By Anika Christ, RD, LD, CPT
Director, Life Time Weight Loss
You probably already know this: Protein is super important for your health. But do you know how much protein to consume and when for maximum benefit?
When it comes to nutrients, protein has one of the longer lists of benefits: The amount of lean body mass and bone density you carry, how healthy your immune system is, how well you recover from your workout, your body’s ability to formulate hemoglobin (oxygen for your exercising muscles), how managed your blood sugars and hunger hormones are – all are reliant on your protein intake.
As I’ve worked with athletes, I’ve noticed they are really good at consuming protein post-exercise. It’s very much engrained that post-workout refueling equals a protein shake, and I love that. Knowing that protein resynthesizes lean muscle tissue (often damaged during exercise), a post-workout protein shake generally gets a high-five in my book. But where I often have to coach athletes to improve are the remaining opportune times to get adequate protein to support both their body and their goal.
While it’s a good idea to replenish protein immediately after catabolic exercise (any hard session that accumulates lactate and/or damages muscle fibers themselves), it’s becoming clearer that achieving adequate total daily protein is more important than timing intake perfectly.
How Much Protein and When?
I often reference the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommendation of 1.4 – 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to get your total recommended daily amount. Because we need consistent intake of protein-rich foods to maintain good status, I often coach my clients to take that total gram recommendation and divvy it up amongst their meals. Most often that includes similar amounts at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and slightly smaller amounts at pre- and post-workout meals or snacks. If you’re not into counting grams, you could also use the “hand method” approach. For women, one palm-sized portion of a protein rich food at every meal is recommended, while for men it’s two.
Since exercise can be quite catabolic (whether you’re doing resistance training and higher intensity cardio), you want to focus on optimal protein intake both pre- and post-workout.
Pre-workout nutrition helps minimize the damage by allowing your body to have plenty of available amino acids (building blocks of protein) in your system prior to entering a strenuous training session. Within two to three hours of starting a tough training session, a palm-size portion of meat, fish, poultry or eggs is recommended. A high quality protein shake or essential amino acid mix about an hour or two before beginning your workout are also good options.
Immediately following your workout or training session, the focus should be on replenishing nutrients. Liquids or protein shakes are usually best tolerated, due to easy digestion and absorption, followed by solid protein, healthy fat, complex carbs and veggies about 60 minutes later.
How to Find & Purchase Quality Protein
When it comes to eating protein, quality is key. You want to minimize processed sources and go for high quality. Organic cage-free eggs, pasture-raised chicken, pork, grass-fed beef and steaks are all great sources of protein.
Although more and more grocers are starting to offer these options, sometimes they are hard to find or are a challenge because they cost more. Generally speaking, high quality protein-rich foods will cost more than highly processed convenience foods.
One of my best tips for overcoming these barriers is to buy and prep protein foods in bulk.
You could consider buying your high quality meat at a wholesale food store at a much lower cost. This often requires an additional expense for a membership and dealing with crowds.
I’ve also had clients purchase half a cow from a local farmer who raises grass-fed cattle but this also requires some research to confirm farming and feeding practices are the quality you are looking for. It also requires adequate freezer space.
My favorite way to purchase high-protein foods is through ButcherBox, a home-delivery solution for high quality meat. It not only takes the challenge of finding good meat out of the equation, but brings it right to your door at a great price. And just as important, it tastes good. (We reached out to them and scored a deal for Athlinks.)
The service offers a variety of options, but I usually purchase the mixed box of meats (beef, chicken and pork) because varying your protein sources is key. As a dietitian, I’m a raving fan of ButcherBox because it eliminates many reasons why my clients don’t purchase high quality meat. As a mom and consumer who was already purchasing high quality meats, the convenience factor and price became a huge incentive. I love coming home on a work day and seeing my delivery at my door step.
How to Prep Your Protein: Three Tips
One of my favorite strategies for preparing protein is batch cooking. Protein does require some prep and cook time, but with a little planning and a solid strategy, you will hit your daily requirement. I designate one day each week to do some preparation for all my snacks and meals for the upcoming week.
1. Batch your high protein snacks. Hard-boiled eggs are an easy go-to in my book. With each egg providing a good source of protein and essential fat, they’re one of my most highly recommended snacks. I make a dozen hard-boiled eggs every week so they’re easy to grab-and-go for breakfast or pack for snacks. Every week I also bake a package of bacon to have on hand and store in the refrigerator. Pack a couple strips as a snack or eat alongside some fresh berries for breakfast.
2. Slow cook it. A slow cooker should be a staple in every household. It is a very versatile solution that takes minimal prep and clean up. If you are really time-starved when it comes to cooking, go for a rotisserie chicken at your local supermarket. I like to take about six fresh chicken breasts, seasoned generously with sea salt and garlic, and let them cook on high for about three hours. I can either pack them individually for lunches with some vegetables, or pull them apart and add some low-carb barbeque sauce for a delicious pulled chicken.
3. Make freezer meals. You don’t have to cook everything on the same day. I like to prep it all together and then freeze some of the meals for upcoming weeks. I throw in one to two pounds of chicken breast along with ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, a little sea salt and then whatever seasoning you want into a Ziploc bag, and into the freezer it goes until I need it. This way you can save money on buying in bulk and prepare dinners for weeks to come.
Anika has led thousands of individuals to their finish line. She’s a Personal Trainer, Registered Dietitian, Sports Nutritionist and Life Time’s original virtual coach. In fact, she’s spent her entire career building Life Time’s nutrition and weight loss programming.