrolytes, substances that support proper fluid balance and muscle function. A good pre-session shake supplies not only such standard electrolytes as sodium and potassium but also electrolyte sources such as coconut water powder, which also provides bioactive enzymes to promote proper digestion.
Taking the right mix of amino acids supports superior hydration. These include L-glycine, which helps build muscle while aiding red blood cell maintenance (a key to supplying muscles with oxygen). L-citrulline, when combined with malate, has been found to improve performance. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) help sustain both hydration and muscle creation. And an apple-based extract called ElevATP is designed to increase levels of ATP, a substance muscle cells use to create energy.
Carbohydrates help the body create more glycogen, the form in which the body stores energy-fueling glucose inside muscles. Well-formulated protein powders include cutting-edge carbohydrate sources, such as waxy maize and low-DE maltodextrin, to quickly replenish glycogen so your body doesn’t start breaking down muscle.
Post-workout recovery is important because that’s when muscle gains are really made. To get the greatest benefit of BCAAs after a workout, have a shake with a 12:1:1 ratio of leucine to the other BCAAs, isoleucine and valine. When combined with another amino acid, glutamine, a leucine-loaded shake can promote faster recovery with less post-exercise soreness.
It’s important to choose well-designed protein supplements, such as mass-gain protein powders, to get the most out of your nutrition regimen. High-quality supplements use a blend of wheys, such as whey protein isolate, hydrolysate and concentrate (along with milk protein concentrate and isolate), for peak absorption, glycogen replenishment and protein creation; including carbohydrate in the formulation promotes recovery. (A bedtime shake that includes micellar casein provides slow protein release while you sleep.)
Finally, the best sports supplements in the world won’t help if you test positive for banned performance-enhancing substances—and claiming ignorance isn’t going to get you off the hook. Look for products verified by INFORMED CHOICE, a program that analyzes supplements for steroids, masking agents and banned substances, and checks the manufacturer’s quality-control standards.
What many people don’t realize is that it’s important to distribute protein intake throughout the day. To get the most benefit from the amino acids in protein, equally distribute intake among your three daily meals.
“Don’t skip protein at breakfast and then try to load up at dinner. The body can only absorb so much protein at a time,” Larson cautions. When breakfast, lunch and dinner all contain healthy protein sources, you will maximize its benefits.
“Aim for 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal or snack,” advises Jennifer Weddig, PhD, RDN, professor of nutrition at Metropolitan State University in Denver. She recommends that protein sources total about 30% of your caloric intake for the entire day.
Protein repairs and rebuilds muscle, so when you exercise or do strength training, have a snack of fruit and nuts before going to the gym. A handful of trail mix or small glass of chocolate milk can replenish protein stores after a gym session.
For post-workout nutrition that focuses on creating more muscle, you can turn to shakes that contain branched chain amino acids (see the box at left).
Consuming protein-rich foods can keep you feeling full longer, and if that means you eat less overall, it might be helpful for losing weight. Just keep in mind that eating too much protein, like eating too much of anything, can sabotage weight-loss efforts because excess calories from any source are stored as fat.
Protein for Everyone
Plenty of natural, unprocessed foods provide an abundance of protein as well as other necessary nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, phytophenols, and fiber.
“There’s protein in everything you eat, and a well-nourished person without medical problems that compromise absorption will get adequate amounts,” says Dana Simpler, MD, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Which sources you choose depends on your dietary approach. If you eat a typical low-carb diet, animal-based foods such as meat (beef, chicken or pork), eggs and dairy (yogurt, milk and cottage cheese) are considered complete proteins. Make sure the animal protein you eat is as lean and clean as you can get it—ideally organic and grass-fed.
If you follow a vegetarian eating plan, you may have heard that individual plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs. It’s true. However, plant proteins also don’t contain saturated fat, and vegetarians can still get adequate amounts of amino acids by eating a variety of unrefined grains and legumes throughout the day. Simpler cites beans, lentils and quinoa are excellent sources of protein.
Another protein source is brown rice that has been allowed to sprout or germinate before cooking. This process enhances important nutrients and health benefits, and the rice is easy to digest. You can sprout rice at home; for convenience germinated brown rice can be purchased at health food stores and natural grocers.
Toss in a variety of seeds and nuts to complete your protein needs. Most types of nuts contain seven or eight grams of protein per quarter-cup serving and also provide antioxidants to help cells fend off harmful free radicals.
In addition to adding flavor, crunch and fiber to meals, seeds are also front-and-center in the paleo diet, a higher-protein dietary approach to eating modeled after what was eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
For example, one ounce of dried chia seeds adds four grams of complete protein that provide steady energy for hours. In addition to providing essential fatty acids, chia seeds contain an abundance of antioxidants.
A one-ounce serving of pumpkin seeds contains more than 9 grams of protein. But it also has about 175 calories—so a handful will provide its benefits. Pumpkin seeds are also packed with zinc, amino acids, essential fatty acids, iron and phosphorous.
Flax seeds are also good sources of protein—an ounce contains just under eight grams—and provide fiber as well. Grinding releases their nutrients; you can grind the whole seeds yourself or buy pre-ground flax seed meal.
Hemp seeds are packed with easily digestible proteins, and they contain all 10 essential amino acids. Larson says their mild, nutty flavor enhances hot or cold cereals, smoothies and soups, or they can be sprinkled on salads, casseroles or pasta dishes.
A food item is considered a good source of protein if it has five grams per serving. High-protein bars and shakes aim for more—many attaining 10 grams of protein per serving.
While these products provide a quick, convenient way to get your daily protein allowance, they might also have sugar, fat and sodium—additives that make the product taste better but don’t do anything good for your body. What’s more, some protein bars are packed with calories, and if you consume more calories than you burn you won’t lose weight.
Turning protein-rich seeds into powder gives vegetarians and vegans a useful tool in following the paleo diet. Better-quality shake powders use organic, non-GMO seeds augmented with natural enzymes, such as bromelain and papain, to increase digestibility. “Look at the label, and choose products that are free of manufactured additives,” recommends Simpler.
Whether you are looking to build a sculpted body, help keep cravings under control or simply find more energy in everyday life, protein from clean, natural sources can help you achieve your goals.
ABC Protein Shake
1 cup vanilla almond milk
1 1/2 cups ice
1 cup pitted frozen cherries
2 tbsp almond butter
Recipe developer Brooke McLay writes in Almonds Every Which Way
(Da Capo) that any almond butter will do in this recipe, but that
“a raw, maple no-stir almond butter tastes best.”
1. Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
Pour into two glasses.
Yield: 2 servings.
EXCERPTED FROM ALMONDS EVERY WHICH WAY: MORE THAN
150 HEALTHY & DELICIOUS
ALMOND MILK, ALMOND FLOUR, AND ALMOND BUTTER RECIPES
BY BROOKE MCLAY. COPYRIGHT © 2014.
AVAILABLE FROM DA CAPO LIFELONG BOOKS, AN IMPRINT OF
PERSEUS BOOKS, LLC, A SUBSIDIARY OF
HACHETTE BOOK GROUP, INC. (DACAPOPRESS.COM)
Whey Boosts Exercise Results
In a quest to make the most of every minute, finding a supplement that provides multiple benefits fits right into busy lifestyles. Whey does just that, according to a recent study in The Journal of Applied Physiology (5/14). Researchers at Skidmore College found that whey protein, taken throughout the day, boosts calorie burning, makes you feel fuller faster and for long periods of time, and helps build and repair muscle.
An animal protein found in dairy foods, whey contains all the essential amino acids your body needs, unlike plants that do not, says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, sports dietician and co-author of Swim, Bike, Run—Eat (Fair Winds Press). “You would need to eat a variety of plant proteins to get all the amino acids,” she notes.
In the Skidmore study, 57 volunteers ages 35 to 57 were divided into three groups. They all consumed the same amount (60 grams) of whey protein daily, an amount determined to create the best fat-to-lean ratio body composition, according to lead researcher Paul Arciero, DPE.
One group did not exercise, another did intense resistance exercise four times a week and the third followed a varied regimen ranging from stretching on some days to endurance training and sprints on other days. After 16 weeks, those who followed the varied training routine lost over seven pounds and experienced a gain of 2% lean mass, the greatest increase in muscle (which boosts metabolism). The whey protein was timed in 20-gram portions at strategic points throughout the day: within an hour of waking, within an hour after a workout (or between lunch and dinner on non-workout days) and within two hours before going to bed.
This study is not a total surprise, says Goodson. “Compared to other proteins, whey protein is the highest in branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), and the BCAA leucine is an independent stimulator of muscle resynthesis (rebuilding) after exercise. So post-workout, whey protein tops the charts to help start the muscle rebuilding process.” Whey also makes a good protein option for those with lactose intolerance, since it contains less than .01% lactose.
You’re not limited to smoothies as a way to fit whey into your meal plans, says Goodson, who recommends adding protein to otherwise high-carbohydrate breakfasts by mixing whey with oatmeal or with milk and pouring it over cold cereal. Stir whey powder into yogurt, yogurt/fruit parfaits or low-fat pudding for quick and easy protein-rich snacks.
“Eating protein at regular intervals throughout the day can help keep your waistline trim and fit,” says Goodson. For best results, follow the exercise regimen done by the study participants as well: On separate days do 45 minutes of resistance training, 20 to 30 minutes of intervals, 45 to 60 minutes of stretching, yoga or Pilates, and 60 minutes of endurance cardio of your choice. And be sure to eat plenty of whey throughout the day.