I once read a statement in SCAN’s "PULSE" newsletter that caught me off guard. The comment was regarding protein intake after exercise as it relates to muscle repair, which it said “could make a meaningful difference over the course of a year, particularly for athletes over 30 years old who slowly lose muscle as a normal part of the aging process.” Well, crap. I feel I handled my thirtieth birthday relatively well, mostly by ignoring the fact that I'd entered this decade in life. I’ve always said age is just a number anyway. But this comment bothered me. Whether I tell myself I have the fitness of a 22-year-old or not, the reality is that my body is over 30, and apparently that means I’m losing muscle mass. Another joy of aging! So I’ll do my best to fight it.
Here’s my plan and how you can do it too: getting enough total daily protein, incorporating optimal amounts of protein post workout, and strength training regularly.
Post-Workout Protein RecommendationsAccording to the article (and many others on the same topic), eating optimal amounts of protein shortly following a workout can help speed recovery and prevent muscle loss, since post exercise not only do the muscles need protein but they're primed and ready to utilize it. There isn’t a lot of good data that suggests that one protein type is significantly better than another (i.e. whey, casein, soy) so pick the one you like best. If you like it, you’ll be more likely to be consistent with consuming it. Generally it’s recommended to consume 10-20 grams of protein in the recovery window (within 30-60 minutes post workout).
Daily Protein RecommendationsAnother key point the article (which was based on a recent study) suggested was that the optimal amount of protein at meals for athletes is about 30 grams. Beyond this amount there are no additional health benefits, and you run the risk of storing the excess protein as fat. Fall significantly short of this number and your muscles may not be getting as much protein as they need, which means you could lose muscle mass. The 30-grams-per-meal recommendation actually equates to a higher daily protein intake than what typical recommendations have called for (depending on body weight), which this study did not factor in.
According to traditional guidelines, the minimum amount of protein necessary to prevent deficiency is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (0.36 grams per pound of body weight). That equals 49 grams for a 135-pound person. However, that’s the minimum to prevent problems; if you're an athlete you definitely need more. The typical recommendation for endurance athletes is to consume 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.54-0.64 grams per pound). A 135-pound runner, for example, would need about 73-86 grams of protein a day, slightly less than 30 grams x 3 meals. Strength athletes need more: 1.4-1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (0.64-.77 grams per pound).
Whether you go with the body weight recommendation or the 30 grams X 2 meals, these protein levels are not difficult to obtain if you are a meat eater. The key is to space your protein intake more evenly throughout the day, as it’s likely that your breakfast falls short. An egg, for example, has 6 grams of protein, while a 6-ounce steak has about 42. Vegetarians will have to work harder to make sure they meet their protein needs. It’s okay to add a protein powder or bars as a supplement if you aren't getting enough protein from food alone, but aim to meet your needs from food first, supplements second. Some good sources of protein are lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, soy, dairy, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and beans.
So there it is: my plan to fight the aging process. Obviously it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a start. Wish me luck!
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Jen Sommer is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training. She offers nutrition coaching and consulting through Peaks Coaching Group. Find more great tips, recipes, and articles at Jen's blog, Mountain Girl Nutrition and Fitness.
Original photo credit: TheActiveTimes.com.