The power of protein and exercise

From special shakes to lean meats to beans to veggies, protein essential to muscle health, weight loss, strength

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Most people grab for their water bottles after a tough workout. But personal trainers suggest also reaching for a protein snack.

Whether you're an average gym-goer looking to stay in shape, someone trying to drop a few extra pounds or an elite athlete in training, consuming protein after working out is important, said Brian Stecker, a personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness on Fourth Plain.

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd say it's a 10," Stecker said.

During intense training, muscle tissue is broken down. In order for it to repair and rebuild, the body needs protein, said Erica Hurd, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at LA Fitness in Orchards.

"Protein is the building block of muscle tissue," she said. "As the proteins rebuild the muscle tissue, the muscle becomes stronger."

Think of the muscle as a quilt. The patched material is now stronger than the unpatched material, Hurd said.

Eating protein within 30 to 45 minutes after a workout will give the body the amino acids it needs to begin repairing the muscle, according to the trainers.

That protein can come from a variety of sources.

"Shakes are the most convenient way to refuel within this window, which is why they are often recommended," Hurd said. "But if whole food options are available, that's always a better option."

Supplements such as bars and shakes come with a warning. Many include high amounts of sugar, artificial sweeteners or fillers, Hurd said. The best option is a supplement with the fewest ingredients and lowest amount of sugar, she said.

Plants and animals are also sources of protein.

Bio-available proteins, which are easiest for the body to break down and use, come from animals, said Stasha Hornbeck, a dietician at the Kaiser Permanente Mt. Scott Medical Office in Clackamas, Ore. That includes meats such as chicken and lean turkey, fish, eggs, cheese and other dairy products.

Plant proteins include foods such as greens, beans, vegetables and soy products such as tofu. Those, however, are incomplete proteins, meaning they don't have all of the amino acids, and should be eaten with grains, Stecker said.

Daily protein requirements vary from person to person.

A general recommendation is about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (to find your weight in kilograms, divide your weight by 2.2). Endurance athletes, or those who do heavy weight-lifting, will likely need more, according to experts.

Hornbeck recommends people eat 7 to 14 grams of protein at snacks and 14 to 21 grams at meals. Most people aren't getting enough protein at breakfast and snacks. However, a well-balanced diet usually supplies enough protein to meet daily recommendations, Hornbeck said.

One common concern about eating protein is it will cause big, bulky muscles. Stecker said building that type of muscle mass is difficult and requires strenuous muscle training and a calorie surplus.

In fact, protein is important for people who are trying to lose weight, he said.

Protein supports and helps develop lean body mass. Every pound of lean muscle burns 50 calories. Without protein, the body will lose its metabolism-burner, Stecker said.

"(Protein is) definitely a source of fuel for us," Hornbeck said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.