Protein Powder For Active People: Why Is It So Popular And Do You Really Need It To Get Fit?

My original student guest blogger, and current Dietitian-in-Training Leigh Merotto is back once again! Today she is going to speak to us about protein powders and whether or not she feels they are necessary or even valuable components of an active person’s diet.

I personally love this topic because both protein powders and protein in general are extraordinarily hot topics and I find my clients are often curious about them.

As you will see once you get into the article, I  could not help but chime in with a section and a few edits of my own that help shed light as to why and how protein has become so popular and whether or not that popularity is justified.

Protein Powders: Do You Need Them?

By Leigh Merotto 

What is Protein ?

Protein builds, maintains and replaces the tissues in our body. The average healthy adult needs about 0.8 g per kg body weight per day. However, individuals who exercise intensely and/or strength train multiple times a week ( such as athletes)  have higher protein needs  that could be closer to the 1.2- 2 g/ kg body weight range (1). Among active individuals, those who lift weights generally have higher protein needs than more endurance-based individuals, which is precisely why protein powders are most often associated with strength training and weight lifting activities. Keep in mind that the higher end of that protein intake range is largely reserved for high level strength athletes and most people reading this page will be unlikely to truly need 2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day on a regular basis (1).

What is A Protein Powder?

Protein powders are concentrated and processed sources of protein, especially the two cow’s milk proteins (whey & casein). For vegans, vegetarians, or those looking to reduce their intake of animal products, there are also plant-based protein powders and supplements. These products rely on protein sourced from soy, pea, cranberry, hemp or even rice. Because they are generally more popular and widely available, much of the research on the effectiveness of protein supplements focuses on whey and casein proteins.  This should not necessarily be taken to mean that one type of protein is vastly superior to the other ( Pea, Rice).

How Are They Processed?

Protein powders can range in their processing levels. A protein concentrate contains fat and carbohydrate as well as the protein and may be higher in calories overall (2). A protein isolate is considered more pure than a concentrate as other non-protein components like fat, carbohydrate, and sugars have been removed (2).  Either isolates or concentrates can be “hydrolyzed,” meaning the protein has been partially broken down and can be digested and absorbed more quickly (2).  Aside from the overall calorie content & cost, the average active adult won’t be drastically impacted by the specific type of protein supplement they use. Certain  protein supplements may also have additional ingredients added such as artificial colors or flavors, artificial or natural sweeteners, preservatives, probiotics, fibre, vitamins and/or minerals.

 Pros and Cons of Using Protein Powder

Pros:

Easy to incorporate into meals & recipes (eg. add to smoothies, baked goods, pancakes)

Time-saving, effective for protein on the go (mix with milk/beverage of choice after a workout to promote muscle recovery)

Shelf stability ( does not require refrigeration) 

Drinkable ( for those who need protein but struggle with hunger or a desire to eat whole foods after workout or at other times)

Certain varieties may be a useful protein source for those with dietary restrictions

Cons:

Can be expensive

May cause digestive upset in some

Taste and texture may be undesirable (bitter, chalky)

Often lacks nutrients ( as compared to fortified soy/cow’s milk and whole food protein sources like chicken,beans etc)

As per above, may displace more nutrient dense foods if you rely on them too much

Why Is Protein SO Popular ( written by Andy)

So here’s the million dollar question. Why is protein popular to the point that a massive market exists for this powdered good?

Well, a large part of this has to do with the fact that protein plays such an important role in muscular development & recovery, which are obviously very sought after characteristics for athletes and active people.

The fitness and supplement industry has jumped all over this and marketed protein powder as almost an essential  component of superior fitness and a good physique, which further adds to the hype.

There is more to protein than just that though. Protein has unique characteristics ( as compared to fat and carbohydrate) because it is more satiating and also requires more energy from your body to breakdown ( known as the thermic effect of food).

For this reason, people with low protein intakes who replace some of the carbohydrate and fat in their diet with protein, may have better success managing their weight. This also explains why you may encounter protein powder being marketed as a weight loss aid in some instances.

The reality, however, is that most people have protein intakes that are completely reasonable for their needs and extra protein does not necessarily = extra muscle gain or extra weight loss for the average active person with a balanced diet.

Despite superb marketing efforts behind it due to the profits at stake, protein powder isn’t magical.

Many of the most important nutrients in the human diet are found in foods that include primarily fat and carbohydrate ( fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds etc) so it’s important not to get too carried away with this whole protein thing.

So, do I need to use protein powder to reach my fitness goals? ( Back to Leigh)

Probably not, but it depends.

While research does show that protein powders, such as whey, are effective workout recovery aids we certainly can’t say that these products are considered superior to whole food protein sources such as chicken, eggs, fish, milk and tofu.

While they may be more convenient for  certain people in certain contexts ( such as on-the-go athletes or active people), they may also lack many of the essential nutrients that these foods contain.

With that being said, getting 10-20 g of protein in a short period of time after resistance/strength training and/or high intensity exercise has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis so if you are unable to eat a meal for an extended period of time after training, and you like using protein powder, a modest amount would certainly be useful (2).

The average person gets enough protein from food alone though, and extra protein from powders is rarely needed.  A protein supplement should almost never regularly replace other healthy, whole foods high in protein like eggs, fish, meat, soy products, pulses, dairy, nuts and seeds; but rather, compliment a healthy diet and/or fill in nutritional gaps as necessary if you have elevated protein needs or unique dietary restrictions.

If you eat a well-balanced diet including a variety of whole and protein-rich foods at all your meals and snacks, you will be able to meet your increased protein needs from exercise and you should not need a protein supplement.

If however you are short on time, have numerous dietary restrictions, struggle with protein options ,have extremely high protein needs or simply just enjoy using these products, you can certainly find a home for protein powders in your diet.

The bottom line

Regardless of whether you choose to use a protein powder or not, the average person can get away with aiming for 20-30 g of protein per meal and 10-20 g after a workout or sporting activity (3). Although protein needs are elevated in athletes and active individuals in certain contexts, eating protein at a level far above your requirements is not necessarily beneficial for muscle gain/weight loss and could contribute to weight gain in some instances. It’s also expensive and could displace other important foods from your diet. More is not always better, but if you are an active individual who is still concerned about protein intake you should consider speaking with a Registered Dietitian ( Andy is a great choice.. Andy wrote this).

Thanks for the concise and informative piece Leigh, can’t wait to watch you continue to grow into an awesome RD!

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH

Sources

1. https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Public/noap-position-paper.aspx

2. https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Sports-Nutrition-(Adult)/Sports-Supplements.aspx

3. http://www.eatrightontario.ca/en/Articles/Physical-Activity/Sports-nutrition-Facts-on-sports-supplements.aspx