Protein gets all the fame in society's current trend with nutrition, and it is critical for many essential functions in the body. However, it is often misunderstood and over supplemented. This article will expose a couple trending protein myths and provide guidance about the why, when, and how much in regard to protein. Optimize your body's recovery from difficult training and save money by knowing the protein basics.
How does the body use protein? Protein is made of chains of amino acids and is essential for every cell in the body. Amino acids are like building blocks, and they are used to maintain, grow, and repair the body's tissues. When you eat protein, the body will prioritize where it needs it most, whether for muscle, tendons, skin, hair, or blood vessels. Amino acids also are involved in synthesizing the body's hormones and enzymes.
If the body lacks enough calories, it will begin to break down its energy stores, including muscle. If calories are adequate, protein may also be stored as fat or used for energy in the absence of carbohydrate. The body does not prefer to use protein as energy, as it has to work much harder to break down protein and transform it. Beyond it being an inefficient fuel source, extra protein means other vital nutrients are displaced in the diet and leads to unnecessarily expensive meals. Spread protein throughout your day (every three to four hours) for better absorption, instead of eating it all at once. Read on to learn how much you need.
Are all proteins equal? Proteins are either complete or incomplete. If they are complete, they contain all of the essential amino acids (essential meaning those the body can't make but must get through the diet). These kinds of proteins are most easily absorbed in the body. They are therefore best to eat after a workout to promote faster recovery. A few complete proteins include eggs, lean meats, natural soy, and low-fat milk products. To obtain all of the amino acids you need, however, you don't have to just eat meat. Actually, mixing in plant-based foods promotes greater energy and better long-term health. Eat a variety of plant-based proteins throughout your day to get the greatest benefit. Incomplete proteins include beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and natural nut or seed butters.
How much protein do you need? As mentioned before, the body can only absorb so much protein at one time. The body's absorption limit is typically capped at around 30-40 g for every 3-4 hours (this could look like a 4-ounce piece of meat). Your protein needs vary based on a variety of factors including body composition and size, age, level of experience in training, if you are getting enough calories, and how active you are. To put it very simply, make about a quarter of your plate a lean protein. You might have a Greek yogurt bowl with nuts and Kashi cereal for breakfast, a black bean enchilada with cheese in a whole wheat tortilla for lunch, and a 4 oz elk steak for dinner.
During the hunt: Remember, carbohydrates should be the focus during a full day of hard hiking. Eat some protein throughout your day, and prioritize adequate protein during the evening meal. This will help maintain muscle and promote recovery for the next day. Ideas for the field: dehydrated meals with about 30 grams of protein, jerky, natural peanut butter, tuna or salmon packets, nuts, seeds, and beans (roasted chickpeas or edamame make good snacks).
The bottom line: Balance and nutrient-timing are important to help promote health, better performance, and recovery. Eat a variety of lean, nutrient-dense proteins. Spread your protein intake throughout your day, and eat protein with carbohydrates to help replenish stores and promote recovery.
There is not a one-size-fits-all with nutrition. Your health, energy, and ability to work hard will thrive when you fuel your body well and consider your needs for the season you are in. In seasons of greater activity, boost calories, carbohydrate (especially when the intensity is higher), and electrolytes. Further, consider what foods will provide the greatest amount of nutrients and other benefits in and out of hunting season to energize, fuel, and facilitate recovery.
Understand carbohydrates and fats as well by clicking on the links.
- Rachel Patrick RDN, LD, CSCS