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Whole Food Protein Sources: After a Workout, During Pregnancy, & Brain Boosters

Real Food high protein snacks

Protein shakes, energy bars, and supplements marketed to athletes sometimes feel like the worst offenders in the processed foods world. Between the odd chemicals claiming to boost muscle mass, increase energy, and extend endurance (creatine, anyone?) and the fact that most energy bars use soy protein, ignoring the fact that animal foods are the best source of usable protein available, that’s a whole category I’d like to stay away from.

(Unfermented soy, by the way, is sketchy because it is high in phytoestrogens that may be hormone disrupting, high in inflammatory omega-6 fats, and also incredibly high in phytates, which can hinder mineral absorption from the rest of the good food you eat. It also is simply a product of our century that anyone eats soy regularly without long fermenting it first – think miso, soy sauce. “New” foods in my traditional foods world equal “stay away.”) (top photo source)

We can get plenty of protein, even on the go, with exclusively real, whole foods and no packaged junk. You’ll love the list of high protein foods that readers and I put together for this post, so don’t forget to read all the way to the end for the practical goodies!

This post is sponsored by Radiant Life.

Why Protein After Exercise?

The fitness community does have some research backing up the recommendation to consume adequate protein, especially after a workout.

Consuming protein after working out helps to keep your net protein balance positive (whatever that means) which is necessary for muscle mass increase and to prevent muscle breakdown. This study, which I also don’t have the patience to understand fully, also found that there was no increase in benefit when consuming over 20 grams of protein (for a 190-pound, fit young man). 1

Therefore, most sources recommend that an athlete should consume between 6-20 grams of protein within an hour after a workout to help with muscle building and recovery. After that time, the muscles will have already begun breaking down in the absence of protein to fuel them.

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(photo source)

Throughout the day, it’s important to get enough protein, period, for optimal health and also for athletes to build and maintain muscle. Chad Landers, a certified strength and conditioning coach who also has a diploma in sports nutrition from the International Olympic Committee, contributed to CNN with this formula to determine your protein needs for the day:

  • An optimal range of protein intake for an athlete trying to gain muscle is .72-.81 grams per pound per day.
  • If your goal is to maintain muscle, the range is .54-.64 grams per pound per day.
  • Livestrong says that “Most adults need to consume about 0.4g of protein per 1 lb. of body weight.”
  • If overweight, calculate using your goal body weight.
  • To calculate your requirements, simply multiply your weight times one of the figures above.

For me, ringing in at about 125 pounds, I would need between 67-100 grams per day to maintain or build muscle mass and a minimum of 50 grams using the Livestrong figure.

Protein in Pregnancy

Protein Packed Real Foods After a Workout

When I was expecting our first child, we took Bradley birth classes and were instructed to count protein grams, seeking 80-100 grams per day. Building a baby is much like building muscle, apparently!

Protein in pregnancy is vital for baby’s growth, placental health, increasing the blood volume in the mother, and preventing pre-eclampsia or toxemia. 3

Consuming regular protein also may help avoid nausea for the pregnant mom, so this list should be helpful for anyone with child to try to make sure she has protein always available, even when out and about shopping for baby clothes.

Protein for Brain Health

What about the rest of us?

In my stage of life, I’m neither pregnant nor exercising regularly, but clearly I still need to make sure I get adequate protein from whole foods sources. Maybe if I increase it, I will have the neurons to rub together to help me understand all those research studies like I referenced above… Winking smile

This article by Jordan Rubin, author of The Maker’s Diet, demonstrates the important of protein for general brain health, energy, and even hindering the negative effect of sugar on the system.

Real food high protein snacks

What Kind of Protein?

For some reason I guess there’s a trend lately to encourage athletes to drink chocolate milk after a workout for the protein boost.

This may shock you, but I will not be recommending chocolate milk.

We real foodies know that real protein is found best in animal products: red meat, chicken, sustainable seafood, raw milk, homemade yogurt in a crock pot, cheese, etc.

Even the CNN expert cited above recommends animal products:

Whey protein is a faster acting protein so it is more effective before and after workouts, but it is important to eat protein from a variety of sources if possible (chicken, fish, lean meat, low fat dairy, beans/legumes, nuts) for optimal performance and health.

Of course, recommending low fat foods and okaying creatine (in his next sentence at the article) don’t sit all that well with me for this “expert”…

Athletes are also told to consume some carbs with their protein:

Sport drinks or foods that deliver high glycemic carbohydrates will stimulate an insulin response from the pancreas. Insulin counteracts cortisol and minimizes protein breakdown.


The combination of insulin and carbohydrate also increases glycogen storage in the muscle, which improves intensity and quality of subsequent training sessions. 2

This is where the chocolate milk recommendation comes in, I suppose. But the straight up white sugar or HFCS found in chocolate milk is simply unnecessary.

WebMD agrees:

Choose protein powders made from whey protein or milk proteins (milk protein contains two types of proteins, both whey and casein). Use them within 30 minutes after exercising to provide needed amino acids to muscles. For weight gain, use a protein drink as an evening snack.


Look for energy bars that contain about 5 grams of protein, with some carbohydrate (preferably with more naturally occurring sugars) and very little fat. Many energy bars are just glorified, expensive candy bars, so remember that “energy” means calories and watch out for high-calorie bars. They are helpful for athletes on the go, so if you can’t eat before a long tennis match, an energy bar can help.

I loved reading that recommendation for energy bars, since two small servings of my homemade quinoa oat protein bars would have 6.4 g protein plus carbs from naturally occurring sugars, and the grain-free quinoa bar recipe with whey powder from Radiant Life top the charts at nearly 12 g protein for the same amount!

Real Food On the Go Protein Sources

Real food high protein snacks

Certainly we can grill up a grassfed hamburger or some spicy Alaskan salmon, but what about getting that protein in within an hour after working out? And those pregnant mamas aren’t always near their kitchen to cook. With the help of the KS community on Facebook and Twitter, here’s a total brain dump of everything we could think of that would pack a protein punch, and also be packable itself:

  • Homemade beef jerky (13-22g protein for a small piece)
    • 28 g of beef jerky has 13 g protein according to a calorie counter, but I figured if dehydrating foods makes them end up at about 25% of their starting weight/size, take a 3-oz. portion of ground beef the size of a deck of cards, mentally cut 1/4 off of that, and you’ve got a small to average sized chunk of beef jerky. That should have 22g protein if nothing is lost in the making of the jerky by pouring off the fat! Impressive! My homemade jerky uses ground beef, is easy to chew and easy to make. (Recipe can be found in the newly expanded Healthy Snacks to Go eBook along with over 45 real food snack recipes – click HERE to learn more.)

      Real food high protein snacks
  • Vital Whey protein powder (16 g protein in 1 scoop or 20 g)
    • This is quality whey protein, by the way, from grassfed, GMO-free, chemical-free raw milk. It is not denatured by high temp spray drying like most protein powders, nor is it pumped up with other random ingredients. It’s just whey. My husband has been really enjoying mixing it with raw milk after his P90X and Insanity workouts – he says he missed his protein drinks after we ran out of the “other stuff” and I wouldn’t buy any more. Tastewise, it’s right on par with any protein powder he’s tried and mixes into liquids just fine. It does need to be shaken well or whizzed in a blender to totally mix in though, just like any other whey powder.
    • UPDATE (4-2016)! We reviewed about a dozen natural protein powders and found the hands-down BEST option!
  • High quality gelatin  (12 g protein in 1 Tbs.)
    • I’m thinking you could add this to any homemade bar, although I haven’t tried it. One Tablespoon of anything should just blend right in, right? 12 g of protein is impressive! This also means that homemade bone broth with good gelatin (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!) should be an excellent source of protein, although not quite as easy on the go.
    • UPDATE: More on gelatin (and its easier-to-use cousin, collagen) in this new post.
  • Green smoothies with yogurt, whole milk, some fruit, and maybe an egg yolk or two – add whey ice cubes for even more protein or the powder above.
  • NEW! Making Protein Shakes without Protein Powder from Tiffany at Don’t Waste the Crumbs. Great ideas!
  • Canned salmon (12 g protein in 1/4 cup, or about one salmon patty, which are great cold with Dijon mustard for dipping)
  • Tuna fish (13 g protein in 2 ounces, which is less than half of a small can) I’m wondering the feasibility of dehydrating tuna fish or salmon for travel…
  • Whole milk – take in a thermos or insulated stainless steel water bottle (8 g protein in 8 ounces/1 cup)
  • Whole milk yogurt(8 g protein in 6-8 ounces)
  • Nuts and seeds (range from 5-9g protein per 1/4 cup serving, with walnuts on the low end and peanuts on the high end)
    • Make trail mix!
  • Cheese (7g protein in one ounce – picture a few slices or 1/8 of a regular 8-ounce package)
  • A hard-boiled egg (6 g protein)
  • Nutritional yeast(8 g protein in 1.5 Tbs.)
    • Anyone know if nutritional yeast is “real food approved” or not? I feel like I see it added to things like popcorn and such, right?
  • GNOWFGLINS almond flour muffins from this month’s thank you video (9g protein each)
Real food high protein snacks
  • The following from the Healthy Snacks to Go eBook:
    • Protein bars (4.7 g protein when 16 bars – those are small bars!)
    • Popeye bars (4.6g when cut into 16 bars)
    • Power bars/balls – reverse engineered Larabars (1.5 g protein each for Cinnamix balls, pictured above, 7.4 g for a simple “peanutty” bar, plus the carbs needed for energy – add Real Salt to replace electrolytes, too!)
      • You can see a video of how to make the power bars in the new snacks lesson at the Fundamentals II eCourse
    • Homemade coconut muffins (3.8 g protein per muffin)
    • Crispy roasted chickpeas (7 g in 1/2 cup) pictured below
Real Food high protein snacks
  • Peanut butter (9 g protein in 2 Tbs.)
    • Think about adding to homemade recipes, putting on apples or celery, or you know…just pack a spoon!
  • Almond butter (7 g in 2 Tbs.)
  • Pancakes, preferably made into a sandwich with a Tablespoon of peanut butter, seriously yummy:
    • Almond apple pancakes (2.6 g each when making 12 pancakes with one cup almondspictured below
    • Grain-free banana Paleo pancakes (1.4 g each if there are 20 in a 3 banana recipe…)
    • Pumpkin Paleo pancakes (1.4 g w/coconut flour , 1.8 g with almond flour if 20 in recipe with 1 c. butternut squash.)
    • A single pancake sandwich with a Tbs. peanut butter, then, could have 8-10 g protein, and that would hardly even begin to fill you up. My son’s new favorite lunchtime food is a peanut butter pancake sandwich, thanks to this series!
Pumpkin Pancake Recipe
  • Black bean brownies (6.6 g protein in a 2×2″ piece) found in both Smart Sweets and The Everything Beans Book eBooks
    • What else with beans is travel worthy?
  • Peas (5g in 2/3 cup) I eat them frozen, SO refreshing!
  • Coconut macaroons (about 1.2 g each) found in Smart Sweets
  • Chia seeds (3 g in 2 Tbs.) add to homemade bars for a little boost

Remember to pair the protein with some carbs by grabbing a piece of whole fruit, dried fruits, or even a quinoa bar. Winking smile

One reader shared: “[I like to bring] boiled eggs, at least when you can keep them cool (but it doesn’t take much, a small cooler bag would suffice) with sea salt and a banana. Eating bananas after a workout made a BIG difference in how I felt later. I also found it helpful to not eat grain in the morning before I work out (I work out in the a.m., just after I drop off the kids), but I’m sure that varies by person.”

Is anyone else totally hungry right now? I could really go for some protein snacks (heads to fridge for a piece of cheese and grain-free quinoa bar…the version with chocolate!)

What other packable protein snacks can we add?

Be sure to check out the rest of the Real Food Weight Loss and Exercise series!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

22 thoughts on “Whole Food Protein Sources: After a Workout, During Pregnancy, & Brain Boosters”

  1. How does one eat as much protein as recommended for pregnancy? I tried eating nothing but animal protein with only condiments and veggies (no carbs) and I simply couldn’t eat 80-100g of protein! I think I was stuffed by the time I got to 50 or 60g.

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Hmmmmm…I didn’t have much problem Sarah. Maybe you are thinking portions are larger than they really are? 1 ounce of cheese is maybe 7g of protein, and that’s not a lot of cheese. Tuna fish is a really high one, and even chicken breasts…3 ounces is not very much chicken. But maybe I’m a big eater, too! 😉 You can only eat what your body will allow… 🙂 Katie

  2. Plain milk works just as well, but a little bit of sugar speeds up the nutrient delivery. You can always make your own chocolate syrup- then you control the ingredients that go into it.

  3. We do milk after my kids sports (flavored, but homemade flavorings), and they think it’s great because of the USOC study about chocolate milk and raisins, so they feel like Olympians. We are reducing/eliminating gluten around here, and having these great high protein snacks around would be great! Thanks for all the great ideas!

  4. I just made the apple pie Power bars/balls from your e-book and we all love them! One question though – do you chop the dates & dried apples before measuring? I chopped then measured and it worked fine, but I’m wondering if I can save a step (esp. since I’ll be making these a lot for snacks!). Thanks!

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      I always measure before grinding in the food processor, yes. Sorry if that was unclear! 🙂 Katie

  5. From the vital whey website “Vital Whey is produced with a unique pasteurization method that does not use high heat and utilizes a proprietary filtration and drying method. It involves the minimum amount of processing required by law: single flash pasteurization for 15 seconds at 161 degrees F. ”

    if it’s pasteurized, doesn’t that mean it’s considered denatured by real foodies?

    i’m disappointed their drying method is proprietary because i don’t know how else they could dry whey without spraying it. have you asked them if they spray dry? could they comment on that at all?

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      You’re right, I should know that answer – I’ll check with my contact! Thanks, Katie

    2. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Here’s the answer from Radiant Life:

      “Most raw or real foodies would say that the heat can cause changes to molecular structures in the milk. However, given the laws on the sales of milk products, this type of minimal processing is a requirement. It is done as delicately as possible to retain its maximum nutrient potential (key amino acids, cofactors and other beneficial micronutrients) while still ensuring a biologically safe product compliant with the law.

      Please note that neither heat nor acids are used in the production of the actual whey protein powder concentrate. It is only required that the milk be flash heated which is of course sourced from hormone-free, pesticide-free, grass-fed cows. The product is also completely free of sugar additives.

      As the drying process is indeed proprietary, we do not have access to the actual method but suspect that it involves a type of freeze drying. We do know it is not spray dried as that would involve the application of very high temperatures.”

      Thanks for asking!
      🙂 Katie

  6. Melizza Isip

    I highly salute to that idea, for pregnant woman out there here is your advice. This article is the best fit for you in order to maintain your good health and your future baby too.!


  7. I have been looking for information on helping my dd who is a gymnast have enough energy to get through practice and foods/drinks to help her recover after (practices are 4 hours). She is allergic to dairy and eggs, so it is hard! Thanks for so many great ideas.

  8. Pingback: Dieting for the Rest of Us » Blog Archive » Whole Food Protein Sources: After a Workout, During Pregnancy …

  9. I am pregnant with baby #2 (due next week…yea!!!). Figuring ways to sneak protein in can be a challenge. We make yogurt weekly and keep the whey after straining it. That gets added to smoothies. I do use an all natural whey protein powder when I am really in a rush. I also enjoy low sodium jerky (beef or turkey).

    As for the question about dehydrating tuna or salmon…it is possible. We dehydrate canned tuna and chicken for taking backpacking with us. I haven’t tried to eat it before reconstituting with water, but I am sure it would be fine.

  10. Great tips Katie!! I have been stuck trying to lose 15lbs and I know my diet is key but it’s the hardest part. I’ll definitely try to put some of these ideas into practice.

  11. Mom @ Cube2Farm

    Thank you so much, Katie! I lost 80lbs between babies but now I have another 80lbs to lose after baby #2. I am totally tempted to do it the way I did last time (600 calories a day of commercial protein-powder shakes), but I know that isn’t healthy. The temptation is that it was insanely effective. Even if I wanted to, though, I won’t because I am still breastfeeding. These recommendations will help me stick to whole foods as I lose the weight.
    PS – Have you heard of Amazing Grass? What do you think? whole-food or not? Thanks!

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Not one I’ve ever looked into…a possibility!
      🙂 Katie

  12. Scotch eggs. I make 6 or 8 and leave them in the fridge then have a ready, protein and fat loaded breakfast in 10 seconds. Here’s a recipe without grain fillers:

    1. Sorry, I just realised that’s a review of the recipe, but not the recipe itself. Here’s the original:

  13. I needed this article! I’m pregnant, just entering into my second trimester, and I’m tired of every source of protein I can think of. (Protein helped my feel less nauseated during the first trimester, but after six weeks, I’m ready to try something new!) Thank you!

  14. My current favorite “protein drink” is based on my grandma’s custard: I whip two whole eggs with my immersion blender and then use the blender to mix them into 2 cups of whole milk. I cook it in a double boiler until it coats a spoon. Drink it hot or cold depending on your mood. You can add vanilla extract or a little honey/maple syrup. You’re getting great fats alongside quality protein!

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