You know you should eat protein after a workout. And although you may think it should come in the form of powder in a shake, supplements definitely are not the only way to take care of your post-workout nutrition needs.
Plenty of whole foods provide a muscle-friendly protein boost. Whole foods have many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that could be missing from your shake. You can find examples of food sources below, but let's first take a look at what makes up a good post-workout meal.
For an average sized person, 25-35 grams of high-quality protein would be a great mark to shoot for. The quality of a protein source has to do with its amino acid profile.
For muscle building, the amino acids leucine and valine play vital roles in muscle protein synthesis. Amino acids tend to be present in most animal protein sources—meat, fish and dairy—but are less prominent in plant sources.
That being said, plant sources can provide great amounts of protein, and a mix of plant and animal sources would be most optimal. Vegan athletes need to pay close attention to their protein intake to ensure they are ingesting sufficient amounts through a variety of sources.
Another important nutrient to consider after a workout is carbohydrate. Replenishing glycogen levels (or stored glucose [carbohydrates]) in your muscles and liver, is important for any glycolytic athlete. Glycolytic sports are fast-paced, predominantly requiring glucose as a fuel source. Basketball, tennis, sprinting and CrossFit are glycolytic sports. Eating adequate amounts of carbohydrate post-workout or event can ensure that your body is ready for the next bout of activity. In addition to short-term recovery, carbohydrate can stimulate the release of muscle-friendly hormones like insulin. Insulin helps shuttle protein and amino acids to your muscles after a hard workout.
The only nutrients to limit post-workout are fat and fiber. They are super important in their own right, but they can slow digestion of other foods. After a workout, athletes want rapid digestion so that amino acids and other nutrients can immediately make their way through their bodies. Limiting fat and fiber intake to the meal following your post-workout meal is optimal for most athletes.
Now that we have a good idea of the why and how, let's take a look at 7 examples of foods that provide post-workout protein.
1. Greek Yogurt Parfait
Their low cost, accessibility and superior amino acid profile make dairy products a great post-workout protein source. Whey and casein protein supplements are derived from dairy sources, and dairy has one of the highest amounts of leucine per gram of protein. Adding berries and granola gives the high-protein Greek yogurt a perfect dose of carbohydrates along with more nutrients and antioxidants. For the slightly lactose-intolerant, yogurt tends to be easier on the digestive system than whole milk and protein powders.
2. Rice and Beans (Vegetarian Source)
When combined, these two foods complement each other's amino acid profiles so well that they mirror that of an animal source. This example shows that a mixture of protein sources is always a great idea. It ensures that all your bases are covered.
3. Egg White + Deli Sandwich
For busy athletes or students with limited cooking skills, a sandwich is a great option. Combining egg whites or whole eggs with lean meats like sliced turkey or chicken delivers an awesome dose of protein and amino acids. Remember, we're after an easily digestible carbohydrate source, and bread, even whole wheat bread, is just that. As mentioned above, minimizing fat intake post-workout is optimal; but don't be afraid of an egg yolk because of the fat. Egg yolks are among the most nutritious and athlete-friendly foods on the planet. So eat up, but don't eat entire carton in one meal.
4. String Cheese + Fruit
This is the perfect combo for on-the-go athletes. Three sticks of low-fat string cheese provide over 20 grams of protein. Bananas, apples and oranges may not be as nutritious as berries, but they are portable, making them excellent choices for a fast-moving situations.
5. Tuna + Salsa + Rice
Canned tuna (in water) has been a staple in athlete and bodybuilding diets for decades, and for good reason. One can of tuna typically contains close to 30 grams of protein, takes little to no preparation, and can be doctored up to taste great. Pairing tuna with rice and salsa is a personal favorite and a great protein/carb combination. You can also add a bit of light mayonnaise and vegetables for a great tasting tuna salad.
6. Cereal + Milk
It may sound strange, but cereal can be a great option if your protein goals are on the lower end of the range. Two servings of low-fat milk provides 15-20 grams of protein, and cereal could be a great source of post-workout carbohydrates. Not to mention, more companies are taking a healthier approach by fortifying their cereals with added vitamins and minerals.
7. Baked Potato + Lean Protein Source
Potatoes, both white and sweet, are amazing sources of post-workout carbohydrates. They are fast-digesting, nutrient-packed, and tasty to boot. Pair a baked potato with a lean protein source like chicken breast, ground beef or turkey, or fish after a workout. Tip for beginner chefs: Wash a potato, poke holes in it with a fork, wrap it in a damp paper towel and cook in the microwave for 6-7 minutes. Voila! Baked potato.
These are just a few examples. Remember, protein after a workout doesn't have to be complicated. Consume 25 to 35 grams (depending on your body size) and pair it with a fast-digesting source of carbohydrate. Vitamins, minerals, fat and fiber are all extremely important for your health, performance and recovery; but your main objective post-workout should be to take care of protein and carb intake.
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