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Healthy Balance

Protein Power: The Right Fuel for Your Active Body

protein snack
An apple with peanut butter is a great high-protein, post-workout snack.

Protein shakes, powders and snack bars are big business, especially this time of year when people are resolute to get fit and eat healthier. But just because you’re killing it at the gym and you feel like an über athlete doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to eat like one. To set the record straight on how much protein we truly need in our diets, we turn to registered dietitian Katherine Basbaum.

Why do we need protein in our diet?

The body needs protein for different things. It helps build lean muscle tissue by repairing and replenishing muscle fibers that tear when we work out. The body also needs protein for hormone and enzyme development, for hair and bone growth and for wound healing.

Is it true that your body needs protein for energy?

Not exactly. Protein is not your body’s preferred source of energy. The body very efficiently gets most of its fuel from carbohydrates, and sometimes fatty acids. But if you don’t have enough of these, then your body relies on the amino acids from dietary protein for fuel. So if you’re looking for a quick energy boost, carbohydrates are the way to go.

What are the most common sources of dietary protein?

Animal-based proteins are the most common. These include beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk and yogurt. There are also plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes and soy. Certain grains like quinoa are high in protein as well.

Does protein increase muscle mass?

There is a misconception that you need extra protein to build muscle and that’s not the case. Only exercise can build muscle. However, protein does help repair and replenish muscle fibers that tear as you work out. More intense athletes need more protein because there is more muscle tissue that needs repair.

What are the pros and cons of manufactured proteins like powders and shakes?

These are great because they are portable and may taste good. But a lot of these products have added sugars and are high in calories, so they may negate all of the great work you’re doing in the gym. Not to mention that they can be pretty pricey. These products were really created for the serious athlete who may need additional protein to regenerate muscle tissue after an intense workout. For the rest of us, there’s really no need to invest in these supplements. But if you do decide to give them a try, just keep an eye on the sugar and calorie counts.

For more guidance, take a look at recent guidelines from the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health that outline the effectiveness and safety of dietary supplements used for enhanced athletic performance and weight loss.

What should you be eating pre- and post-workout?

You should get a mix of complex carbohydrates and lean, high-quality protein one to two hours before a workout and within 20 minutes after a workout to ensure optimal use of nutrients. Some snacks to consider include:

  • Low-fat yogurt with fruit
  • An apple with peanut butter or almond butter
  • A half sandwich with whole grain bread, peanut butter and banana
  • A half sandwich with whole grain bread and turkey
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Homemade smoothie
  • Oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit


Looking for one-on-one nutrition advice?

Contact the UVA Nutrition Counseling Center today.

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