Protein consumption is important for developing lean muscle mass and strength, and many athletes eat more than 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day, hoping to build muscle. This may harm their athletic ability more than help it.
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Why? Because carbohydrates are your muscles’ main source of fuel, and for an athlete, nothing is more important. If you load up on protein over carbs, you may not have enough energy to power yourself through competition. Without enough carbs to convert into energy, the body breaks down muscle for fuel. That’s not effective, and it will hamper your athletic ability in the long run.
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Restricting carbohydrates and overloading on protein also results in lower energy, poor recovery and—in extreme cases—kidney problems. Diets high in protein can also be high in saturated fat, which is unhealthy for the cardiovascular system, and often lack critical nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
A well-balanced diet for an athlete should focus on complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables), a moderate amount of lean protein and healthy fats from sources like olive oil or nuts. Generally speaking, you should ingest 2.5 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight and 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight, with fat making up the remaining calories you need.
Here are some high-carb, moderate protein meals that just about every “chef” can make.
- Peanut butter and jelly on whole grain bread with a banana and 1 cup of baby carrots on the side
- Whole wheat bagel with turkey and cheese served with vegetable soup and a piece of fruit
- 1-1/2 cup whole grain cereal with 1 cup skim milk and berries
You can eat these meals around three hours before exercise if you’re looking to fuel up. Of course, just as important as your pre-workout nutrition is what you eat afterwards—and just like beforehand, protein should not be your “go-to” option.
Your body is most receptive to replenishing energy stores and rebuilding muscle 20 to 30 minutes immediately following exercise. Research shows eating high-protein snacks immediately after exercise with few carbs is not as effective for muscle tissue development as a carbohydrate-rich meal. The most effective post-workout snacks maintain a ratio of 3:1 to 4:1 carbohydrates to protein. This provides adequate nutrients to promote muscle repair without going overboard.
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Here are a few easy options you can whip up right after practice that’ll provide you with the carbs and protein you need to repair hungry muscles:
- Smoothie with 1 cup skim milk, 1 tbs. peanut butter, 1/2 banana and 1/2-cup strawberries
- 1 single serve low-fat yogurt with 3/4-cup low-fat granola
- 1 plain bagel with 1 hard boiled egg