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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Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog is about distance riding, training, and the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride.