WHY DO I NEED PROTEIN POWDER??
Eating enough protein is not just for athletes or would-be Schwarzenegger types. It is necessary for a healthy immune system and required for organs like your heart, brain, and skin to function properly. The nutrient is also touted for its ability to help control appetite and enhance muscle growth.
How much protein you need typically depends on your exercise routine, age, and health. And whether to supplement protein intake with a protein powder has become a common query.
A closer look at protein powder
To make such supplements, protein is extracted from animal or plant-based sources, which range from cow’s milk and eggs to peas, rice, and soy. During processing, naturally occurring carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and fiber are often removed, while supplementary nutrients, herbs, and even sweeteners may be added.
Anyone considering protein powder should understand that it is classified as a dietary supplement, which means it is not regulated in the same way as food or medicine. The responsibility falls on manufacturers to ensure that their products are not hazardous, though many companies do not test for safety or efficacy before their offerings hit shelves. Though the FDA created Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) to help minimize adverse issues, compliance with these procedures remains a concern. In 2017, roughly a quarter of supplement-manufacturing companies whose products were tested received citations related to purity, strength, and ingredient content.
That said, there are accredited organizations, like NSF International, that independently test supplements, including protein powders. NSF’s “Certified for Sport” designation ensures that contents match what is on the label and that the product is GMP-registered and does not contain unsafe levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury.
How much protein do you need?
How much protein you need is another crucial consideration when deciding whether you might benefit from supplementing your diet. The amount thought to be adequate for most healthy people, called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), is set at 0.8 grams per kilogram. For someone who weighs 150 pounds, this translates to roughly 55 grams of protein; a 200-pound person requires about 70 grams of protein. Certain athletes undergoing intense training may enhance their progress by consuming more than double the RDA, but this doesn’t apply to most of us.
Most people can get enough protein from their diet
One egg, one half-cup of chickpeas, or a small handful of nuts all provide roughly 6 grams of protein. A piece of chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards offers about 30 grams.
For many people, it is relatively easy to reach the recommended amounts through their usual diet. On average, Americans consume 65 to 90 grams of protein each day. (Young women under the age of 19 and seniors older than 70 are more likely to be at risk for low protein intake.)
Research suggests older adults and exercisers looking to support muscle growth may benefit from eating one-and-a-half to two times as much protein as the RDA. As we age we lose muscle, and research shows boosting protein may help increase strength and lean body mass. But unless you have a restricted diet, such as a strict plant-based or vegan regimen, this increase is often still achievable through food.
Though pregnant women have slightly elevated protein needs, they should consult an obstetrician or dietitian if considering protein supplements, as companies sometimes add potentially unsafe ingredients like ginkgo or papain to protein powders. Also, individuals with kidney disease often benefit from consuming marginally less protein than the RDA and should talk to a healthcare provider before supplementing with protein.
Protein powders are convenient but unnecessary for most
If you are a healthy adult considering supplementation, you should determine whether your goal is to improve muscle mass, as most research is centered on enhancing muscle growth and strength. Older adults may benefit from increasing protein slightly, regardless of their exercise routine; however, for most of us, resistance training is more effective than simply supplementing with protein.
For those looking to enhance the muscle growth that typically occurs with exercise, evidence supports consuming 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time (roughly the amount found in a can of tuna). Larger quantities simply contribute calories and can actually reduce muscle-building potential. So, having several scoops of protein powder at once is unlikely to be helpful. Plant-based powders often have less protein, but shouldn’t be discarded as an option. Rice and pea protein, for example, have been shown to stimulate muscle growth similar to whey, a milk-based protein touted for its high quality and quick absorption.
Unless you are an older adult with a limited appetite, have a restricted diet, or are a trained professional athlete, chances are you can adjust your food intake to get what you need. Protein from food is often cheaper, less risky, and naturally includes beneficial nutrients.
If increasing protein the old-fashioned way is not an option, taking a supplement can be both effective and convenient. But most of us don’t need to channel our inner Mr. Olympia by using a protein powder.
Background: Protein supplements are frequently consumed by athletes and recreationally active adults to achieve greater gains in muscle mass and strength and improve physical performance.
Objective: This review provides a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the literature that tested the hypothesis that protein supplements accelerate gains in muscle mass and strength resulting in improvements in aerobic and anaerobic power. Evidence statements were created based on an accepted strength of recommendation taxonomy.
Data sources: English language articles were searched through PubMed and Google Scholar using protein and supplements together with performance, exercise, strength, and muscle, alone or in combination as keywords. Additional articles were retrieved from reference lists found in these papers.
Study selection: Studies recruiting healthy adults between 18 and 50 years of age that evaluated the effects of protein supplements alone or in combination with carbohydrate on a performance metric (e.g., one-repetition maximum or isometric or isokinetic muscle strength), metrics of body composition, or measures of aerobic or anaerobic power were included in this review. The literature search identified 32 articles that incorporated test metrics that dealt exclusively with changes in muscle mass and strength, 5 articles that implemented combined resistance and aerobic training or followed participants during their normal sport training programs, and 1 article that evaluated changes in muscle oxidative enzymes and maximal aerobic power.
Study appraisal and synthesis methods: All papers were read in detail and examined for experimental design confounders such as dietary monitoring, history of physical training (i.e., trained and untrained), and the number of participants studied. Studies were also evaluated based on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the training, the type and timing of protein supplementation, and the sensitivity of the test metrics.
Results: For untrained individuals, consuming supplemental protein likely has no impact on lean mass and muscle strength during the initial weeks of resistance training. However, as the duration, frequency, and volume of resistance training increase, protein supplementation may promote muscle hypertrophy and enhance gains in muscle strength in both untrained and trained individuals. Evidence also suggests that protein supplementation may accelerate gains in both aerobic and anaerobic power.
Limitations: To demonstrate measurable gains in strength and performance with exercise training and protein supplementation, many of the studies reviewed recruited untrained participants. Since skeletal muscle responses to exercise and protein supplementation differ between trained and untrained individuals, findings are not easily generalized for all consumers who may be considering the use of protein supplements.
Conclusions: This review suggests that protein supplementation may enhance muscle mass and performance when the training stimulus is adequate (e.g., frequency, volume, duration), and dietary intake is consistent with recommendations for physically active individuals.
Researchers looked at the health records of nearly 3,000 men and women ages 19 to 72, as well as food questionnaires that the participants filled out. The researchers estimated the participants’ total protein intake as well as their dietary percentages of protein from specific sources, such as fast food, full-fat or low-fat dairy, red meat, fish, chicken, and legumes. They also looked at participants’ lean muscle mass, bone mineral density, and quadriceps strength—all measures that are important for fitness, health, and better functioning, especially as we get older.
Vegetarian Protein Powder
When the researchers compared this data, they found that people who consumed the least amount of protein overall also had the lowest measures of muscle mass and strength. But the type of protein people ate didn’t seem to matter: After the researchers adjusted for other factors, they found the differences in protein sources had no impacts on musculoskeletal health, for men or for women.
According to the study authors, these results suggest that eating more protein is related to better muscle health. This becomes especially important in middle-age and later in life, they add, since people tend to lose muscle as they get older. (Protein intake did not have a significant effect on bone mineral density in this study, although it has in previous research.)
Lead author Kelsey Mangano, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says the study delivers a message that meat and veggie lovers can both celebrate: “As long as a person is exceeding the recommended daily allowance for protein, no matter the source in their diet, they can improve their muscle health,” she says.
In other words, people who want to go meatless can still build muscle with the help of quinoa, peas, nuts, beans, and soy. And if you prefer to refuel after exercise with a turkey and cheese sandwich? That works too.
The study was observational in nature, so it was unable to draw any cause-and-effect conclusions—and since the participants’ age range was so broad, the findings should be replicated in older adults who tend to get less protein on a daily basis, says Mangano. (For people who don’t consume enough protein, she speculates, the type they eat may become more important.)
It’s also important to remember that the study only looked at bone and muscle health—just two components of good health overall. “When we think about our health as a whole it is important to decrease intakes of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars,” says Mangano, who is also a registered dietitian.