Why Protein Matters (with Recipes!)

What you do prior to working out plays a key role in how your body performs and how quickly you recover from exercise—and that includes what you eat. In order to tip the scales in favor of a quality workout (and one that doesn’t destroy you during the recovery process), it’s important to pay attention to the fuel you put in your body.

Importance of protein 

Protein is a critical building block of every cell in the body, and an important part of any nutrition plan. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound (this number reflects the minimum needed to meet your basic nutritional requirements).

However, if you exercise regularly, you may need to consume more than the daily recommended amount. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes. Determining your needs within that range depends on the frequency, intensity and duration of your workout.

Pre-workout protein power

How you fuel before you exercise can make or break your workout. Without proper fuel, you may not be able to work out as long or as hard, and may not be able to train in a way that generates the fitness results you’re after.

Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, says you should consume a complex carbohydrate plus protein before working out. “Protein helps slow down digestion, thus keeping your blood sugar and energy levels more stable,” she explains. Goodson lays out three scenarios that show how to boost your pre-workout meal or snack with protein:

  • Early morning training. This can be a hard time to eat, but a protein bar can be a great option. A slice of oat bread with peanut butter or even a small smoothie with protein powder are also simple, easy-to-digest options.
  • Midday workout. Lunch is likely your pre-workout meal. Layering a wrap with turkey and cheese, adding chicken to a salad with veggies and whole grains, or grabbing a bento box with cheese, fruit, hummus and veggies are all good options. When you have a few hours between your pre-workout meal and workout, you can fuel with more food since there is extended time for digestion.
  • Early evening workout. An afternoon snack is likely your workout fuel. Beef jerky and a banana, a Greek yogurt parfait with fruit and granola, or half of a meat and cheese sandwich with fruit can launch you into your workout. Give yourself about 45 minutes to an hour to digest these snacks.

Protein powder supplementation

Not only do you need to be concerned with protein-packed snacks before a workout, it’s also important to refuel with protein after working out. The best sources of protein come from things like eggs, fish, poultry, lean meats, low-fat dairy products and some plant-based foods (legumes, beans, quinoa, seeds, chickpeas, etc.). However, there are times when the convenience and ease of a protein powder can help supplement the other sources of protein in our diet.

Drinking a smoothie with whey protein powder, milk and fruit—within 45 minutes of finishing your workout—will help kick-start the rebuilding and recovery process. There are also several different types of protein powders including whey, soy, casein, egg white, brown rice, pea and hemp. And if you are reluctant to use one of the dairy-based protein powders (whey or casein), plant-based organic powders are a great alternative. The most important thing is to find the one that fits your individual needs.

Once you’ve found a protein powder that works for you, experiment with recipes other than smoothies. Protein powder can be mixed into muffins, oatmeal, cereal, pancakes and yogurt. If you’re in need of a little variety this protein pancake and honey oat bar recipe is guaranteed to satisfy your hunger and help meet your protein needs.

Protein Pancakes
1 cup pancake mix
1 cup 1% or 2% organic milk or low/no sugar almond milk
2 eggs
1 scoop protein powder

Mix all the ingredients together with a beater or electric mixer and use a griddle or pan to cook.

Honey Oat Bars
2 cups oats
2 scoops vanilla protein powder
1/3 to 1/2 cup water
1/3 cup peanut butter or almond butter
2 Tbsp honey
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (optional)

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Add extra water if necessary to obtain the right consistency. Line a baking pan with foil. Add the oat mixture to the pan, and firmly press evenly until mixture is covering the bottom of the pan. (I’ve found that putting them in the freezer for 30 minutes makes them easier to cut into squares.) Remove the bars from the baking pan by lifting out the tin foil.