One of the most popular words I hear around the athletic community is “supplement”. What do you take for a supplement? What brand of whey protein do you use? Are you cycling through creatine? What about those BCAAs? This is most definitely a loaded subject and one that I could write a dissertation about. Today’s focus will be on educating ourselves on protein and skimming the surface on protein powders.
Let’s start by reviewing protein. Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients from which we get energy (aka calories). Protein is made up of building blocks we call amino acids. There are 20 in total, 9 of which are essential, meaning we have to get them from external sources (food). Some of protein’s functions include enzyme and hormone production as well as building and repairing muscle, skin, nail and hair.
How much protein do I need daily?
The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein is 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day for the average adult. There has however been some debate about whether this amount is enough to promote optimal health. Protein is important especially in those looking to increase their physical activity for fitness or sport. Not enough protein and energy intake and the body will break down protein in the muscle and use it for energy. It’s no surprise that more active individuals would require more protein compared to those who call walking to the bus stop their daily sweat.
Protein requirements will vary greatly depending on many things; what type of athlete you are, your weight, age, exercise intensity, duration, physical preference, and diet quality. Endurance athletes require 1.2-1.4 g/kg of body weight per day where as strength and power athletes require 1.2-1.7g/kg. Some suggestions recommend 1.1 to 1.4 g for recreational athletes. (Fink, 2009). As an example, a crossfitter who works out 4 times a week on average, weighing approximately 185lbs would need somewhere around 93-120 g of protein daily. A female recreational crossfitter weighing approximately 130lbs needs about 65-85 g of protein daily.
Are protein supplements necessary?
The International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests high-quality protein from food is enough to repair muscle tissue and improve performance (Campbell, 2007). High quality proteins come from milk, egg, soy, meat and fish. These sources contain all the essential amino acids. Leucine, an essential amino acid, may actually play a very important role in initiating muscle protein synthesis. Leucine-rich proteins include dairy products, beef, poultry, seafood, pork, peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans. Some evidence also suggests that 10-20 grams of high quality protein in the early recovery period is enough to maximally stimulate protein synthesis (PEN, 2014). Whey and soy protein for example are high quality proteins. Rice and pea protein however are not complete proteins.
Protein supplements are no more or no less effective than food for building muscle mass when dietary energy intake is adequate (PEN, 2014). Even though that may be the case, I don’t ever rule out protein powder. Of course as a Dietitian I am a big supporter of food through nutrition, but powders can be of benefit for some.
For starters it’s extremely convenient. Here’s a scenario; you finish your workout, socialize with your pals for 10 minutes, commute home, answer some emails, make your meal, and finally start eating 2 hours post exercise. You have already missed the most critical time for refueling. Taking protein powder and having this on your way home with carbohydrates instead of waiting the 2 hours would be of benefit to your recovery.
I might also recommend a supplement for those who don’t have much of an appetite following a workout. By simply not eating any protein you risk protein catabolism; where your body may utilize muscle protein as an energy source when its glycogen stores are depleted. Powders are also an easier and faster way of consuming protein. Making a smoothie with some yogurt and fruit, or munching on a homemade protein bar with dried fruit and whole grains is clearly a much better alternative to not eating, which many of us are guilty of doing when the thought of making a meal is exhausting in itself.
Some of the reasons why I might not support them? As an isolated macronutrient, protein powders lack other nutrients that naturally accompany proteins found in food. Beef has iron. Salmon contains healthy fats. Yogurt has calcium. Protein supplements do not contain these nutrients. When we eat food sources of protein, we often eat them in conjunction with other whole foods that offer vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fats that are not found in protein supplements.
At the end of the day, taking a protein supplement comes down to lifestyle habits and really what’s most convenient for you. Is it a good source of protein for recovery? Sure. Should you substitute it for a meal? No. If protein powder is what works for you, try to accompany it with food sources that are rich in carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluid for recovery. Now at this point you might be asking yourself “but what kind of supplements would you suggest”? That’s a topic for another time, readers…
Emilie Trottier, RD, Sports Dietitian
Fink HH, Burgoon LA, Mikesky AE. Endurance and Ultra-Endurance Athletes: Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2009
Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:8
PEN. Sport Nutrition Evidence Summary. The Global Resource for Nutrition Practice. 2014