One of the most common questions I hear is, “Bro, what protein should I be taking?” Usually, it’s based on the assumption that, if you work out, you need to drink protein. Can you guess what my first answer is? I’ll give you a hint: It is pretty much always the answer.
Always aim to get the majority of your nutrition from ACTUAL FOOD. That said, I do understand that people are busy and cooking takes time, yada yada yada. Because I am a caring soul, I will give you a double answer: first REAL FOOD; then we’ll talk about shakes.
When we start talking about what to eat around exercise, it's helpful to begin thinking in terms of fuel. Your body is a machine, and what you put into it is directly related to the results you get out. For the general public, the desired result is to burn fat and gain muscle, so that is what we're going to focus on.
I know that you are dying to finally get that secret combination of foods, the rocket fuel that turns desk-dwelling Joe Shmoe into the bronzed Adonis on the beach. Are you ready? The secret recipe is . . . *drum roll* . . . a BALANCED MEAL! But, shhhh, don’t tell anybody.
I realize the term “balanced meal” means absolutely nothing these days, so let me define that. You should eat two palm’s worth of quality meat, two fistfuls of veggies, two thumb-sized servings of healthy fat, and a cupped handful of carb-dense food, like berries or rice. (Ladies, cut that in half) IF you are someone who is trying to aggressively lose fat, skip the carb-dense food and add more veggies. This meal should be eaten two to three hours before your workout to allow time for digestion. Otherwise, all that healthy food loses its effectiveness when it’s getting mopped up off the floor. Then you should eat an equally awesome meal within two hours of finishing your workout.
This seems boring, right? Where’s the magic? Let’s break it down a little bit. Any workout longer than 90 seconds requires your muscles to start burning glycogen (sugar stored in your muscles). We topped off that fuel tank with our veggies and rice/berries. These also cause insulin to be released, which helps build muscle. We are going to be breaking down muscle, so we will need amino acids available in the bloodstream to maintain and repair tissues. Check. The fat we added helps slow digestion and maintain blood sugar levels so you don’t pass out halfway through “Cindy.” Now it makes sense, right? After your workout, the same principles apply. Carbs will replenish your glycogen stores and get insulin moving, which will tell your body to use the amino acids from your steak to rebuild your muscles. The fat doesn’t have a very specific role at this point, but it is good for you, so eat it.
There you have it. Food. You will be that Adonis (or Aphrodite) in no time.
Of course, the social pressure to have a cool shake-mixing cup is bearing down on you, and it’s boring to just have water in it. OK, fine! Here’s what you need to know.
The main reason to use a shake instead of food is convenience. It can be hard to get a quality meal soon after a workout, and sometimes it’s hard to choke down a chicken breast after “Fran.” But the goal with shakes is the same as with the food: replenish glycogen stores for energy and provide building materials for muscle. If you have eaten within that two- to three-hour range before your workout, you should be fine going in. Unless your workout is over two hours long, you probably don’t need anything during. Most likely, right after your workout is when you will want your shake. Since our goal is the same as with food, our ratios should be about the same as well. As a starting point, aim for a 2:1 ratio of carbs:protein. With most protein powders you buy, you are going to be in the area of 15g of protein per serving. This is a good place to start, which means you are aiming for 30g of carbs. If you are trying to lose fat, stick with the protein. If you are trying to actively gain muscle/weight, you may want to have a piece of fruit along with your shake or add some sweetener to it. “Add sugar?! Are you crazy?!” I know. But it goes back to that insulin. Normally it stores fat, but after your workout, it will help build muscle. Ah, the miracles of endocrinology (google it).
Of course, you still should have a nutritious meal within 2 hours after your workout, although it should be a little smaller because you had that shake. And, while shakes can conveniently provide the big building blocks for your body, nothing is going to replace all of the tiny bits of goodness hiding in actual foods. I know you want to get a shaker cup to hang with the cool kids, but shaker cups are so 2010. Tupperware is where it’s at!