This week (actually, it’s been a while since I started writing this so it’s more like 3 weeks ago…) in our nutrition metabolism class we had our first debate. The topic at hand: Are protein supplements beneficial for “normal” people (it was up to us to define “normal”)? I was on the “no” side of the argument. We defined “normal” as people between the ages of 19-70ish who are of average activity level and are relatively healthy. We excluded kids, older adults, people with metabolic disorders like PKU, people who are recovering from physical trauma or surgery, or extreme athletes (like marathon runners or body builders).
I know there is a lot of talk about protein powder on the internet – it seems like every other girl on Instagram is trying to sell you some type of protein powder! So let’s take a look at the facts and use them to determine whether or not protein supplementation is necessary & safe.
What are proteins? Proteins are the “building blocks” of our bodies. They are used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, muscles, tendons, organs, skin. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids and our bodies need all 20 to build the proteins we need! Our bodies can make 11 of these – these are called the “nonessential” amino acids. We have to get the other 9 our diets – these are the “essential” amino acids.
So how much protein do we need? The Recommended Daily Intake for protein is based on body mass and composition. We need about 0.8g of protein/kg of body weight per day. This averages out to about 56 grams per day for the average man and 46 grams per day for the average woman.
Should I supplement before/after a workout? The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics says that our needs for protein don’t increase with moderate exercise – that means if you’re exercising for an hour or so at a time a few days a week, your protein needs are probably still pretty close to that 0.8g/kg body weight level. However, for very active people (i.e. your crazy friend who runs marathons), the recommendation does increase a bit – 91g/day for men and 75g/day for women. Of course every body is different and your needs may increase differently than someone else based on your activity level. If you can provide your body with enough protein from whole foods, supplementation is probably unnecessary.
Can we get that much protein from our diet? Absolutely. In fact, most Americans consume way too much protein – men consume, on average, 102g/day and women consume about 70g/day – that’s almost twice as much as we need!
To give you an idea of what that amount of protein looks like, just one serving of tuna has 25 grams of protein – that’s about half of your daily needs. And a serving size is only 3 ounces which is roughly equivalent to the size of a deck of cards or about the size of the palm of your hand. One egg contains 6g of protein, and 1/2 cup of cottage cheese contains 14g of protein. So as you can see, these amounts quickly add up to provide you with all the protein you need in a day.
Most people don’t need animal products to fulfill their protein needs. Meat, eggs, and dairy are the only sources of all 9 essential amino acids in nature – this means vegetarians and vegans need to work a little bit harder to meet their protein needs. 1/2 cup of lentils give your 9g of protein, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter gives you 8g, and 1 cup of quinoa gives you 8g – so you can see, even without animal products your protein amounts grow fast! The trick here is combining the right plant protein sources to get all of the amino acids you need (I will do a separate post on this with more details, I promise!).
Am I missing out on anything by supplementing with protein? If you are replacing meals, snacks, or any whole foods with protein powders, bars, or shakes, then you could be missing out on potential sources of nutrients. If you ate that serving of tuna instead of a protein bar, you would also get a good dose of Vitamin A, Phosphorus, and Magnesium. If you chose the lentils, you would get those three things plus a portion of your daily Vitamin C and Iron.
Many protein supplements contain loooooong lists of ingredients, including artificial sweeteners (another topic for another day). Whole food sources provide you with more than just protein – they also deliver essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs.
Are protein supplements regulated? NO. The FDA does not regulate supplements – there is no process for approval before they are sent to market. Companies are responsible for “self-regulating”, but the risk of contamination is unknown and there have been investigations into certain protein supplements that found arsenic, cadmium, and lead above trace amount levels.
If you can get all the protein you need from whole food sources, why risk it with unregulated products?
Do protein supplements help with weight loss, gaining muscle mass, or overall health? The jury is still out on all of these questions. Our class found studies conducted among different populations to support or deny all of these claims.
Our conclusion: You can probably get the protein you need from whole food sources! Protein supplementation might be beneficial for people outside of our “normal” category, but for most people, it is unnecessary. With all the added ingredients, artificial sweeteners, and potential contamination, why risk it? Eat some tuna, peanut butter, or lentils and get that extra boost of nutrients in addition to all the protein your body needs.
Your turn! Tell me…
- Have you ever used protein supplements?
- What else do you want to know about protein/protein supplementation?