YOU can be really, really clueless about nutrition and weight loss and still know this: Protein is a freakin’ saint. It’s satiating as hell (bolstering your willpower against nefarious 3 p.m. cupcakes), it keeps your hair lush and leonine, and of course it builds strong muscles (so you can lift semi-heavy things and not offend people at the beach). But there’s a lot of protein noise and weirdness out there (eyes on you, creepy protein water), which makes knowing when and how to eat it very confusing.
With the help of The Rock (j/k-just two incredibly smart food experts) we’ve sorted through the details so you can start using protein to burn off your belly and whittle out some triceps grooves.
Don’t: Eat it all in one sitting. We don’t store protein the way we do with carbs or fat, so wolfing down a massive steak dinner tonight doesn’t cover you for tomorrow morning’s CrossFit session, says sports nutritionist Chris Mohr. To stay topped off throughout the day, aim for around 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal, which is about the size of your palm if you’re having meat, or a cup of Greek yogurt, or three eggs. (If you’re anal, Mohr says the recommended amount of protein is .25 grams of protein per pound of body weight per meal. Enjoy your calculations.)
Do: Eat a protein snack (around 10 grams) within 30 to 60 minutes after a tough workout, says Chicago Blackhawks nutritionist Julie Burns. You just ripped up some muscle fibers and they need fuel to rebuild and grow.
Don’t: Only eat protein like a crazy paleo addict puppet. (No, you’re the puppet.) If gobs of meat and fish start pushing fruits, vegetables and grains off your plate, you’re going to miss out on key vitamins and minerals that give you energy and protect you from catching a slimy cold.
Do: Get the majority of your protein from whole foods like eggs, chicken, fish, red meat, nuts, and dairy. (It’s rare for anyone eating a Western diet to have too little protein because we’re gluttons.) If you want to boost your intake with a protein supplement, go for whey protein, which is the easiest for your bod to digest and make use of. (Vegans, Burns says, can choose pea, chia, or rice protein blends.) Look for a brand that has the fewest ingredients.
Don’t: Get lazy if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, since plant proteins aren’t complete (meaning they lack one or more amino acids needed to build up muscles.) You’re special and have to get protein from a variety of sources (quinoa, beans, nuts, tofu, etc.) to hit the mark.
Don’t: Eat a bunch of protein bars on top of meals if you’re trying to lose weight because they’re super caloric and then you’ll just get fat and they don’t even taste good.