Many people want to know the “secret” to good body composition—the one magic bullet. But as a registered dietitian with years of working with climbers and other athletes, I can assure you that, first, there is no one secret—just smarter approaches to nourishing. Second, there is no one “best” macronutrient; carbs, fat, and protein each have multiple biological purposes, so it’s unwise to entirely eliminate or focus on any one. And third, more is not always better with anything “beneficial” to our nutritional health—instead, we should focus on timing, portion size, and listening to our bodies. Still, that said, I’m willing to bet most climbers could step their game up simply by eating more protein.
Climbers Need Protein
The basic USDA recommendations for protein consumption are based more on preventing protein deficiency and less on building muscle and getting lean. This often leaves climbers wondering how to sustainably change their body composition, which conventional advice tells us we can do by “training more and eating less”—tending, as climbers mistakenly do, to restrict all food. However, it’s more about precision regarding what we consume and when. If you’re trying to reduce weight, increase power, hasten recovery, and improve how you nourish overall, adopting a high-protein diet is a great place to start.
How Protein Works
Protein is best known for its muscle-building properties, which is great for climbers, as increased muscle mass helps us “burn” fat even at rest. Maybe you’ve heard of the “thermogenic effect of food”? In short, it measures how much the consumption of food boosts metabolism. Protein consumption increases metabolism by 30 percent, versus carbs at 10 percent and fat at 5 percent—regular protein consumption means more calories burned. Moreover, the research on long-term high-protein diets consistently finds them cultivating a decrease in overall consumption of food, food cravings, body weight, and adiposity. Much of this occurs due to protein’s impact in the brain: Protein consumption signals your brain that you have been fed and are satisfied, and so you stop eating.
Time Your Protein
Timing matters. It’s more advantageous to eat 3 to 4 ounces of protein (roughly the size of a deck of cards—see sources on facing page) multiple times per day, yielding about 20 to 28 total grams, than to cram large portions into one or two meals. And, while it’s important to get protein post-workout to provide amino acids to synthesize muscle, it’s equally as important to have it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Consider your discipline
Supporting your specific style of climbing and/or training with nutrition can take you a long way.
Training and the daily grind
Climbers looking to support their weekday training, sustainably improve body composition, and just feel great energy- and recovery-wise can base their meals on 20 to 25 grams of daily protein. Doing so for 3 to 5 meals and/or snacks per day will support muscle maintenance, while also keeping blood sugar balanced and motivation high. The fuel sources—e.g., carbs and fat—you’ll pair with your protein depend on personal preference, goals, and level of activity. If you are mostly sedentary, opt for small amounts of high-quality fat and high-fiber, slower-digesting carbs like beans, lentils, or winter squash. If you’re in training mode, choose faster-digesting carbs like fruit, potatoes, and rice.
Sport, trad climbing, and bouldering
Here, your main focus will be fueling your cells with more carbs (fuel) than protein (a building block). Consume protein in a 1-to-3 ratio with carbs—e.g., 7 grams of protein + 21 grams of carbs. Note: If you’re working to maintain optimal body composition, limit consistently high-carbohydrate meals and snacks to days when you’re trying hard. This will prevent excess carbs being stored as body fat. Great fueling carbs include fruit, potatoes, rice, honey, whole-grain breads (if you can tolerate wheat), and oats.
Alpine and big-wall climbing
Here, you want nutrient-dense, high-energy fuel, such as a mixture of fat and carbs, with protein taking a back seat. The brain will need glucose from carbs to keep you focused and on task while the cells will need fat, the most calorically dense macronutrient, to keep the body warm and energized. Optimal combinations include almond (or peanut) butter and honey or high-quality fruit preserves on hearty bread, beef jerky with nuts and dried fruit, ProBars, Perfect Bars, or nut or seed butters with fresh fruit.
Animal and plant proteins are both great. Animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids (EAAs), whereas plant proteins do not (save soy and quinoa). However, if you eat a variety of plant proteins, you can consume all the EAAs. Both types of proteins offer a plethora of other benefits—e.g., minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, etc. Here are top food sources of both types, along with a table (above) showcasing how best to incorporate protein supplements.
Fatty fish and seafood
Salmon, swordfish, cod, herring, tuna, sardines, shrimp, oysters, mussels, lobster, crab
Poultry and eggs
Turkey, chicken, duck, and chicken and duck eggs or egg whites
Game and red meat
Grass-fed lean beef, bison, lamb, buffalo, wild game
Organic 2% or full-fat yogurt, organic cottage cheese, high-protein cheese like feta or Parmesan
Whey isolate, casein, mixed whey + casein, collagen, egg-white protein, etc.
*For optimal health, all dairy should be organic.
Organic tofu, tempeh, edamame, soybeans
Beans and lentil
Including peas, peanuts, lentils, all types of beans (yes, canned beans are acceptable), and chickpeas; Banza Pasta or Explore Cuisine Edamame or Bean Pasta
Nuts and seeds**
Hemp seeds, pepitas, almonds, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds
Grains and pseudo grains
Quinoa, buckwheat, wheat, farrow, and amaranth
Protein powders and other
Spirulina, mycoproteins, and protein powders like pea protein, hemp protein, rice protein, soy protein, etc.
**Nuts are a better source of fat than protein, but they do contain small amounts of protein, which is beneficial to the overall EAA profile if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
Maintaining muscle mass, fat loss, fast absorption, post-workout
Mix with nut milk, water, or into a smoothie with greens + fruit
Building muscle mass, maximum satiation
Mix into a smoothie with greens + fruit; mix with water, milk, or alternative milk
Highly bioavailable; sensitive stomachs
Blend into a smoothie with water or alternative milk
Support for connective tissue, skin, nails, and muscles
Blend into a smoothie with greens + fruit + alternative milk
Vegetarians or vegans or food sensitivities; also, great for extra fiber
Blend with unsweetened alternative milk + greens + ice
Strenuous workouts or long days at the crag
Mix one scoop into water
If mixing with water, get one that is naturally flavored and free of dyes—alone, BCAAs taste terrible!
Protein Terms 101
Consisting of fat; adipose tissue is fat tissue. Fat is not always “bad”—the body, especially the female body, requires base levels of fat for optimal health.
A measurement of the body’s proportions of water, fat, protein, and mineral components (bone), done via bioelectrical impedance analysis.
Essential amino acids
A group of nine amino acids that we can’t synthesize, and so must consume from food.
A diet consisting of 35 percent or more calories from protein. For athletes, research shows optimal muscle synthesis with a feeding pattern of 4 to 5 meals per day.
Thermogenic effect of food (TEF)
The amount of energy required by your body to digest, absorb, and assimilate specific macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein). TEF measures how much consumption of the food uses energy and therefore “boosts” metabolism.