Content Warning: If you are sensitive to discussion on food quantity or diets, there are two parts of this blog post that you may want to skip. First is the pump up the protein section. This is a brief conversation about ounces and grams of food - related to the amount of protein in different quantities of food. If you have any hesitations reading about this, please skip. The second is isn’t keto the way I should eat? This brief conversation offers definition, intention, and clarity on what the ketogenic diet is and my recommendations surrounding this specific way of eating (spoiler, I don’t recommend it for performance athletes). I promise, you’re not missing anything crucial if you skip either of these sections.
Protein! It’s something I get a lot of questions about, and that many of you are telling me you’re always trying to get more of. As performance athletes, we probably think about protein a lot - maybe too much! Let’s break down the what, why, and how before diving into some of my general recommendations for your performance + recovery.
what is protein?
Protein is one of The Big Three - our macronutrients. It’s one way to categorize foods and an important nutrient to balance throughout both your day and week. Thinking about what makes protein, it’s the building blocks of this nutrient: amino acids. There are hundreds and hundreds of amino acids but we’ll focus on those important for human nutrition, the alpha-amino acids. These are the building block of our own muscles. The body is able to synthesize, or produce, some of these amino acids (we call these nonessential amino acids). There are other essential amino acids that we MUST consume via our diet. (Conditionally essential amino acids are also a thing. Depending on your life stage, the body’s production might not be able to keep up with demand (think puberty, growth spurts, etc.), and it’s important to ensure you’re consuming these during specific life stages. I won’t dig too deep here, but let me know if you have specific questions about conditionally essential amino acids.)
Protein is vital for growth + development, immune system function, hormone health, recovery, and so much more! Imbalance or low protein intake can lead to increased inflammation, injury risk, soreness, and cramping. When performance athletes feel tired, we can have a tendency to push through any tiredness or weakness, which could be caused by low protein intake. Doing this might cause extra harm and further increase our chance of injury.
I find it pretty cool that simply by focusing on two of my key recommendations, performance athletes can ensure they’re consuming an adequate amount and balance of the amino acids:
eating the rainbow
balancing protein intake by eating both plant + animal sources
It’s pretty important to ensure that you’re balancing your protein intake both during the day and throughout the week. Personally, I find it helpful to ensure a protein-rich meal or snack after a long day of dancing or a tough gym session. This can further support your muscle recovery.
Some of the best food sources of essential amino acids, called complete protein sources, include:
Pretty cool that plant-based sources are on this list, don’t you think?
pump up the protein - content warning section 1
Recently, I was listening to a conversation about protein for performance athletes (ok, they didn’t specify performance, but that’s what we are!), and the speaker mentioned something along the lines of: “looking at 3-4oz of chicken on your dinner plate, we often assume that we’re consuming 3-4g of protein at that meal.” So, that’s not the case! 1oz of food doesn’t necessary equate to 1g of a macronutrient - why I hadn’t I thought of this before!? I say this because I’ve talked with many of you about your desire to track your macronutrients or find a particular balance of them specific to you and your nutritional + performance needs. If this describes you and your goals, I recommend taking some time to understand the average amount of protein (in grams) you’d consume in a protein source you eat often. With this new information, you might realize that meeting your specific protein goals might not be as daunting as you thought.
isn’t keto the way I should eat? - content warning section 2
Did you know that there is a medical reason for the creation of the ketogenic diet and a specific medical diagnosis that improves when the individual follows this very specific way of eating? Yeah, I didn’t know that either until I was in the deep throws of grad school and opted to write a paper on this diet - we were told to basically write a report about a conventional diet.
The ketogenic diet is a way of eating that strictly limits the amount and types of carbohydrates someone eats. There is an intense focus on favoring the diet towards the consumption of fat and protein. With strict, limited access to carbohydrates, the body will enter a state of ketosis - where the body becomes more efficient at using fat for energy and transforms fat into ketones in the liver. Well, you might ask, isn’t this what will help a performance athlete perform at peak levels? It’s not, no. The ketogenic diet was found to be most helpful for people, children actually, diagnosed with epilepsy. Lifelong adherence to a ketogenic diet helps reduce and often fully eliminate epileptic episodes for the individuals.
protein + carbs, not a complicated relationship
So, why don’t I recommend limiting your carbohydrate intake for performance athletes and continue guiding you to balance The Big Three throughout your day + week? Something we might not think about, or even gloss over, is the synergistic nature of protein + carbohydrates within our muscles. Have you ever thought about that? What do we call sites of carbohydrate storage in our muscles? Muscle glycogen - who’d have thought, right? This glycogen is an energy source that’s almost immediately accessible to our muscles and serves us well for prolonged physical activity. Here’s where our combo, protein + carbohydrate snacks can come in handy for recovery.
Curious to learn more about protein? Access my *free* Pump up the Protein handout!