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Should I eat protein after lifting weights?

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January 7, 2008

Yes, especially if you're an elite athlete or serious weight lifter. Studies show that consuming protein along with sugar after strength training - also called resistance training - has "a powerful effect on stimulating muscle protein synthesis," said William J. Evans, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism, and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

"Strength training causes muscle cells to be extremely sensitive to insulin," Evans said in an e-mail interview. "Insulin stimulates muscle protein synthesis by increasing the transport of amino acids into the cells."

But the "window of opportunity" for this synthesis is short-lived. "The protein should be consumed before, during, or within 30 minutes of completion of the exercise," he said. And the protein should be of "high quality" - that is, it should contain all of the essential amino acids like whey, casein (a milk protein), or meat; in general, you should consume about 15 grams of protein along with 20 grams of sugar.

Eating extra protein is less important for people doing aerobic exercise; after an aerobic workout, the most important thing is to replace carbohydrates, to restore energy used during the workout, Evans said.

"For most people, a mixed meal of protein and carbohydrates is sufficient," said Miriam Nelson, an associate professor of nutrition and physical activity at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University. "But for elite athletes, where microdifferences make a difference, extra protein is important."

The simplest thing to remember, she said, is that, for most people, "you want to have a snack or small meal that's rich in carbohydrates and protein within about 20 to 30 minutes of your workout."

JUDY FOREMAN

E-mail health questions to foreman@globe.com.

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