In last week's post about Building Muscle after 40, I mentioned that I need to pay more attention to protein intake. I had the feeling that it's been lower than optimal -- which is apparently the case for the majority of us looking to gain muscle and lose fat.
4 Reasons to Consume Optimal (not just adequate) Protein
Protein is satiating. Not only is protein essential for human life, it is also deeply satisfying. Eating additional protein keeps us feeling full, automatically pushing out lower-value foods like starches and sugars and reducing the urge to snack.
Increased protein consumption combined with resistance training is the optimal formula, but even dietary protein alone helps minimize sarcopenia (muscle loss) as we age. What horse doesn't want a leaner, stronger rider?
Protein stabilizes blood sugar. Protein doesn't rapidly drive up insulin or lead to a sugar crash like carbohydrates notoriously do. Instead, it can have a hormonal effect that actually reduces anxiety. This means that it offers not only sustained energy, but also improved focus and mood: just what we need to pilot our horses over many miles of trail. No more getting hangry on the third loop!
Protein promotes recovery. Injury recovery, I mean. Next time we take a fall or get our feet stepped on, we'd be wise to ramp up our dietary protein to supply extra building blocks for rapid tissue repair. Protein is good for injury prevention, too, contributing to stronger bones, connective tissue, and even immune response.
How Much Protein is Optimal?
This is not an easy question to answer. A bit of googling will find suggestions all over the map. After much reading (both lately and over the past decade), I've landed on two, solid recommendations:
One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is an extremely common recommendation in the athletic realm. It is sometimes modified to refer to one gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight (a calculation for which you need to know your bodyfat percentage in order to subtract out the corresponding pounds) or one gram of protein per pound of ideal bodyweight (useful particularly for those who are very overweight).
Since I'm pretty lean, but would like to get leaner while also building muscle, the plain-Jane version is a good baseline for me. I weigh 125 pounds, so that puts my target protein intake at 125 grams per day.
How to Eat More Protein
Now that I have the math out of the way, it's time to actually put something on my plate. For all its benefits, protein isn't the most convenient macronutrient to consume. I'll need to be intentional about getting enough. Here's my plan:
Don't skip breakfast. Because protein is so satiating, it's hard to pack adequate consumption into less than a full day. I find that if I don't start with a high protein breakfast, I won't be able to make up for it later.
Don't skip lunch. Protein really does keep my energy level steady. As a result, it's all too easy to motor along after high protein breakfast, completely forgetting to get more grams in at lunchtime. Once again, though, skipping a meal means I don't hit my target for the day.
Eat protein first. If protein is a priority, it makes sense to give it first dibs on stomach space. Doing so has the bonus effect of curbing any tendency to overeat because our brains have time to register that we're full before we pack in those starchy sides or sugary desserts.
Plan ahead. This one is huge. I have to make sure I buy enough proteins during my weekly grocery trip, pre-cook some of them for later convenience, and have protein-centric recipes in mind to keep me interested.
Choose appealing foods. Speaking of planning, there's the obvious question of what proteins to eat. The basics are obvious: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and some plants (kind of). Naturally, everyone is going to prefer some sources over others.
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of eggs and although I do okay on dairy, I suspect it isn't the ideal source of protein for the majority of people. (Lactose intolerance is common, and the hormonal response dairy provokes can promote bodyfat gain.)
Here are some ideas I'm trying out:
I'm keeping my eyes open for new, high-protein recipes. With any luck, some of them will appear in my next Recipe Roundup. Got suggestions? Drop them in the comments!
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Mr. Sweaty and I make dinner together most nights. It's a form of entertainment for us, and we keep it interesting by trying lots of new recipes. Only the best make it into the Recipe Roundup.
Here are our November winners:
Apple, Dried Cherry, and Walnut Salad with Maple Dressing
We tried this salad out on company (live dangerously, I say!) and it was a hit, even with the teenager. We've made it at least three times since. It's excellent exactly as written. If you share my distaste for soybean oil mayo, Primal Kitchen's avocado oil version is a great option.
Kale and Brussels Sprout Salad
Mr. Sweaty was suspicious of this one, but he's glad I prevailed. Even if you aren't a Brussels sprout fan -- or a kale fan -- you should give it a try. No mushy, boiled veggies here. The sprouts are served raw, sliced thinly and treated like crisp micro greens. I added a handful of dried cranberries to really take the salad over the top.
Grilled Red Pepper Dip
I assigned this dip to my mom, who hates to cook, for a Thanksgiving appetizer. She used jarred roasted red peppers instead of grilling fresh ones, and it still turned out delicious. We microwaved the dip to soften it up before serving. Hint: melt leftover dip into scrambled eggs for a savory breakfast. Yum.
The prep on this takes a bit of time, so pour a glass of wine and enjoy the process. It's hardly egregious, just more effort than I think the average home cook spends on a weekday evening. Trust me, the silky, tangy, buttery sauce is worth it.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Ah-ha! Finally, a make-at-home sweet and sour chicken that tastes like good Chinese takeout! The recipe I linked to served as our starting place, but I mixed and matched from several other recipes to invent my own sauce.
Here's how to make the dish the Sweaty Equestrian way:
Eliminate the sauce ingredients (the last 6, sugar through garlic) from the original recipe. Make the rest of the recipe as instructed, but use this sauce instead:
3 Tbs soy sauce
1 cup pineapple juice (actually, a touch less than 1 cup) saved from the canned pineapple chunks
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup rice vinegar
3 Tbs ketchup
1 Tbs sambal oelek
1 1/2 Tbs cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbs water (aka cornstarch slurry)
Combine the pineapple juice and soy sauce to equal 1 cup of liquid. Combine the pineapple-soy mixture with the next four ingredients (brown sugar through sambal oelek) in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the cornstarch slurry and simmer, stirring, until sauce reaches desired thickness.
Three Cities of Spain Cheesecake
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new house cheesecake! (That makes two.) I served this on Thanksgiving to rave reviews. A few notes:
1. The recipe mysteriously fails to specify pan size. I used a 9-inch springform.
2. I used my own graham cracker crust recipe. It's just crumbs and butter, pressed into the bottom of the springform pan only (not up the sides), baked at 350 degrees for about 7 minutes, and cooled before pouring in the cheesecake batter.
3. I baked the cake in a water bath with great success, thanks to this silicone pan protector, which may represent the best $20 I have ever spent.
4. In a nod to Thanksgiving tradition, I topped the cheesecake with Homemade Salted Caramel and toasted pecans. The caramel was delicious, but I'm more of a cheesecake purist, so I'll skip it next time.
That's it for November! Be sure to follow The Sweaty Equestrian on Facebook to get a heads-up on next month's roundup.
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How I Think About Food
In today's cacophony of fitness and nutrition discourse, we're all choosing who is worth listening to. This is especially true when it comes to bloggers like me, who are informed aficionados rather than trained experts. I am decidedly average in terms of athletic ability -- and maybe a notch above average as a home cook -- but optimal health has been one of my passions for over two decades.
This introduction to How I Think About Food, together with its companion, How I Think About Fitness, is intended to lay out my philosophy on the subject. I don't mind if you disagree; I just want you to know where I'm coming from so you can decide whether you want to follow along. I'd love it if you do.
Food is Not a Moral Issue
Modern culture loves label foods "good" or "bad." The nomenclature is so ingrained that I use it myself sometimes, even though I reject the implication -- which is, of course, that consuming unhealthful food is a moral failing on the part of the consumer. It isn't.
My diet is a nutritional choice, not a religion. I make exceptions without guilt. There are no good foods or bad foods; just choices and consequences.
Food is Love
When did food become a necessary evil? Why do so many people believe they must earn the sustenance they require to survive?
I am not an employee of the refrigerator, being paid in calories for minutes on the treadmill. No more am I a child who needs to be bribed or rewarded for going to the gym.
My Food Biases
I am not a nutritionist, a dietician, or a functional medicine practitioner. I'm just a layperson who has drawn informed conclusions over the past twenty-something years of reading across the spectrum of nutrition-related literature. I've changed my mind before based on the evidence, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. But for now, here's where I stand:
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Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. I believe that how I eat and move impacts not only how I ride, but how I think and feel. This blog is about the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride. ~ Tamara
The Sweaty Equestrian