Eating protein is an essential part of living an active lifestyle. Most advice stops at “eat more protein,” but there’s more to it than that. We asked New York Yankees nutrition consultant and fitness author (Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Real Food, Real Fast) Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, CSSD, to give us a crash course on protein that you can implement whether you’re a home run-hitting Bronx Bomber like Aaron Judge (6’7”, 282) or a recreational league weekend warrior trying to maximize your athletic potential.
Recover, Repair, Rebuild
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just training that makes you stronger and fitter, it’s recovery. “Training puts stress on cells, and protein helps to heal that wear and tear,” Sass says. “Protein provides the raw materials needed to maintain and repair protein tissues in the body, including muscle.”
How much protein do you need?
“A good rule of thumb is .5 to .8 grams per pound of ideal body weight,” Sass says. “Stay on the higher end if you do a heavy strength training program, lower end if you engage in cardio and conditioning workouts.” For a 190-pound man, that’s between 85 and 152 grams per day, depending on your workout.
Timing is Everything
Sass recommends eating protein right after a workout when your body is broken down and looking to rebuild, as well as with each of your regular meals throughout the day. “If you’re doing a strength training programs designed to build muscle, including a protein-rich snack before bed is also a good strategy.”
According to Sass, the only time you want to avoid protein is right before a workout. “For a cardio workout, eating protein just before exercise can cause cramps and sluggishness because it takes longer to digest, and isn’t an efficient energy source compared to carbs.”
Premade bars, protein snack packs and smoothies are great, but make sure you know what goes in them. “The ingredient list on protein bars should read like a recipe you could have made yourself in your own kitchen,” she says. “If you see words you don’t recognize, there’s a better option out there.”
Protein snack packs are usually comprised of easily identifiable forms of protein like meat, nuts and cheese. As for smoothies, making your own is the best way to control the ingredients. “Make smoothies yourself using leafy greens, fresh or frozen fruit, plant-based milk (like almond or coconut), healthy fat (like avocado or almond butter) and a clean protein, like pea protein, or grass fed and organic whey.”
Sass’s favorite protein sources include organic eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, organic chicken or turkey breast, lentils, and beans. “Some easy options include hard boiled organic eggs paired with fruit and Mediterranean olives, canned wild Alaskan salmon spooned into half of an avocado, or organic rotisserie chicken paired with veggies and hummus.” For a vegetarian option, Sass tosses steamed, chilled lentils with chopped vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Italian seasoning.