First of all, sorry for the awful pun 😉 One of the most common questions people seem to ask when starting out a fitness regime is “do I need to take protein supplements?” It’s certainly one of the questions I always wonder about as there is just so much information and products out there that’s it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s just really clever marketing. Having a science background I feel like I’m programmed to be skeptical of everything and therefore like to do my own research about things I’m unsure of. Since protein and protein supplements are such a hot topic at the moment and it’s something I get asked about a lot I’d thought I’d do a bit of research and share what I found. Personal opinion differs, some people swear by protein shakes and other people won’t touch the stuff so I decided to speak to a Dietician and read up on various countries health guidelines as well as the World Health Organisations recommendations to give as objective an explanation as I can. In short, these guidelines suggest that most people don’t need protein supplements as we can and do get enough protein from diet alone.
Public opinion seems to be divided about how much protein you need as the media is constantly changing it’s stance but most governments recommend between 0.8-1g of protein per kg bodyweight per day. Obviously athletes need higher amounts to provide for muscle repair after exercise but generally if people are doing this much training they probably have tailored nutritional plans anyway. According to the Australian Institute of Sport, sedentary males and females and recreational athletes need between 0.8-1g of protein per kg bodyweight per day. So as an example, an average 70kg person needs about 63g of protein a day. Below I’ve given an example of an average days meals and calculated the approximate protein content (to make it simpler to read I haven’t included all the fruits, vegetables and grains that would accompany these meals, I just picked out the obvious high protein parts):
2 eggs = 12g
Full fat milk cappucino: 6g
1/2 avocado = 4g
100g Greek yoghurt = 10g
10 almonds = 2g
100g salmon = 22g
1 cup cooked quinoa = 8g
This days worth of food amounts to about 96g of protein which is higher the recommended intake. The World Health Organisation has however set out a safe upper limit of twice the RDA. So if you are following a diet like this then there should be no need for protein shakes and supplements. Most protein supplements provide about 20g of protein, for example a single quest bar has 20g of protein and a protein shake has 24g. If you can get enough protein form food then these supplements can just be an unnecessary expense. They also lack any other nutrients that could be gotten with natural sources of protein from food.
Generally people are advised to eat protein fairly soon after a training session to aid in muscle repair, it’s also advised to have some carbohydrate too to replenish muscle glycogen stores. A protein shake is handy but a fruit smoothie or even chocolate milk is generally considered just as good. Protein supplements won’t give the same nutrients and are more expensive. If taking them, especially if you’re an athlete, you have to be really wary of what else is in them apart from protein as there could be banned substances that could show up in drug tests (which is definitely becoming more common and nobody is exempt). Even if you’re not an athlete you should still want to know what you’re putting into your body…
High protein diets are very trendy at the moment for a number of reasons. Firstly protein is very satiating, meaning that it keeps you feeling full for a long time. This means that you aren’t as hungry, eat less and ultimately can lose weight easier. Unlike fats and carbohydrates, excess protein is not stored in the body. Instead it is excreted, meaning that it won’t cause fat gain. There is however a lot of debate as tho whether these type of high-protein diets are safe or not. So far there hasn’t been much research to actually prove that they are dangerous but there is a lot of speculation that it puts extra pressure on the kidneys as extra pressure is put on them to filter the excess protein and this could be dangerous for people with pre-existing kidney problems. The effects may however be long term and it is suggested that this is why there is a lack of studies on it at the moment.
Another worrying effect of high protein diets is that it may adversely affect bone health, which is a major concern for women. Without going too much into the biochemistry of it, when protein is broken down in the body it is acidic. The body doesn’t like to be in this state so it tries to balance out the acidic conditions buffering it with a base. This base can be calcium which is taken from bones. Bone density decreases and calcium is excreted in urine. Studies do however suggest that high protein diets are OK (and can actually be beneficial for bone density) so long as individuals also increase their intake of calcium rich foods such as fruit, vegetables and dairy and don’t simply replace these foods with protein.
So the general advice from governments and health professionals seems to be that we can get more than enough protein from our diets alone. Protein shakes can be handy but aren’t essential and you need to do your research to find out what exactly is in the product you are taking, especially if you are an athlete subject to anti-doping testing. At the moment protein seems to be the big word on peoples lips when it comes to weight loss and there is logical reasoning behind this but people should also be aware of recommended levels and guidelines and make sure that if they do increase protein levels that they do not neglect other important food groups.
For more info check out the Australian Institute of Sports guidelines here
Click here for the full article on high-protein diets and bone health.
The SuperFit Foodie