When Mitch Nienhuis does strength training at the gym, he sees other guys gulping protein shakes and supplements to build their muscles.
“They think — if a little is good, a lot is better.”
But Nienhuis, 23, a graduate student in exercise physiology at the University of Miami, knows that’s not the case. “Training is all about your diet and how well you eat,” he said.
When he’s in a rush, Nienhuis sometimes opts for a protein shake but he tries to limit the drink to one or two times a week.
“It obviously takes more time to sit down and prepare a good meal than to throw scoops together,” said Nienhuis, who works out nearly every day. “But I would much rather spend the money and make a healthy meal than to just take a shake every day.”
Good idea, said Dr. Carlos Zamora, director of sports cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. “Most athletes tend to overdo protein shakes and other sources and that can actually slow you down.”
There are mixed views on the athletic diet and protein intake, but doctors and nutritionists agree that all men should be concerned about getting the right amount of nutrients, whether they’re a bodybuilder or a couch potato.
“A poor diet and lack of exercise increases your chances of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, colorectal cancer and sleep apnea,” said Casie Fondren, a Pembroke Pines consulting dietitian and sports nutritionist.
Men typically need more protein and calories than women, said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a dietitian/nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic in Weston. In general, a woman needs 60 to 80 grams of protein a day and a man needs 80 to 100 grams, she said. And women typically average 1,800 calories a day and men 2,500.
Men and women also tend to accumulate fat differently. Women are likely to store fat around their hips, thighs and buttocks while men see it in their waistlines.
“If you have an image of a man hitting 40, you see belly,” said Sheah Rarback, director of the nutrition division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “That’s the stereotype, but that’s where men tend to accumulate fat. And that belly fat is a risk factor for heart disease.”
Sometimes belly fat can be traced to genetics, but “that’s even more reason to watch your diet,” Fondren said.
That doesn’t mean the rib-eye steak is off the table — just not on the table too often.
“In nutrition, no extremes are good,” Zamora said. “Balance is the key.”
And physical activity is certainly part of the equation for better health.
Studies show that adults who increase their physical activity in intensity, duration or frequency can reduce their risk of developing colon cancer by 30 to 40 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. And the latest recommendations for adults call for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, or an equivalent combination, preferably spread throughout the week, according to the American Cancer Society.
For men doing intensive training, eating a balanced diet is just as vital, Rarback said. “A shake never replaces food.” And too much protein, she said, can be “a lot of stress on the kidneys.”
Craggs-Dino said protein shakes can be a good thing for bodybuilders and others doing extensive training — with some caveats.
“If you have healthy kidneys, and you increase your protein, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have kidney failure,” she said. She stressed that athletes need to consider how much overall protein they’re having in addition to the shake and “be mindful of what you put in there.”
Whey is “a good way to get a protein source,” she said, “but there are different types that are good for different types of workouts.”
Most importantly, stay hydrated, Craggs-Dino said. “Be smart about it. If you’re increasing protein, increase your fluids.”
She suggested increasing fluids to 64 to 72 ounces a day. “Once you’re thirsty, you’re dehydrated,” Craggs-Dino said.
It’s important to have a meal within one to two hours after working out, said Lucette Talamas, a dietitian at Baptist Health South Florida. “Do plan to replenish after your high-intensity exercise,” she said.
Experts advise talking with a doctor or nutritionist and getting a check-up before launching an intensive workout or change in diet.
To help men of all ages make better choices, here are some dietary dos and don’ts from the experts.
▪ A variety of protein: Chicken, fish, turkey, seafood and lean red meat. One egg a day is safe for a healthy person, said Talamas of Baptist Hospital South Florida. Try a meatless meal with legumes like lentils, red beans, black beans or garbanzos. Yogurt and cheese are also sources of protein.
▪ Fatty meats like prime rib, pork belly and bacon. Don’t overdo the backyard grill — charring fatty foods over charcoal can cause carcinogens that contribute to cancer, Rarback said.
▪ The right portions: Your protein source should only be about 30 to 40 percent of your plate, Zamora of Mount Sinai said.
▪ Even if you’re eating lean meat, only have it two to three times a week, Rarback said.
▪ Whole grains: Quinoa is a dietary superstar, but also try whole wheat pasta, oatmeal and brown rice.
▪ Breads, cereals, and pasta made from refined grains, and white rice.
▪ Vegetables and fruits: The key is to go with the darkest and brightest colors — dark greens, oranges and reds have a higher concentration of antioxidants, Zamora said. Top choices include broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts and spinach. Blue and purple foods like blueberries, blackberries, eggplant, purple onions, grapes and plums also have antioxidants to help fight against cancer and are anti-inflammatory. Red foods like apples, cherries, tomatoes and radishes have antioxidants, are anti-inflammatory and help the immune system. While experts say this needs more research, it looks like tomatoes, with the antioxidant lycopene, may help prevent prostate cancer.
▪ French fries, fried mushrooms or other fried sides.
▪ You need fat, but make it good fat. Try avocados, almond butter or fish, especially cold water fish like trout, mackerel and salmon — preferably wild caught.
▪ Creamy sauces, fast food and processed foods with high saturated and trans fat content.
▪ Healthy snacks: Nuts offer protein, fiber, good fat and vitamin E, Rarback said. Also try peanut or almond butter on apples (or other fruit), cheese with whole wheat crackers or hard-boiled egg.
▪ Potato chips or sugary foods like doughnuts, candy and processed pastries. A high sugar intake is not only potential for weight gain, it’s also pro-inflammatory.
▪ Home cooking: When you cook at home, you have better control of the ingredients and portion sizes.
▪ Everything on your plate at the restaurant. And look for menu items that are baked, broiled or poached instead of fried.
▪ Water’s the best beverage: Drink lots of it, especially while training. Drink low-fat or fat-free milk or almond milk if it doesn’t have added sugar. Current thought is that it’s beneficial to have one or two glasses of red wine a day. But if you don’t drink, no need to start this habit.
▪ Sodas, sweet tea and other beverages loaded with sugar. Don’t overdo the sports drinks.
▪ Smoothies, but add food: Rarback suggests adding frozen mixed berries that are high in antioxidants without lots of sugar, plus half an apple, spinach and possibly ground flax seeds or chia seeds. Add skim or 1 percent milk or Greek yogurt.
▪ An abundance of whey protein shakes; protein shakes with varied supplements; shakes without added food.
▪ You can increase your carb intake the last week before you’re training for a marathon.
▪ Don’t binge on carbs the night before or the day of an event. “It may slow you down,” Zamora said.
▪ Plan ahead. Bring fruit, nuts and other healthy snacks from home.
▪ Hit the vending machine when you get those 3 p.m. snack cravings.