No Time For A Big Meal? Get Your Protein In Quick And Easy Doses.

By: ray.perry : March 11, 2014

At the end of a long day in the mountains, backcountry snowboarder Jeremy Jones has one thing on his mind: a salty snack.

"I'm usually eating bars and gels all day, so the last thing I want is something sugar-based," the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year says. "But finding salty foods that can handle backpacking and abuse is really hard. That's why pistachios are a great post-riding food. I always have them with me."

Of course, the health benefits of pistachios don't hurt, either.

"I don't like taking pills, so I look at pistachios kind of like a multivitamin or nutritional supplement," Jones says. "They're such an easy source of protein to help kick off my recovery. They're a total superfood on so many levels."

A typical day's meals are often built around substantial sources of protein: eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, fish or lean beef for dinner. But sometimes typical days just aren't that typical, even for those of us who aren't snowboarding unnamed peaks in the Himalayas.

That's when quicker, easier sources of protein save the day. Becci Twombley, the University of Southern California's sports nutritionist, often steers her athletes toward plant sources.

"Almonds and pistachios are good plant sources of protein," Twombley says. "The night before a football game, the starters will get a snack bag that has some shelled pistachios, electrolytes and fluid. We want their cells as clean and recovered as possible."

Despite the importance of protein to the recovery of USC's world-class athletes, Twombley doesn't have them track every calorie. Instead, she helps each athlete establish a benchmark for protein, then adjusts as needed based on performance and recovery.

"They don't need to track how many nuts they had," she says. "I just want to make sure they're eating nuts. I find that when people track everything they eat, it becomes more of an obsession than an essential tool."

Twombley actually prefers small, frequent doses of protein over larger, less frequent doses. Because the body can't store protein as effectively as it does the other two macronutrients – carbohydrates and fats.

The liver – like an air traffic controller – is able to send a limited amount of protein wherever it needs to go in the body, say Twombley, but when that pool runs out, the body calls out to its muscles.

"You want to avoid the breaking down of protein in muscle," she says. "That's why you want small doses going in throughout the day, rather than one giant blob at one time."

For Jones, the windows of opportunity in the backcountry are often small. The legendary snowboarder can spend months, even years planning a descent, so when go-time comes, he can't let a lack of fuel keep him from seizing the moment.

"When we get these high pressures that last four or five days and we're out every day from sunrise to sunset, I need to be able to wake up with enough energy to go. Proper nutrition is critical to that, and I obviously have to pack in everything I'm going to eat. That's why my day starts and ends with pistachios, because they're such an easy source of protein."