Monday, March 12, 2012

Swapping Protein Shakes for Real Food

When Matt, a soon-to-be RD and current dietetic intern at Bastyr University offered to write a blog post for us on “nutrition from the male perspective,” we jumped at the chance. We both speak frequently on the societal pressures women face to fit an ideal image of a woman and how it impacts our body image and health (we’re actually speaking at the College ofthe Canyons Women’s Conference this Saturday on the topic), but we feel it’s equally important to understand the messages men receive in mainstream media and how it impacts their well-being.

Without further ado, here's Matt!

Nutrition: The Male Perspective

As a future male Dietitian, I am a minority—there are few men in the field, and our voice is needed to temper the overwhelming fitness advice for men to, “Bulk up and eat more protein.” And this almost exclusively comes from the athletic realm where world-class athletes and trainers tout the importance of protein in their diet.

While this strategy may work for some athletes, the vast majority of us neither train like Michael Phelps, nor need to eat as much as him. Yet, the idea of a diet high in protein persists in modern culture as synonymous with mens' health.

 Having worked in a gym, I found this ‘bulk-up’ attitude prevalent among clients. The goal didn't seem to matter--losing weight, training for a 5k, getting in shape, becoming stronger.  All of them wanted to cram as much protein into their diet as physically possible. While protein above the normal recommendations may help some people towards their goal--and may be a necessity depending on the type and intensity of the training regimen--often times it can become a hindrance.

 Extra protein means extra calories, and those extra calories can turn into fat if they’re not being used. Our bodies are very efficient at making fat out of anything beyond what calories it needs. It's something that has served us well over our existence, but with the abundance of food we now enjoy, it can quickly lead to obesity, heart conditions, diabetes, kidney problems, and other health concerns.

 I don't mean to pick on gym culture, because they are by no means the only purveyor of the idea that more is better. Advertisements, movies, television, online media, magazines—they’ve all bombarded us with the idea of what an ideal man should look like. And for those of us who aren't of Herculean proportions--or so ripped Brad Pitt would be jealous--it can leave us feeling a little inadequate.

 The diet and exercise industry have propagated the conventional wisdom that high protein diets—and eating more, in general-- will help you reach the ideal male physique. If you hear something enough times it seems to become true, regardless of whether or not it is factual.

 This idea of ‘real men eat more’ has spilled into the mainstream to the point where we put competitive eating on TV, or watch Adam Richman (of Man vs. Food fame) go from place to place and try to conquer eating challenges (although the ones where he eats spicy things and sweats everywhere are pretty amusing).

 Growing up, eating large quantities of food--meat especially--was almost a test of manhood. I would brag about being able to eat whole pizzas in one sitting, and be congratulated by my peers for it.  Protein shakes were my recovery of choice in those days. 20, 40, 60 grams of protein (or a days’ worth) in one sitting was not out of the ordinary.

Viewing food as something to be conquered--something for sport--takes away from the importance of enjoying your food. When food is a means to an end—a way to reach that unrealistic goal—as it was during my former years as a gym rat, enjoying it becomes an afterthought.

 For those of us who like to exercise and want to be healthy, there are better options than protein powders for recovering after a workout.  And over the years, I’ve discovered new ways to really enjoy food.

 After a workout, recovery is important because muscles have used up their glycogen (the muscles’ storage form of energy), which need to be replaced. The muscles have also been damaged from the exertion—that’s how we develop bigger, stronger muscles. That's where protein comes in—to replenish energy stores and build more muscle.

 But eating an entire days worth of protein after a normal workout is unnecessary, and may lead to greater fat storage in the long run. The key to men’s fitness is to have some carbohydrate and protein for this recovery, so that your muscles can restore their lost glycogen and start to repair the damage done to them.

Here are a few good post-workout recovery snacks:
  1.  1 cup of plain lowfat yogurt with a handful of frozen blueberries or your favorite fruit
  2. 1 slice of 100% whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
  3. 1 apple or banana with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
  4. Homemade trail mix (raisins, almonds, walnuts, or whatever dried fruit and nuts are on hand).
  5. A hardboiled egg with 1 cup of your favorite fruit.

Whether you exercise for aesthetics or health, it's important to do it in a way that maintains health, with a diet that emphasizes real food—fresh produce, good quality protein a few times per week, and healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil or safflower oil, both of which reduce inflammation.
 As men, we need to be responsible for ourselves and take charge of our diets. Learn how to cook. Learn how to pick the foods that best suit your goals and lifestyle. Learn how to rely on real food rather than on packaged goods, whether that's protein powder or Ramen noodles. The closer a food is to its whole, natural form, the better for you and better tasting it will be.

 Forget the hype about how the media thinks a man should look, or how the diet industry thinks we should eat. Let's rely on our own skills, rather than the prepackaged nutrition lining grocery store shelves. I guarantee it will taste better, make you feel better, and give you a greater sense of control over what goes in your body.
 After all, women love a man who can cook.

~ Matt Keen, dietetic intern, Bastyr University


  1. Excellent!! I talk about this all the time, but it is very powerful coming from a man who knows nutrition. Young men are so often encouraged to "eat meat" and "eat a lot" - they end up gaining weight when their bodies can't metabolize all those extra calories. Men and women are often held to strangely different eating standards in this country when, you're right, we all need to eat more whole foods that fit our appetites and lifestyles - not what the media or a gym tells us to eat.

  2. We agree, Ginger! It's important to fit our nutritional needs to our own unique bodies & lifestyles, to stop comaparing ourselves to others, and to take pleasure and enjoyment in food :)