Photo of Gabe Flower dancing in a field shirtless. Overlaid text reads "Are You Eating the Right Proteins? by Sarah Prit"

Athletes demand of themselves peak physical performance on a regular basis.  On top of physical strength and endurance training, athletes must consume the proper nutrients to ensure their body is operating optimally.  When we think of muscles, we often think of protein and its ability to assist in building muscles, but that’s not all it does, and we must consider the upsides and downsides of various protein sources, as marketing ploys can greatly deceive and mislead those of us with the best intentions when it comes to our health and athletic performance.

What are Proteins and what do they do?

Simply speaking, proteins are made of amino acids.  There are 20 amino acids, which are categorized into three different groups:  essential, non-essential, and conditional.  The nine essential amino acids cannot be produced by your body and must be consumed. We create 11 non-essential amino acids, and have a handful of amino acids that are considered conditional.  Conditional amino acids are essential when the body experiences stress, such as illness.  These become essential due to the body’s inability to produce and meet demand for certain amino acids while fighting an illness such as cancer.  This is when they must be supplemented through diet or a prescription.

While proteins help build muscle, they’re also essential in muscle repair and recovery, and the amino acids that build protein help assist in your immune system function, energy regulation, sleep and mood patterns, and more.

What are the best sources of protein?

This is a complicated question.  There are animal-based sources and plant-based sources.  Studies show overwhelming evidence that plant-based proteins are the best source, period, whether one considers themselves an athlete or not.  Many animal-based sources are considered “complete proteins,” meaning they consist of all nine essential amino acids, whereas plant-based complete protein options are more limited.

There’s no doubt complete proteins from animal-based sources exist, but it is easy to purchase the wrong protein due to so many products advertising in ways that makes one believe they’re healthy proteins.  For example, almost all lunch meat (and other similarly processed meat) is considered a class one carcinogen.  For perspective, ingredients in cigarettes are also in this category, among other things.

Some sources list complete proteins such as grass-fed beef, chicken, eggs, and wild fish as being great options for athletes; however, consumption of these products is linked to increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and early death.  The American Cancer Society suggests that a daily diet which increases risk for heart disease is unlikely to have positive long-term effects.  Dairy-based protein sources such as Greek yogurt and whey protein are also considered complete proteins.

Plant-based proteins such as quinoa, tofu, tempeh, and amaranth are considered complete proteins, as are hemp and chia seeds, which can easily be sprinkled into smoothies, sandwiches, or cereals.  There are quite a few items together that make complete proteins as well:  rice and beans, pita and hummus, peanut butter sandwiches using natural peanut butter, and more.

Buying the Right Proteins

In order to properly source protein as healthily as possible from the aforementioned products, one must seek out minimally processed versions of them (i.e. no bacon, ham, hot dogs, jerky, or deli slices) and cook them in healthier ways, such as baking, broiling, or roasting them (do not fry).

Pay extra attention to dairy, fish, red meat, and poultry products when purchasing, as many of these sources contain hormones and antibiotics given to animals during farming.   These hormones transfer to the individual during consumption and can affect athletic performance.  Grass-fed meat is the best, particularly if it has been raised locally and sustainably, without the use of hormones or antibiotics which are meant to artificially (and often inhumanely) inflate the size of the animal to produce more meat.  Animals eating a species-appropriate diet (such as grass and other native plants) will not need supplements to provide a quality product.

We often think words like “natural” are good things.  However, in the marketing industry, it is highly unregulated and often means next to nothing when it comes to our health.  We may also hear things like organic, or vegetarian-fed meat, which means there aren’t additional hormones.  Be careful not to fall into this marketing trap.  This simply means they didn’t receive feed that has been genetically modified.  The diet of the animal is crucial upon purchase, and if they weren’t eating grass or other native feed, it is not considered a good source of protein.

Just as with animal-based proteins, there are caveats to plant-based proteins.  For example, in order for athletes to garner the proper nutrients, white flour shouldn’t be a part of the plant-based diet.  Individuals must seek out brown rice to gain the proper proteins.  And when it comes to bread, even products advertising themselves as “whole wheat” can still be made with enriched white flour (check the back of the box).  One must look for whole grain bread options to ensure they’re gaining the proper nutrients.

“Made with whole grains” can be exceptionally misleading as well, as these products can still predominately be made from enriched white flour.  The easiest way to ensure you are purchasing proper plant-based items is to turn the product over and check the nutrition label.  The items are listed from highest amount to the lowest.  If you can’t understand the top three ingredients, avoid the product.  It should have mostly items that can be easily read.

For example, I mentioned peanut butter sandwiches (on whole grain bread) as great sources of complete proteins.  One must ensure that they are using natural peanut butter, free of additional unhealthy (and unneeded) sugars and other ingredients.  When you turn over a label of natural peanut butter, the ingredients on the label should read “dry roasted peanuts, salt.”  If it has sugar or anything else, do not buy it.

The good news is, it’s fairly easy for an athlete to consume enough protein for optimal performance if they know where to find it.  There are drawbacks to all the aforementioned types of protein, and the savvy shopper will be able to sort out what products are good for them, and in what ways they should be consumed for optimal performance.  This process can be cumbersome at first, but after the first two grocery trips, you should be able to find the best substitutes for commonly purchased products and live life on a diet that is more conducive to the demands your art form puts on your body.

Gabe Flowers dances shirtless bent backwards standing on one leg in front of two turqoise and white doors.