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Do You Really Need Protein Supplements?

protein supplements

What flavor is your post-workout protein shake? You can find them to suit any preference, from chocolate to snickerdoodle. According to Euromonitor International, protein powders are a $4.7 billion industry in the United States, and the numbers are on the rise. But are those protein shakes helpful or harmful to your health?

WHY IS ADEQUATE PROTEIN CONSUMPTION IMPORTANT FOR A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE?
The body uses protein to build and repair bones, muscles, connective tissue, hair and skin. It also helps oxidize red blood cells, make enzymes and regulate hormones.

IS PROTEIN IMPORTANT FOR ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE?
Yes. Protein is essential for recovery from physical activity. Hitting the gym five days a week without refueling cells can deplete energy, weaken immunity and cause muscle loss. Increased protein consumption during weight loss helps maintain satiety and minimizes the loss of lean muscle tissue precipitated by a calorie deficit.

DOES ATHLETIC ACTIVITY AFFECT THE AMOUNT OF PROTEIN THE BODY NEEDS?
Yes, but the recommended increase in protein is not as dramatic as many think. The U.S. National Library of Medicine offers the following recommendation:

“Athletes, even body builders, need only a little bit of extra protein to support muscle growth.” This can be achieved through sensible diet modifications.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein for the average person is 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health suggest a modest increase for those who are active—about 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for those who engage in regular endurance exercise and 1.7-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram for strength exercisers.

CAN TOO MUCH PROTEIN CONSUMPTION CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS?
Yes. Despite fitness lore that says gulping down protein shakes or eating two dozen eggs a day will spur rapid muscle growth, research suggests that too much protein consumption can cause myriad health problems, including sluggishness, dehydration and increased risk for kidney disease and prostate cancer.

In addition, excess protein consumption has the same negative effect on weight-loss efforts as does the overconsumption of carbohydrates and fat. The excess protein will either be shuttled into energy production or stored as fat.

 ARE PROTEIN POWDERS SUPERIOR TO REAL-FOOD PROTEINS?
Alyssa Tyler, a contributing writer for the Cleveland Clinic, advises that, while protein supplements are easy and convenient to use, they are inferior to real food as a source of protein.

“You can meet your body’s daily protein requirements whether you drink shakes or eat only whole foods,” she says.  “However, they don’t offer equal nutrition. What you may find surprising is that shakes generally contain fewer nutrients than whole foods. For that reason, shakes may help you lose weight, but whole foods can offer a bigger nutritional punch.”

ARE POST-WORKOUT SHAKES REALLY NECESSARY?
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition advises that the timing of nutrient intake in relation to exercise is important, but not nearly as urgent as touted by many supplement distributors.

“Despite claims that immediate post-exercise nutritional intake is essential to maximize hypertrophic gains, evidence-based support for such an ‘anabolic window of opportunity’ is far from definitive,” the study reports.  “The hypothesis is based largely on the pre-supposition that training is carried out in a fasted state.”

More important to the development of lean muscle tissue is maintaining stable protein levels throughout the day.

“In practice,” the study notes, “it is common for those with the primary goal of increasing muscular size and/or strength to make a concerted effort to consume a pre-exercise meal 1-2 hours prior to training in an attempt to maximize performance. Depending on its size and composition, this meal can conceivably function as both a pre- and an immediate post-exercise meal, since the time course of its digestion/absorption can persist well into the recovery period.”

ARE PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS FOR YOU?
Whether you are an athlete or lead a more sedentary lifestyle, daily consumption of protein is important to your health. Most experts concede that the sensible use of protein supplements is not harmful if you are in a hurry or forgot to pack your lunch. Given the choice, however, many suggest it is better to crack open an egg or munch on a turkey sandwich to give your body a vitamin-packed protein boost.

LOOKING FOR 25 GRAMS OF DAILY PROTEIN POWER TO FEED YOUR MUSCLES? HERE ARE FIVE EASY SNACKS THAT CAN REPLACE YOUR PROTEIN SHAKE:

3 oz. grilled chicken breast
3 oz. can of tuna in water
1 cup Greek yogurt
4 hard-boiled eggs
4 mozzarella string cheese snacks

About the author

Ryan Jones