You’ve probably heard someone tell you to “eat your protein after you workout so you don’t waste it”. And even if that’s only partially true, the fact is: After all the hard work in the gym, muscles are built in the kitchen. Getting the right nutrients after your workout can help you rebuild and repair your muscle proteins and glycogen stores, and stimulate new muscle growth. When you’re done at the gym, you need to reach for the best high-protein foods.
Protein has long been synonymous with weight lifting and muscle building, but it’s important to understand why. When you lift weights or do strength training, these movements trigger a breakdown of muscle protein. How much depends on how long you exercise and what type of exercise you do, but even most top athletes experience muscle breakdown while lifting.
An anabolic window for protein synthesis
Lifting weights stimulates your body to increase protein synthesis after a workout. A number of studies have looked at whether there is an “anabolic window” after exercise; In essence, this window is an immediately post-workout period when your body prepares to build muscle. There have been claims that immediate post-workout protein intake is required to maximize muscle protein growth, but the research supporting this anabolic window is not final. It used to be the accepted view that there was a 30-minute post-workout window to absorb your protein, but recent research suggests that the period is longer – up to two hours after your workout.
Protein quality also plays a role. Look out for real food (like chicken, eggs, etc.) first, as these sources of protein contain all of the essential amino acids (nine are needed through food) in a digestible form. When whole-food sources of protein are not possible, resort to whey-based protein powders – these are made from dairy products and also contain all of the essential amino acids for muscle protein synthesis.
Here is the amount of protein to consume after a lift:
- 0.14 to 0.23 g protein per pound of body weight (0.3 to 0.5 g per kilogram)
- For most people, around 20 to 40 grams of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to regenerate after a workout
- Try to have a protein meal or snack within 30 to 120 minutes of your workout
The best post-workout protein-rich foods
The following eight foods are excellent sources of protein and will help you get 20 to 40 grams of complete protein after you express yourself.
1. Chicken breast
- 3.5 oz serving
- 31g protein
- 4 large whole eggs
- 25g protein
- 6 oz serving of Atlantic wild salmon
- 33g protein
- 3 oz albacore tuna (preserved in water)
- 21g protein
5. Cottage cheese
- 1 cup of low-fat (2%) cottage cheese
- 24g protein
- 6 oz top sirloin steak
- 46g protein
- 6 ounces pork loin
- 46g protein
8. Whey Protein Shake
Chocolate Peanut Butter Win Shake
- 12 oz chocolate milk (milky or non-dairy)
- 2 tbsp nut butter (or try PB2 nut butter powder if you’re on the go)
- 1 scoop of Chocolate Whey Protein Isolate (20g protein per scoop)
Put all ingredients except protein powder in the blender and mix on a low level. Then add protein powder and mix again until the consistency is smooth.
Jordan Mazur, MS, RD is the Nutrition Director for the San Francisco 49ers.
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