The Whole Story on Protein

Q. I'm a vegetarian and try to eat some plant protein at each meal. I still wonder if I am getting enough protein to support my training for a half-Ironman.

A. Many vegetarians who think they eat well are surprised to learn how little protein plant foods offer. For example, a petite vegetarian athlete who needs at least 55 grams protein per day might base her meals on these plant-proteins for the day:

  • Breakfast: a dallop of hummus (4 grams protein) on toast
  • Lunch: a Boca burger (13 grams)
  • Dinner: a quarter-cake of tofu (9 grams).

That totals only 26 of the recommended 55 grams protein! Yes, she gets a bit more protein from the grain foods and veggies that round out her meals, but she would be wise to double those protein portions!

Getting enough protein is particularly important if you are restricting your calories to lose weight. Protein needs jump when calories are low because the protein gets burned for fuel rather than get used for building or repairing muscle. If you are concerned about your protein intake, meet with a certified specialist in sports dietetics for personalized advice. To find your local CSSD, use the referral network at www.SCANdpg.org.

Q. Should I use a sports drink with protein during my endurance runs that last longer than an hour?

A. If your goal of taking a sports drink with protein (such as Accelerade or Amino Vital)  during an endurance event is to enhance your performance, don't bother. Endurance is largely affected by how many calories you consume while you exercise. Studies that look at protein+carbs during endurance exercise indicate when the total calorie intake is similar, the proposed endurance benefits are not there.

A good tactic is to eat a tried-and-true, well tolerated carb-protein snack or light meal within the hour or two before you embark on a long run or other form of endurance exercise. That is, enjoy some pre-exercise cereal with milk, bagel with an egg, a swig of lowfat chocolate milk. This gets protein into your system, so it's ready to be used. Then after the first hour of endurance exercise, target ~200 to 300 calories of carbs/hour. Choose the sports beverage that tastes best to you. Soon after you've finished training, have a wholesome protein+carb snack or meal, to help reduce muscle soreness.

Q. I know I should  eat a 3 or 4 to 1 ratio of carbs to protein right after I exercise, but I don't know what that looks like in terms of food. So I buy Accelerade to be sure I get the right ratio. Are there other options?

A. Commercial recovery drinks are more about convenience than necessity. You can enjoyably refuel with chocolate milk, yogurt, a sandwich or pasta with meat sauce. The ratio need not be exact; you just don't want to consume a heavy amount of protein that sits in the stomach and slows digestion.

Also, whether or not a protein-carb sports beverage is superior to a carb-only beverage remains debated. In a recent study (Green, 2008) in which athletes drank either a carb or a carb-protein recovery drink immediately after muscle-damaging downhill running, both beverages offered a similar recovery process over the course of three days. The authors conclude the meals in those post-exercise days supplied the protein and carbs needed to recover. Yet, in a six-day study with college cross-county runners, those who took a carb+pro supplement reported less soreness than those who took only carbs (Luden, 2007.)

The Bottom Line

You won't go wrong by refueling soon after exercise with a carb-protein combination. If engineered foods are preferable because they are convenient, buy them. But if you prefer the wholesome goodness of chocolate milk and other natural protein-carb combination, enjoy them instead! 

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