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Health Benefits of Pairing Protein with Carbohydrates

Photo: Beau Gustafson; Styling: Mindi Shapiro
We’ve unlocked the key to pairing carbs with proteins. See why this dynamic duo is beneficial for satisfaction, energy, and weight loss.

Eating protein builds muscle. Eating simple carbs--sugary candy, sodas, white bread--sends blood sugar levels soaring, does a number on health, and wreaks havoc with weight loss plans. That’s just basic nutrition chemistry 101, something most of us already know. What you might not realize, however, is that pairing these two macronutrients together, choosing the right carbs and the healthiest proteins, can be a match made in health heaven. At least some of the time. Here’s why.

Weight Loss Aid: Yes.
Pairing protein with carbs delivers a double whammy when it comes to shedding pounds. First, the body spends more energy (calories) digesting protein than it does carbs. Secondly, protein helps shut down appetite and promote feelings of fullness at, and long after, meals. The key is to choose healthy plant or animal proteins-nuts, lean meats, fish, dried beans--and pair them with slow-digest (less processed) carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Blood Sugar Stabilizer: No.
Alas, it’s a common misconception that adding protein to a meal helps keep blood sugar levels balanced.  Again and again, research shows the main determinant of blood sugar levels after a meal are the carbs--amount and type--you eat. However, experts at Harvard School of Public Health do see an advantage to PC pairing. It makes it less likely you’ll gobble up overly processed carbs like cookies, crackers, and white bread.

Better Athletic Performance and Endurance: Maybe.
Endurance athletes have long depended on carbs as their primary fuel both during and post exercise. Preliminary new studies suggest an advantage to pairing a small amount of protein with that carbs. The dynamic duo, it seems, can boost performance, decrease muscle damage and improve recovery better than carbs alone. Experts would like to see more research, and more consistent findings, before making firm recommendations. Oh, and one caveat: when experts recommend pairing protein with carbs, they’re not talking about eating a high-protein, low-carb diet. Studies confirm that normal amounts of protein, or the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (about 54 grams for someone weighing 150 pounds) are more than enough to create health benefits when matched with healthy carb choices.