By Candace H. Chemtob, MS, RD, LD, CSSD
Claiming a “high protein” content gives nutritional supplements the “general aura of healthiness” (BBC, June 6, 2013). High protein supplements, in the form of drinks, powders, or bars, have long been the darlings of weight-lifters but are now being marketed to athletes, dieters, and even ordinary people as a shortcut to “bulk up,” lose weight, replace meals, reverse aging, and get a jolt of energy. The claims sound terrific, but do you need these supplements?
First, let’s start with some basic facts about protein. Proteins are long chains of smaller components called amino acids. There are twenty amino acids, of which eight are considered “essential” (meaning we cannot manufacture these amino acids and they must be supplied in our diet). Protein is part of every cell, tissue, and organ in our body. Despite the importance of protein, it is not stored in the body like fat (adipose) and carbohydrate (glycogen). Protein is constantly being broken down and replaced.
Dietary protein is digested into amino acids, absorbed and used to build new proteins (www.cdc.gov). The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 46 g/day for women and 56 g/day for men (www.cdc.gov) or 0.8g protein/kg body weight. The average American diet is well in excess of this, with females consuming an average of 70g protein per day and males 100g per day. Given that the average American consumes more protein than their bodies require, are these protein supplements necessary?
To answer this question, here is a common sense approach to evaluating your protein needs:
1. Calculate your protein needs using 0.8g protein/kg (1 kg=2.2 pounds). Elite squash players have increased protein needs of 1.2 to 1.4g per day. Note: Even elite athletes tend to meet their protein requirements through food alone. By eating more to meet energy (calorie) needs, their protein intake is concurrently increased.
2. Determine your daily protein intake. This is easy by reading labels and using smart phone apps or re- sources on the web.
3. If you are not meeting your protein needs, which would be unusual (unless you are vegetarian), why not eat or drink whole, natural foods to boost your protein intake? For example, an extra glass of milk (10g protein), three ounces of chicken or any other meat (21 to 24g), a cup of yogurt (6 to 18g), or two tablespoons of peanut butter (8g) will significantly boost your protein intake.
4. More is not better. Eating more protein than you need does not increase muscle mass. Excess protein is bro- ken down and converted either into sugar (glucose) or is used to make fats (fatty acid synthesis) (www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov).
5. Don’t waste your money. Protein drinks are shockingly expensive, gram for gram of protein, when compared to whole, natural high protein foods (e.g. The cost of 160g of protein in Myoplex is $13.50 whereas milk provides the same amount of protein at a cost of $3.40).
6. Watch out! Consumer Reports found that common protein drinks such as Myoplex, BSN, and Muscle Milk may contain harmful substances. These products were found to contain the heavy metals, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury. (www.consumerreports.org).
7. Be a role model. Using protein supplements sends a message to young athletes that “supplements are the foundation of optimal performance rather than proper diet, training, and years of practice” (Gatorade Sports Science Institute, 1999).
8. Some high protein drinks, powders, and bars use “in- complete” protein sources such as collagen (FYI: Collagen is generally derived from boiling animal hooves, skins, and bones). Read your labels carefully, as this form of protein does not have all the essential amino acids needed to stimulate protein synthesis or muscle building.
Do not take any type of supplement, high protein or other- wise, if you are a NCAA or professional athlete. In addition to being contaminated with harmful substances, such as heavy metals, these products have been known to contain banned substances and may put your college sports career at jeopardy.