and Protein: The Truth About Supplements
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD - author of
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook
When you look at the ads in almost any
sports publication, you cannot help but notice the supplement industry is hard
at work promoting protein powders, bars and shakes.
Their goal: to convince athletes they need
extra protein to build muscles and recover from exercise. Never before have I
talked to so many frenzied athletes bodybuilders and marathoners alike
who are worried their standard diets are protein-deficient and
inadequate to support their sports program. They commonly ask: Whats the
best protein supplement?
My response: Why do you think you even need
a protein supplement in the first place? You can easily get the protein you
need through standard foods. Believe it or not, very few athletes need any type
of protein supplement.
Yes, protein supplements can be helpful in
certain medical situations. For example, an athlete with anorexia may be more
willing to consume a protein shake than eat tuna, cottage cheese or chicken.
Patients with cancer or AIDS often benefit from protein supplements if they are
unable to eat well.
But I have yet to meet a healthy athlete who
is unable to consume adequate protein through his or her sports diet. Hence,
the purpose of this article is to look at the myths and facts surrounding
protein supplements, so you can make informed decisions regarding your sports
How much is enough?
Only 10% to 15% of total calories need to
come from protein. Although athletes require slightly more protein than does a
sedentary person, a hungry athlete tends to eat hefty meals with large portions
of protein-rich foods.
That extra peanut butter sandwich, second
chicken breast at dinner and taller glass of milk satisfies any and all protein
needs without any supplements.
Following are recommendations for a safe,
adequate protein intake:
(numbers are given for grams per pound of body
weight, with an example for a 150-pound person):
- Sedentary person: 0.4 gms/lb; 60 gms/150
- Recreational exerciser, adult: 0.5 -
0.75, 75 -112
- Competitive athlete, adult: 0.6 - 0.9,
90 - 135
- Growing teenage athlete: 0.8 - 0.9, 120
- Dieting athlete, reduced calories: 0.8 -
0.9, 120 - 135
- Maximum for all healthy athletes: 0.9
gram/lb (2 gm/kg)
Note: Protein needs change
depending upon calorie intake. That is, if you are dieting to lose weight and
are in calorie deficit, you will need more protein than if you are eating
adequate calories. Your muscles burn protein for energy when fuel is
Example: If you weigh 160 pounds
and want the maximum acceptable protein intake (0.9 gms pro/lb), you'd need 144
grams of protein an amount you could easily consume from a day's diet that
includes 1 quart skim milk (30 gms protein), 1 can tuna (30 gms pro), and 8
ounces chicken breast (70 gms pro).
The small amounts of protein you get
from the foods that fill out the rest of your diet (cereal, bread, broccoli,
frozen yogurt, etc.) will bring you to more than 144 grams of protein. More
protein will not be "better."
And no scientific evidence supports the
idea the protein or amino acids in supplements are in any way superior to the
protein from eggs, milk, lean meats, fish, soy or other ordinary foods.
Is more better?
Eating more than the recommended protein
intake offers no benefits. Apart from being costly, a protein-based diet
commonly displaces important carbs from the diet. That is, if you have an
omelet and a protein shake for breakfast instead of cereal with banana, you'll
consume fewer carbs to fuel your muscles properly.
Carbs are the primary fuel for athletes
who do muscle-building resistance exercise. Once your muscles become
carb-depleted, fatigue sets in and your workout is over. Your diet should
provide extra carbs, not extra protein.
If you consume too much protein from
supplements, you may also fail to invest in optimal health. For example, I had
one client who daily ate five protein shakes and four protein bars to
the exclusion of standard food. Displacing natural foods with engineered foods
(such as protein supplements) limits your intake of the vegetables, fruits,
grains, fiber, phytochemicals, natural vitamins and other health-protective
nutrients that Nature puts in whole foods.
Pre- and post-exercise
Q. I've heard I should eat a
protein bar for a pre-exercise snack?
A. Protein has typically been
consumed at meals, away from the time of exercise. New research suggests eating
protein before you work out can optimize muscle development. Pre-exercise
protein digests into amino acids that are then ready and waiting to be taken up
by the muscles after a strength workout.
This does not mean you'll evolve into
Charles Atlas; you'll simply optimize your body's ability to build and repair
muscle at that moment.
The amount of protein needed for this
benefit is tiny about 6 grams (less than 1 ounce of meat). You certainly
do not need a hefty pre-exercise protein bar nor a thick steak. A yogurt,
cereal with milk, or a slice of peanut butter toast will do the job just fine!
A pre-exercise protein supplement is a needless expensive.
Protein source (with cost/grams of
protein/cost per gram) MetRx Big 100 Bar: $2.50, 26 grams, 9.5 cents
PowerBar ProteinPlus: $1.95, 24, 8 cents
Tuna, 6 oz can: $0.99, 30, 3.5
Skim milk, 1 quart: $0.75, 32, 2.5 cents
Peanut butter, 2 tbsp:
$0.15, 7, 2 cents
Q. Ive heard I should I eat
protein right after I exercise to enhance the speed of glycogen recovery?
A. Supposedly, eating some
protein along with carbohydrates after exercise stimulates insulin, and that
stimulates greater glycogen uptake. At least five carefully controlled studies
have shown the addition of post-exercise protein does not offer any advantages
when the athlete eats adequate calories from carbs.
My advice: If you refuel with wholesome,
refreshing meals that appeal to you, you'll inevitably get the nutrients you
need. Fruit and yogurt, nuts and raisins, bagel sandwich, and pasta with meat
sauce are just a few popular recovery foods that offer an enjoyable combination
of both protein and carbs to refuel, rebuild and repair muscles.
Copyright: Nancy Clark 7/02
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutritionist at
SportsMedicine Associates (617-739-2003) in Brookline MA.
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook