Ask Abby: Can You Drill Down Requirements and Timing for Protein and Carbohydrates?
I got a few requests for me to address protein and carbohydrate needs; in other words, when is the best time to eat protein in relation to a workout, how much carbohydrate and protein do we need each day, and what are some healthy carbohydrates to choose?
I just want to point out that no one mentioned fats in their questions, leading me to believe that we’re actually making progress with the ‘fat is bad’ myth. Phew!
On to our question.
Carbohydrate is an essential nutrient for our bodies, and no matter what you read about them in the media, you do require some carbs to function. Yes, there are athletes who eat a very low carbohydrate diet and claim that this diet does not hinder their athletic performance. I believe that they’re outliers, and I remain squarely in the pro-carbohydrate camp in terms of both athletics and overall diet for everyone. I do believe however that most people eat too many carbs, especially refined ones; just because you’re active doesn’t mean you should be eating a croissant every day. You can’t outrun a bad diet.
Carbohydrates provide energy for our body in the most usable form. Yes, you can create energy from fat and protein, but in general that’s tougher for your body to do. There is no reason why you need to be avoiding carbohydrates, you just need to be smart about which ones you choose, and how much of them you eat.
People love to talk about how much weight they’ve lost on their low-carb diets, but in general that weight loss tends to be 1. Water and 2. Because they’re not eating CRAP like the junky muffins and crackers that they were eating before. 3. Fleeting, because the majority of people gain the weight back and then some due to the unsustainability of the diet itself. Er, you’re never going to eat bread or fruit again? Come on.
There is zero reason to be afraid of carbs, so don’t stop eating them, okay?
In terms of how much you need, it really depends on how active you are, your age, your health situation, etc.
My overall recommendations for carbohydrates are to limit them to 1 cup at meals – so around 30-40 grams. This means 1 cup of pasta, rice, potatoes, peas, corn, winter squash, or 2 small slices of bread max. It’s also fine to have a meal without carbohydrates once a day; nothing bad is going to happen to you if you eat just chicken and salad for dinner (unless you’re having an intense workout a few hours later, then you might poop out a bit early).
Eating this amount of carbohydrate doesn’t put you on a low-carb diet, more like a moderate-carb diet, which I think is fine. I’m definitely not in agreement with the 60% carbohydrate recommendation that I learned in nutrition school and that some people still suggest is healthy. No way. As far as fruit goes, limit yourself to 2-3 servings a day; this means watch those crazy fruit smoothies/smoothie bowls that seem healthy, but are just packed with sugar (even ‘natural’ sugars).
Pre-workout – and this goes for those of us who do a standard 30-60 minute run or class or whatever – I recommend a small, carbohydrate-rich snack around 1-2 hours before you start; a piece of fruit with a tablespoon of nut butter, a bit of trail mix, a piece of sprouted grain bread with almond butter, or a small amount of oatmeal with some berries.
Healthy carbohydrates are ones that are unrefined or minimally processed, such as white or sweet potatoes (yes, white potatoes, you read that right), brown rice, freekeh, wheat berries, quinoa, barley, beans and lentils, and fruit. You want to mostly stay away from things like shitty white bagels, most baked goods, most commercially prepared breads – even brown breads, whole wheat breads, multigrain breads and breads with added fiber and protein (sigh) – and sugar-laden energy drinks, which will set you up for a major crash and are just not nutritious.
In terms of protein, there is research emerging that 25-30 grams per meal is appropriate for most people. Make sure that you spread the protein love throughout the day, and not just at dinner; the following list of foods gives you an idea what 25 grams of protein looks like (approximately). As you can see, some sources are better than others:
4oz salmon, tuna, halibut
3/4 cup soybeans (fresh, boiled – think edamame)
1.5 cups black beans or kidney beans
¾ cup nuts (which is a lot)
1 egg white has 4g, 1 whole egg has 6g
1 cup shredded cheese
Hemp hearts: 10g per 3T
Spirulina has 4g/tablespoon
Quinoa has 8g/cup
Lentils have 18g per cup
Tofu has 10g per ½ cup
Cottage cheese has 23g per cup
Greek yogurt has 12g per ¾ cup
Protein powder usually has ~23g/scoop
For all you active people, I do recommend a protein-rich snack within an hour of your workout, unless you’re going to be eating a meal shortly thereafter. If you’re doing a light yoga or other workout that isn’t intense, you don’t need to down protein shakes or bars; these are overkill unless you’re doing an endurance activity. A few good post-workout snacks include: a hard boiled egg with 2 Ryvita crackers; 2% plain Greek yogurt with some fruit; ½ a turkey sandwich; ½ cup bean salad, or cheese with some whole grain crackers. If you’re doing an intense workout, you could choose a protein bar or shake to refuel. Again, if you’re having a meal 1-2 hours after your workout, you really don’t need a heavy post-exercise snack.
Have a great day!