These days you’d be forgiven for thinking that pricey protein powders and supplements are a prerequisite for building muscle and maintaining any credibility in the gym. In 2011, sales data collection agency AZTEC reported that Australians spent had $80 million on sport food, a figure that has surely risen since. But are protein supplements really worth the money?
It’s estimated that about half of our body weight is made up of protein. Found in many of the foods we eat – eggs, meat, dairy products, legumes like beans and lentils – protein is vital for cell growth, repair and immunity. But why all the interest from those wanting to bulk up, slim down, shed weight, or simply ‘shred’ (whatever that means)?
Once ingested, proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are then utilised to build other proteins and carry out other metabolic processes. According to Sports Dietitians Australia, (SDA) the key amino acid of interest to athletes is leucine, which appears to “play a critical role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis”. In other words, it may aid in repairing muscle damage after training sessions, and could even fuel muscle growth. Many of the foods we eat are high in leucine, including meat and dairy proteins.
How much do we need?
Your individual need for protein depends on a number of factors, including age, weight, level of physical activity and health. As a guide though:
|Group||Protein Intake (g/kg/day)|
|Recreational endurance athletes:||0.8-1.0g|
|Elite endurance athletes||1.4-1.6g|
Source: Australian Institute of Sport (2009)
For example, a 60kg woman would require around 45g of protein per day.
That sounds like a fair amount, and therefore you might think supplements are a solid option, particularly for those exerting themselves more than the average person.
Yet as SDA points out, many of the foods we already eat are considered ‘high biological value’, or HBV. These HBV foods are not only crammed with a wide range of essential amino acids (those that aren’t produced naturally by our body, and thus need to be obtained through dietary sources), but are also digested efficiently and can provide around 20-25g of protein per serving – a figure which has been shown to “maximally stimulate protein synthesis”.
In other words, it’s not hard to get your required daily protein simply through a regular healthy diet – no supplements necessary.
But perhaps you want to boost your protein intake above your recommended daily intake. Well, don’t bother; the human body can’t store protein, so additional excesses will simply be excreted.
|Food||Amount||Protein (g)||Energy (kj)||Cost|
|Cheddar cheese (Reduced fat)||70g||22||770||$1.10|
|Skim milk powder||60g||22||880||$0.39|
|Egg, whole||3 eggs||19||890||$0.73|
|Beef, poultry, seafood||120g||25||640||$1.80|
Adapted from SDA
What’s more, as Associate Professor and APD Tim Crowe notes, those frequenting the gym are generally already following a higher protein diet, further negating the need for extra supplementation. Respected nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton agrees, pointing out that being deficient in protein is actually an extremely difficult task to achieve, with most Australians consuming over 25% more than the suggested figure – almost the amount recommended for elite sports people. (And remember what happens to the excess?)
Crowe and Stanton also concur that a glass of milk or normal meal should suffice to top up your protein store following sports or a gym session. Crowe adds that flavoured milk is a close match for protein powder, offering carbohydrates from sugar, protein from milk, and amino acids.
Good for some
All that being said, protein supplements may be helpful for some. There are advantages to consuming protein in the ‘post-exercise-period’ when the body has an increased sensitivity to protein. Those training at an elite level may find their appetite suppressed after exercising, at which point an easily digested protein shake is a good option. A protein shake might also be a good option for times when a convenient on-the-go alternative is needed, such as after an early morning workout.
Another top tip from those in the know is to add a scoop of skim milk powder to milk, or even to other liquids like soup or cereals. This can significantly increase a drink or meal’s protein content at a fraction of the cost of those pricey supplements.
Are there any dangers of overdoing it with protein?
Aside from a recent, openly disputed study suggesting high-protein diets may be associated with greater risks of cancer and diabetes, not a whole lot is known about the long term side effects of such diets.
The AIS advises that under 2g/kg should be safe for most people, but high levels of protein are associated with calcium excretion – a risk factor for weak bones. High protein diets are also known to exacerbate pre-existing kidney disease. However, the major concern is that a diet focussed solely on high-protein foods, specifically meats and animal products, may neglect or ignore other healthy foods that provide essential nutrients like carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Should I bother?
Unless you’re training at an elite level, adequate protein can be achieved through a regular healthy diet, so there’s little necessity to spend the money on supplements. That being said, there is little risk associated with supplement consumption, so there’s no harm in finishing up your workout with a protein shake if your training doesn’t feel complete without one.
Tags: athlete, diet, dietitian, fad diet, Fat, food, health, muscle, nutrient, nutrition, protein, protein powder, protein shake, protein supplement, protein supplements, protein synthesis, SDA, supplement, supplements, work out