Should I Eat More Meat?
So I started powerlifting about a month ago and it’s been FUN. But after a few weeks, my muscles were feeling really tired all the time and fairly sore, especially my legs. The folks who own my gym think it’s because I’m not eating enough protein, so now I’m trying to up my intake and I need pointers, boy do I ever. They said to that I should be eating 120 grams per day (!!!!!), ie I weigh 160 pounds, so if you calculate one gram of protein per pound, this would be aiming to eat 75% of that total. This seems literally impossible? I’ve been low-key tracking things for the past week or so, and I struggle to even eat 40 or 50 grams without eating way more food than it seems like I need. High-protein bars, which are sort of my only move at this point, have a ton of sugar, which I usually try to avoid. Basically, I’m at sea—please advise?
(Note that I followed up with this letter writer to see if she was vegan or vegetarian; she was not.)
First, congrats on keeping track of what you’re eating! This is the very sort of thing that it is designed to illuminate, which is that there is a big gap between your goals of strength and health and what you are actually doing to enable them that you would not otherwise have necessarily known about if you tried to guess.
If you aren’t used to eating protein, 100+ grams can feel like a lot. At the time I started lifting, I cooked quite a bit but pretty much didn’t cook meat at home, because I wasn’t used to handling it and it grossed me out;
- I felt like the meat juices got everywhere;
- meat can be expensive and good, conscionable meat is even more expensive;
- I didn’t know even how long I could keep meat once it was cooked and continue to eat it;
- Meat seemed to go bad really fast in the fridge, and I didn’t have a freezer;
- And I hate eating cold meats, even meats that are supposed to be cold, like cold cuts.
Just…. A few small reasons. This is all to say I am an adult baby and maybe pickier in a lot of ways than I realize.
But then suddenly I was supposed to eat 140 grams of protein per day, and my primarily mac-and-cheese- and cereal-and-milk-based diet wasn’t going to cut it, and protein powder could only fill in so much. After playing around in MyFitnessPal for a while and inputting different foods, I found I really should be eating a lot more meat than I was, which really meant going from eating it basically only in or from restaurants to finding ways to cook or eat it (or both) on my own.
Meats have been vilified quite a bit lately. There is a lot of back and forth about red meat, and many news articles suggest most Americans eat too much meat or protein. But the thing is that most Americans are (sadly!) not trying to build strength or muscle. A mostly sedentary person with high blood pressure does not need to eat two pounds of steak a day, and they are probably taking in a lot of non-protein material with it that they don’t need otherwise—saturated fats, maybe some fries or potatoes to go with it. You, a growing and presumably chronic-health-issue-free woman, maybe also don’t need all two pounds of steak, but a few ounces of meat per day would be really helpful to you in achieving your swoleness goals.
This is a hard thing to absorb, but becoming a weightlifter actually means your nutritional needs are no longer covered by the broad brush that the paper’s science section uses. You need food (it helps keep you from getting sore!), you need fats, you need carbs, you need meat (if it cooperates with your ethics and etc). You need them in a responsible way, but you also probably need more than you might believe based on what you’ve read the general populace needs.
Now, obviously lots of people lift and grow and don’t eat meat. There are decent protein sources other than meat, including eggs and and dairy and lots of other stuff I covered here.
Meat is not essential; however, without getting too deep into it, meats have things in them that are specifically helpful to someone trying to grow their muscles. For instance, meats have naturally occurring creatine, which helps your muscles basically hold and use more energy. (Your body can make creatine somewhat less efficiently, but many people looking to build muscle or strength take creatine as a supplement, which is a whole debate unto itself that anyone is free to ask me about 😀 But basically, creatine is a desirable thing to have in responsible amounts for people lifting weights).
It’s easier to get enough protein the protein-ier your protein sources are. Meat is among the proteiniest.
People tend to have vague ideas about protein—in a Nielsen survey, about one fifth of people thought peanut butter was as good a source of protein as meat (which is a real triumph of marketing). Peanut butter has about 8g of protein in a 190-calorie serving. Chicken breast has 35g of protein in a 190-calorie serving. Two 4.5 ounce servings of a lean meat or fish like chicken breast would get you over 90g of protein for the day. You could almost phone it in on everything else you ate that day and still hit 120.
Part of your strategy may just be introducing a protein source to your otherwise normal meals. Three virtuous 400-calorie veggie piles or grain bowls or salads per day does not a swole woman make. You need salmon on that salad, eggs with your ancient grain toast, extra (yes, extra) chicken on your burrito bowl, ground beef in that pasta sauce.
Meat tips I’ve discovered through my slow and painful trip to adulthood:
- Canned or tinned or preserved meats are good in a pinch. I love this smoked trout from Trader Joe’s, and as fish goes, it’s not that expensive. Definitely less so than delivery. (Trout is also among the more sustainable fishes right now.) Beef jerky is not super economical, but good as a snack or in a pinch if you’re stopping at a gas station. It’s more satisfying than chips, and has more protein than nuts.
- Deli meats make a good snack.
- Many fitness YouTubers I follow love to buy those premade rotisserie chickens you can find at grocery stores and either eat them straight or put the meat in salads and things. I’m not lucky enough to have such a place, but if you do, I’m very jealous.
- Use your freezer. Many frozen meats, like these bags of chicken I found also at Trader Joe’s (this is not an ad for Trader Joe’s I swear), can go right from the freezer to the oven, no defrosting or anything.
- Freezer corollary: make a big batch of something meaty and proteiny and freeze a few servings (chili, stew, soup, etc). Instant delicious protein for dinner.
- Here are the guidelines on how long meat is good in the fridge once it’s cooked. 3-4 days for chicken!! If you made three servings you wouldn’t even have to eat them on consecutive days! I will honestly go five days, and I’m not dead yet.
- I know too well that meat feels gross and terrifying to handle, but truly, the more you do it the more you will get used to it. Wash your hands a lot. Get a probe thermometer so you know when things are cooked (shoutout to Wirecutter, my beloved employer).
This is not to say your diet needs to be meat for all your meals. But if you are currently eating basically no meat, introducing one or two servings of beef, chicken, or fish per day will make meeting your protein goals a snap. As a last general tip, try just googling “high protein recipes,” because the internet is RIFE with them now. Consider doubling the protein, though.