Get Lean With Protein

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Should I have protein after exercise?

Yep, eating 15 g to 25 g protein within an hour of strength training has been shown to help build lean, fat-burning muscle and speed recovery. "I recommend food over shakes and bars, which can be high in sugar and fat," says Manuel Villacorta, R.D., a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Try 6 oz nonfat plain Greek yogurt (18 g).

Do high-protein, low-carb diets work?

First, let's set the record straight. Diets such as Paleo and Atkins aren't as high in protein as many people believe. For instance, Paleo advocates getting up to 35 percent of calories from protein, which aligns with the USDA guidelines for women. And although the diets may result in weight loss, it's often because you cut back on refined carbs, like cake.

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They have downsides. For starters, certain diet plans such as Atkins give free reign to eating proteins that are saturated fat–heavy (bacon, butter). "And some severely limit entire food groups such as grains and fruit, which nixes key nutrients such as fiber and is difficult to sustain," says Self contributing experts Stephanie Clarke, R.D., and Willow Jarosh, R.D.

So skip them. Aim to get 25 to 30 percent of your calories from lean proteins, an amount shown to help maintain lean muscle and rev metabolism, says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., of McMaster University. And lay off junk food. But you knew that.

More: 4 Reasons Why Most Diets Fail

Break It Down

Soon after sinking your teeth into a steak or eggs or beans, the protein starts to break into amino acids, which are then distributed throughout your body, reassembled into new proteins and put to work on...
  • Muscles: Amino acids build and repair muscle. The more lean muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate—and the more calories you burn.
  • Blood: Hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, carries fueling oxygen throughout your body.
  • Bones: Nearly 30 percent of bone weight is collagen, another protein.
  • Hair and nails: Both are made of keratin, a protein that's constantly replenished (aka growing) as new amino acids arrive. Salon addiction: justified.
  • Immunity: Amino acids help form illness-fighting antibodies.
  • Hunger: Dietary protein is harder to process than fat or carbs, so your body torches double the calories digesting it. And amino acids trigger hormones that signal fullness, says self contributing expert Janis Jibrin, R.D.

More: How to Fuel Your Body for Energy

How much should I eat?

Many nutritionists advise eating 1.1 g to 1.2 g of protein daily for every 2.2 pounds of body weight (68 g to 74 g for a 135-pound woman). Many of us do get about 70 g daily, the USDA reports, "but we tend to eat the majority of it at dinner, and our body can use only 15 g to 30 g at a time to build and repair tissue," says Roberta Anding, R.D., a spokeswoman for AND. The rest is burned for energy or, too often, stored as fat. Clarke and Jarosh suggest divvying up protein throughout the day and aiming for about 20 g at meals and 6 g to 12 g in two snacks.

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