Tag Archives: protein

What should you drink to recover after exercise?

It used to be that water was the preferred after-exercise drink. Nowadays, though, you are likely to find that recreational and competitive athletes of all ages consume a specialized recovery drink after a game or training session. These drinks and, sometimes bars, have become part of a post-workout routine recommended by coaches and personal trainers.


Most of these recovery beverages contain some combination of carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes, vitamins, and water, although the specific nutrients and relative amounts of each vary from brand to brand. Depending on the formulation, these supplements may help with rapid recovery from a bout of prolonged exercise, promote muscle growth following resistance training, or reduce muscle soreness after an intense workout.


While research supports consuming some of these nutrients, alone or in combination, in recovery, there are some considerations for determining which supplement, if any, may be right for you.

Sports drink

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Supplements shouldn’t replace food for athletes, either.

Earlier this week I wrote about dietary supplements and whether using supplements means you don’t have to eat healthy food. When it comes to promoting good health, the answer is no!

But what about supplements for athletes or people who exercise to improve fitness or body composition? While many athletes use dietary supplements to help meet their exercise goals, most don’t actually need to. Even if there is a need for additional nutrients, in most cases those demands can be met through actual food rather than supplements.

Sports drink

Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry with many products marketed specifically to people who exercise. In fact, you may use these supplements already—sports drinks like Gatorade and post-workout protein shakes or smoothies are common in most gyms.

While many sports supplements are effective and even necessary for some athletes, many people who use supplements really don’t need them. This could be because the type of exercise they do doesn’t require them or because they get enough of that nutrient through their diet. And there are some people who might benefit from supplements but don’t use them because of the cost.

This raises the question, can you replace sports supplements with food? One of my former students, Kyle Sprow, examined this question while he was an undergraduate USC Aiken. The supplements he included in his analysis are both widely used and have research to show that they are effective. This is an important point since most sports supplements have no research to support their use. Here I will focus on two supplements commonly used by athletes engaged in strength training: protein and creatine.

Protein supplements are often recommended for people who exercise. The protein requirements for athletes who are attempting to build muscle mass and strength are well above the general recommendation for good health. For example, someone who weighs 200 pounds needs a minimum of 72 grams of protein per day. To put this in perspective, 4 ounces of meat contains about 30 grams of protein. But that same person who is engaged in strenuous resistance training may need twice as much protein!

Many athletes turn to protein supplements to meet this requirement. However, since most athletes eat more total food, this leads to a protein intake that meets this need. And those who do need more protein can get it from food. A can of tuna contains as much protein as a serving of a typical whey protein supplement at a much lower cost.

The timing of protein intake is also important. Research shows that protein consumed immediately after exercise leads to greater muscle growth, especially if it is combined with some carbohydrates. This is why you might have seen a sign in the locker room at the gym reminding you that “your workout isn’t complete” without a special recovery beverage from the juice bar.

But almost any food or drink that contains a mixture of carbohydrates and protein will work.  Research also shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for promoting muscle protein synthesis following exercise. It turns out that the mix of carbohydrate and protein in chocolate milk closely matches that in many supplements and is more affordable.

Another popular supplement for boosting muscle mass is creatine monohydrate. This supplement boosts muscle levels of creatine, an important fuel for heavy resistance training. This leads to greater gains in muscle mass and strength, something that is well-supported by research. Unlike protein, it would be very difficult to get enough creatine from food. Most supplements contain about 5 grams of creatine. By comparison, you would need to eat a kilogram (that’s over 2 pounds) of beef to get the same amount!

In most cases, the nutrients in sports supplements can be provided by food at a lower cost. I focused on protein here, but the same is true for carbohydrates, omega-3 fats, and most vitamins and minerals. The exception is creatine for athletes who are doing intense strength training.

Keep in mind that the benefits of protein and creatine supplements are greatest for athletes who do intense training. The type of workouts that most people do to lose weight or improve their fitness do not require supplements at all. In fact, people who exercise to lose weight may find that using certain dietary supplements can interfere with their weight loss goals…and may even lead to weight gain!

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

How much protein do you need?

Recently I wrote about carbohydrates, fats, and protein, the major sources of energy in our diet. Getting sufficient amounts of these nutrients is essential to promote good health and exercise performance. Given the current trend of low-carbohydrate diets and an emphasis on protein for everything from fitness to weight loss, many people have wondered about how much protein they should eat. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Good food display

As you might expect, protein needs vary from person to person for a variety of reasons. For example, an athlete who is working out to add muscle or training for a triathlon needs more protein than a person who does less strenuous exercise. Despite these individualized protein needs, there are some broad recommendations that apply to most people.

There are two ways to estimate the amount of protein a person needs, both of which you may be familiar with. One is to recommend a certain amount of protein, in grams, based on body weight. The RDA, the amount that meets the needs of almost all healthy adults, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. You can calculate your protein requirement by multiplying your body weight by 0.4, so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. (You can also use an online calculator, like this one)

Meeting this protein requirement isn’t very difficult. A four-ounce serving of meat contains about 30 grams of protein, an egg has 6 grams, and a cup of milk has 8 grams. Plants contain protein, too—whole grain bread and cereal has about 4 grams per serving, and one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g. Getting enough protein is important, but there is little benefit to eating more protein than you need and excessive intake could cause health problems.

In general, most adults get enough protein but children, women who are pregnant, and older adults should make an extra effort to eat protein-rich foods. Vegetarians and vegans, especially athletes, need to carefully plan meals to get enough protein and the right balance of amino acids to meet health and performance requirements.

The other way to estimate protein needs is based on the number of calories you eat. According to the Institute of Medicine, the acceptable range for protein is between 10–35% of total calories. If you eat 2,000 calories each day, this would equal 50 to 175 grams of protein each day. For someone who weighs 200 lbs, this would be between 0.5 and 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram. Notice that the RDA fits within this range, which accounts for the protein requirements of nearly everyone, including people who have very high protein needs.

While the RDA is sufficient for most healthy people, even those who exercise regularly, it may be too low for athletes engaged in strenuous endurance or strength training. The protein requirement for endurance athletes, including runners, cyclists, and triathletes, is 1.2–1.4 g/kg per day. Athletes who are training to add muscle mass and strength—think football players in the offseason—need even more protein: 1.2–1.7 g/kg per day. This should meet both energy needs to fuel training sessions and provide adequate protein for muscle repair and growth.

For most of us, though, the focus should not be on eating more protein but to get our protein from healthy sources. For starters, several servings of protein-rich lean meat, eggs, and dairy as well as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables should meet protein needs. The emphasis should be on real food rather than processed foods with added protein. After all, no amount of granola bars with added protein will make you healthier!

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Know your nutrients: Protein

For the last two weeks, I have written about carbohydrates and fats. This week in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard I am covering protein, another essential macronutrient in your diet.


Protein is part of all cells and is the main component of muscles. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. The human body requires 20 amino acids for the synthesis of its proteins. Your body can produce some of these amino acids, so they are called non-essential because you do not need to get them from your diet. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and are obtained only from food. If the protein in a food supplies enough of the essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein. An incomplete protein is one that does not supply all the essential amino acids.

All meat and other animal products are sources of complete proteins. These include beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and milk products. Protein in plant foods (such as grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables) are either low in or lack one or more of the essential amino acids. These food sources are considered incomplete proteins. One exception is soy protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins can be combined to form a complete protein. This is called complementing. Examples of complementing plant proteins are food combinations such as rice with beans or black-eyed peas, beans with corn or wheat tortillas, and hummus, which combines chick peas with sesame paste. Since plant sources of protein are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat, there are health benefits from getting more protein from plants.

A diet low in protein could lead to poor growth in children or result in muscle loss. For this reason, many people, especially athletes, are concerned about their protein intake. The typical diet for most people contains more than enough protein, so this concern is often unwarranted. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets do need to pay extra attention to their protein intake. This is especially true for vegetarian athletes.

The amount of recommended daily protein depends on age, medical conditions, and activity level. The recommended intake for protein is 0.8 g protein per kg of body weight (or about 0.4 g protein per pound), so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. In general, two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults. For example, four ounces of meat contains about 40 g protein, one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g protein, and two slices of whole wheat bread have about 6 g protein.

Protein needs are higher for children, pregnant women, and athletes. That said, the average American’s protein intake is sufficient for most of these special situations. While athletes who are training to add muscle require much more protein than the typical adult, the average intake of most athletes is sufficient to meet these needs. In cases when it is not, the recommendation is to get extra protein from food, not supplements.

Since you probably get enough protein in your diet already, you should focus on healthier sources of protein. Select lean meat, poultry without skin, fish, lentils, and legumes often. Also try adding soy protein to your diet by eating tofu, soy milk, and soy beans (edamame) since soy protein contains beneficial compounds called phytochemicals. As always, you should get your protein by eating naturally protein-rich foods rather than through supplements or processed foods with added protein.

Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Skip the smoothie, have a burger? Fast food for exercise recovery.

Many athletes use specialized supplements before, during, and after exercise to improve performance and enhance strength and endurance gains from training. Many non-athletes also use similar supplements, even though they may not need them. And a recent study suggests that fast food, literally meals from McDonald’s, can work as well as more expensive sports supplements for promoting muscle recovery following intense exercise. I try to make sense of all of this in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


After exercise, many athletes consume specialized beverages and foods that supply nutrients to help their muscles recover. These recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake, or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks and foods enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you may consume these products after you work out. Let’s explore when and for whom these recovery products might be useful.

Intense endurance exercise—think of a distance runner, cyclist, or triathlete—uses muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise sessions that last at least 60–90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. Resynthesizing that muscle glycogen is a priority following exercise.

Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle, so it makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased.

It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen replenishment and increases muscle protein synthesis. This is why many specialized recovery drinks and foods include a combination of carbohydrates and protein. The best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. Similarly, the muscle is most responsive to extra protein immediately after a resistance training session.

Perhaps these recovery drinks, bars, and shakes aren’t even necessary. Sports nutritionists have long recommended conventional foods and beverages for athletes after exercise. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published last week, fast food may work just as well!

In this study cyclists were fed either commercial recovery aids or food from McDonald’s including pancakes, sausage, juice, a burger, fries, and soda after they completed an intense exercise session. Importantly, the meals contained equal amount of calories and nutrients. It turns out that there was no significant difference in how quickly muscle glycogen was replenished or in performance in a subsequent exercise bout between the two conditions. While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.

But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.

The bottom line is that these recovery aids are not always necessary and you can get the same benefits from regular food. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burn during exercise. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. For most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.

Good sources of protein for your low-carb diet

Thanks to a recent study and media coverage (including me), low-carbohydrate diets are a popular topic of discussion. For many people, cutting back on carbohydrates is a good way to reduce calories to promote weight loss.

Most low-carbohydrate diets also emphasize protein intake. But finding healthy protein sources is important for promoting weight loss and good health.

This recent discussion about the best protein for optimal weight loss  on the Train Your Body show on RadioMD should help.