In light of a recent Consumer Reports investigation that found traces of heavy metals in many different commercial protein drinks, it’s worth evaluating the hotly-debated topic of protein supplementation. The good news, whether you’re concerned about a little lead in your diet or just about the cost of shakes and powders, is that if you’re healthy, you probably don’t need to use protein supplements at all. Research has consistently shown that Americans get enough just from an ordinary mixed diet, even athletes.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for normal, healthy adults is 0.8 g of protein per kg (not lb) of body weight. That’s enough to keep mostly sedentary adults from losing body protein just from normal daily metabolism. The average protein intakes in the United States easily cover this requirement.
While there are no official recommendations for athletes, it has generally been shown that endurance athletes need about 1.2-1.4 g/kg, perhaps going a touch higher than that with very high intensity exercise. If you are strength training, you need 1.2-1.7 g/kg, depending on your size, gender (men need more than women because of increased lean mass percentages), duration and intensity of exercise, and whether or not you want to gain mass. These numbers have been well established and are detailed in a recent joint position statement by the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada.
If that sounds lower that what you have heard on the street, you’re probably right, but science has yet to show an athletic benefit to consuming more than 1.7-2.0 g/kg per day. Any protein in excess of that will most likely be used for energy or even stored as fat, not for building muscle. Furthermore, supplementation of protein or individual amino acids has not shown to improve athletic performance or enhance muscle building. The key is to increase your intake of protein and calories (as well as important vitamins and minerals) by eating more real food. Supplements never make up for a diet that isn’t up to par.
Fortunately, if you’re training hard enough, your appetite and intake should increase accordingly, and certainly enough to meet your increased needs! For a 135-pound runner, that’s about another 4 oz of lean chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, lean beef or cheese, or 3 oz of any of the above plus one cup of milk or two slices of bread. For a 170-pound weightlifter, that’s roughly an extra 5-6 oz of lean meat, or 4-5 oz meat plus one cup of milk or two slices of bread.
Some people cite convenience as a reason for using protein powders and shakes, especially pre- and post-workout. A couple of easy, not to mention nostalgic, food choices provide ample protein, plus the carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals you won’t find in all protein supplements. One or two hours before exercise, try a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat (the peanut butter and bread are good complementary proteins, meaning that when combined they offer every essential amino acid). After exercise (15-30 minutes), 1-2 cups of low-fat chocolate milk provides optimal amounts of protein and carbohydrates to aid recovery, not to mention calcium, which is critical for muscle contraction as well as maintaining bone mass.
None of this is to say that protein supplements are bad for you when used judiciously. Even the presence of trace amounts of heavy metals probably won’t harm you unless you drink three servings per day, according to the Consumer Reports study (that amount might not be great for the long-term health of your kidneys, either). But it really isn’t necessary, and you get more bang for your buck, financially and nutritionally, with real food. Remember, the supplement industry is huge business and not regulated by the FDA. Believe it or not, their concern is selling you as much as you’re willing to buy, not necessarily your health or athletic performance. Shocking, right? No, of course not- but it’s good to always keep that in mind.
If you are using protein supplements, here are a few guidelines:
- Choose whole, complete protein over individual amino acids, which may throw off your amino acid balance and lead to changes in neurotransmitter production.
- Whey and soy are both complete proteins, offering all essential amino acids.
- Whey protein digests more quickly and efficiently than soy protein, making it a slightly-better choice after exercise. Whey also has a little more of the essential amino acids.
- Soy protein has more glutamine and arginine than whey, and is the better choice for vegetarians.
- If you’re lactose intolerant, soy protein is the best choice (no lactose), followed by whey protein isolate (90% protein and very little lactose). Whey protein concentrate contains anywhere from 29-89% protein, so the less protein in a sample, the more lactose it will likely have.
- Powders are generally the best bet. Commercial shakes and bars are often loaded with processed sugars, fat, saturated fat, and in some cases, trans fats (hydrogenated oils)! Always check the label and ingredients list.
And as always, be safe. If you’re unsure about any supplement, consult a sports dietitian. If you are worried about trace metals in your protein drink click here to check out how your supplement stacks up.