People often ask me about using protein supplements as part of their diet or exercise routine. Aside from cost, here are a few things to think about before you decide to pack in the protein powders.
Protein supplements can being very useful when used to help promote growth and healing with certain types of medical conditions (e.g. burns, cancer), as well as to meet protein needs when food intake is poor. They can also be used by busy people who choose to consume them instead of skipping a meal or snack.
As a dietitian, I am not so concerned about protein products marketed as medical foods (e.g. Glucerna, Boost, Ensure, etc.) since these products have a modest amount of calories and protein, are usually formulated to be easily digestible, contain a reasonable level of vitamins and minerals and are typically low in saturated fat. These products are frequently used in clinical settings where adverse effects can be noted and reported. Cost for these types of proteins is typically $1 - $2/bottle, or about $0.12/gram of protein.
Protein supplements come in whey, soy, and non-soy vegan/vegetarian versions, and these are the ones most people use for exercise recovery or to increase muscle mass. Some of these have a modest caloric and protein load-per-serving, and some even have added sugars to improve their taste. Some are high in added vitamins and minerals, and some are not. The prices vary, but you can typically expect to pay about $0.10/gram of protein.
Medical foods and protein supplements are generally more expensive than food - about double or triple the price per gram of protein. If you have a tight budget, then you might want to focus on getting protein from food. For more information about good food sources of protein, read "Protein Foods" at MyNetDiary.
Do athletes need to use protein supplements?
No. However, supplements might be helpful if the athlete is unable to consume enough food to meet both caloric and protein needs for their sport, especially if they are still growing, are recovering from major injury and/or have medical conditions that make meeting their nutrient needs challenging. Consuming a variety of whole foods from all food groups (whole grains, fruit, vegetables, proteins, lean/skim dairy or dairy substitute, nuts/seeds and plant-based fats) is the best tactic for meeting caloric and nutrient needs while also obtaining complete proteins that maximize protein synthesis.
Body builders, weight lifters and others who are trying to "bulk up" make the mistake of consuming excessive protein in hope of spurring muscle growth. Muscle growth requires three key ingredients: muscular stimulation/challenge, adequate caloric intake and adequate protein intake. In the presence of adequate caloric intake, however, excess protein intake will simply be metabolized and stored as body fat. In the presence of inadequate caloric intake, excessive protein will be metabolized and used as fuel.
According to the Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine on Nutrition & Athletic Performance, protein recommendations for both endurance and strength-trained athletes range from 1.2 - 1.7 grams protein/kg body weight (0.5 - 0.8 grams/lb body weight) per day. Example: 200 lb (91 kg) athlete would need about 110 - 155 grams protein per day. Protein can be consumed in meals and snacks throughout the day. Please read "Eating to Support Physical Activity" for more information about eating before, during, and after activity, and for sports nutrition references.
Are they safe?
Dietary supplements are not regulated as drugs or food. They are not required to be proven safe or effective before they go to market. For more information about how dietary supplements are regulated, as well as which ones are on the alert list, please visit the Food & Drug Administration's website.
Be a smart consumer and spend your money wisely. Will food meet your need just as well as that expensive supplement you take? Does your supplement give you a stomachache? Are you having trouble losing weight? Consider these factors before spending top dollar on a protein supplement. Sometimes, food really is the best choice!
Kathy Isacks, MPS, RD
Consulting Dietitian for MyNetDiary
-Consumer Reports. Alert: Protein Drinks. You don't need the extra protein or heavy metals our tests found.
-LA Times. Rethinking protein powder
-Cooking Light. Video: What to eat after a workout
Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.