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Protein: An Essential Nutrient

By Gillian Scobie

Protein: An essential nutrientThere’s a lot of confusion about protein: why you need it, how much you need, and whether to have it before or after a ride. First of all, why do you need protein? There are three important reasons.

One, after you exercise, you need more protein because exercise breaks down muscle protein, tearing the muscle fibres, and you need to replace it. Eating enough protein accelerates muscle growth by providing the amino acid building blocks that create protein and helps you recover from exercise by helping rebuild muscle fibres. Protein helps muscles heal faster—that’s why cyclists who eat enough protein are less likely to get injured. You’re also less likely to overeat if you eat it right after you finish your workout.

Two, protein helps strengthen your immune system, which is weakened for about four hours after exercising. In our bone marrow are white blood cells, which need amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to function. The white blood cells  activate “killer” cells called lymphocytes to release chemicals that signal the immune system to produce antibodies. Without protein, these killer cells don’t activate.

Three, protein can help store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen (the stored form of glucose), the most important source of energy for any exercise, especially in the first few minutes. Your body stores a limited amount of glycogen in your liver and muscles and you use this every time you ride. But you need to top it up every day. Recently, it’s been found that if you add protein to the carbs in your post-workout drink or snack, at a ratio of 4C:1P, you help stimulate better carbohydrate synthesis. With adequate glycogen stores, you can optimize your workouts, especially on longer rides. At the same time, having carbs and protein together rehydrates your muscles, because that helps you absorb water better from your intestines.

Here’s a simple rule to follow if you’re not sure when to eat carbohydrates and protein: Carbs contain glucose, so eat carbs to fuel muscles before cycling. Eat carbs with protein to repair and rebuild muscle after cycling. You should eat about 10 to 20 g of protein and 20 to 50 g of carbs right after exercising.

Here are some snacks that you can eat after cycling:

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Cheese and low-fat crackers (pretzels)
  • Chocolate milk

However, you still need to have adequate protein during the day to meet your level of activity.  How much? Divide your protein among several meals and snacks. Here’s a quick way to figure out how much protein you need: Take your body weight and multiply it by a figure between 1.2 and 1.7 (weight in kg x 0.8–1.4 g/kg = protein in g). The higher figure is for those exercising intensely. So if you’re 53 kg (117 lb) and you’ve exercised moderately, you would need

Minimum  1.2  grams (53 kg) = 63 grams protein/day

Maximum 1.7 grams (53 kg) =  90 grams protein/day

Here’s a sample daily menu for that amount:

7 a.m.
3/4 cup oatmeal + two scrambled eggs + cup of coffee with skim milk = 20 grams

10 a.m.
Banana + two tablespoons peanut butter = 8 grams

1 p.m.
Two slices GF/whole-wheat bread, two ounces sliced turkey, lettuce, tomato, mustard + six ounces yogurt = 23 grams

6 p.m.
Mixed-greens salad with peppers, cucumber, and tomato; one tablespoon balsamic vinaigrette dressing + four ounces grilled salmon + 1 1/2 cups steamed broccoli and cauliflower + one medium baked sweet potato = 33 grams

If you’re a vegetarian, you can still get all the protein you need from nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, tofu, vegetables, and high-protein grains (such as quinoa). A handful of nuts equals about an ounce.

Here’s a list of the protein amounts for different foods: 

• Hamburger patty, 4 oz – 28 g
• Steak, 6 oz – 42 g
• Most cuts of beef – 7 g per ounce

• Chicken breast, 3.5 oz – 30 g
• Chicken thigh – 10 g (for average size)
• Drumstick – 11 g
• Wing – 6 grams
• Chicken meat, cooked, 4 oz – 35 g

• Most fish fillets or steaks, 3-1/2 ounces – 22 g
• Tuna, 6-oz can – 40 g

• Pork chop, average – 22 g
• Pork loin or tenderloin, 4 oz – 29 g
• Ham, 3 oz serving – 19 grams
• Ground pork, 1 oz raw – 5 g; 3 oz cooked – 22 g
• Bacon, 1 slice – 3 grams

Eggs and dairy
• Egg, large – 6 g
• Milk, 1 cup – 8 g
• Cottage cheese, 1/2 cup – 15 g
• Yogurt, 1 cup – usually 8 to 12 g, check label
• Soft cheeses (Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert) – 6 g per oz
• Medium cheeses (Cheddar, Swiss) – 7 or 8 g per oz
• Hard cheeses (Parmesan) – 10 g per oz

Beans (including soy)
• Tofu, 1 oz – 2.3 g
• Most beans (black, pinto, lentils, etc.) – about 7 to 10 g protein per half cup
• Split peas, 1/2 cup cooked – 8 g

Nuts and Seeds (1 ounce each)
• Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons (1 oz) – 8 g

• Almonds 6 g

• Walnuts 4 g
• Cashews 4.4 g

• Oats  7 g
• Peanuts 7g
• Sesame seeds 7 g
• Pistachios 5.8 g 

Fruits and Vegetables

1 Avocado 10 g
1 cup Broccoli 5 g
1 cup Spinach 5 g
1 cup Peas 9 g

Sources: http://www.adventurecycling.org/resources/201104_CyclistsKitchen_Clark.pdf; http://vegetarian.about.com/od/healthnutrition/tp/protein.htm; http://www.care2.com/greenliving/vegetarian-protein-sources.html; http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2012/04/13/fructose-post-workout-meal-support.aspx?e_cid=20120413_FNL_art_1; http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/;http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7120,s6-242-300–12554-0,00.html; http://www.muscleandbodymag.com/article.php?ArticleID=5447
 Gillian Scobie is an editor and writer as well as an avid cyclist, runner, swimmer and cross-country skier in Perth, Ontario. She has a special interest in nutrition and how diet can help maximize the body’s energy.
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