Protein is the key to a fitter, leaner, stronger you—but that’s only if you are eating it right. Unfortunately, most women aren’t. We chatted with nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., owner of Essential Nutrition For You nutrition consulting firm, about the most common protein mistakes she sees women make. How many of them are holding you back?
1. Not Pairing Your Post-Workout Protein with Carbs
“Exercise—especially high-intensity workouts or strength training—breaks down muscle fibers. A solid recovery and nutrition plan is what helps build those muscle fibers back up to make you stronger and fitter,” says Batayneh. While protein’s amino acids are critical to helping repair your muscles immediately following a tough workout, carbohydrates help transport those amino acids into your body’s cells to trigger muscle growth, she says. That’s why low-fat chocolate milk is a post-workout favorite among athletes. It has an ideal blend of carbs and protein (about three times more carbs carbs than protein).
2. Not Getting Protein with Every Meal and Snack
If you’re like most women, you get the bulk of your protein at night. You eat oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and a big slab of meat for dinner. While your muscle probably won’t suffer as a result, your energy levels and waistline sure will, she says. Protein is what keeps your blood sugar stable throughout the day, boosts satiety, and prevents the dreaded 3 p.m. slump. Start your day right with protein-packed breakfasts, and shoot for eating 20 to 30 grams of protein at every meal.
3. Thinking You Have to Get “Complete” Protein at Every Meal
The bulk of plant-based proteins lack at least one of the nine essential amino acids, which is why they’re called ‘incomplete’ proteins. So to make each meal ‘complete,’ many women pair complementary ‘incomplete’ proteins together at each meal. As any vegetarian or vegan will tell you, it’s tedious and cumbersome. And as Batayneh will tell you, it’s unnecessary. “If you’re eating enough of these plant-based foods to reach your recommended calorie intake and eating a variety of sources throughout the day, you’re also getting enough protein and array of amino acids,” she says. Get started with six veggies with the most protein.
4. Eating Protein from the Same Sources Every Day
While you don’t need complete proteins at each meal, “it’s important to get all nine essential amino acids in your diet,” says Batayneh. Plus, every protein source comes with more than protein—it comes with different blends of vitamins, minerals, fats, and carbs. You need a wide array for optimal health, weight loss, and fitness gains.
5. Relying on Protein Shakes and Bars for Protein
They are crazy convenient, we’ll give them that. But store-bought protein shakes, smoothies, and bars often come loaded with sugar, and many don’t contain all that much protein, either. “Some are almost no better than a candy bar,” says Batayneh. Plus, most are riddled with hard-to-pronounce ingredients you’d need a chemistry degree to understand. Your best bet: Stick with real foods whenever possible. Nuts, seeds, single-serving Greek yogurt cups, string cheese, and hardboiled eggs, for instance, are all just as convenient as protein bars and contain naturally occurring protein along with tons of other good-for-you nutrients.