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Are protein powders necessary?

What ARE protein powders and do you need to be adding them to your diet?

Protein powders have become so commonplace that it’s natural to feel your diet is lacking without it. Is that true? Are our diets so naturally low in protein that if we don’t pay uber attention to how many grams per day we are getting, we will suffer the consequences of protein deficiency (including muscle wasting and diminished immunity)?

Protein’s purpose

Protein has a variety of physiological functions. The most commonly known function of protein is its ability to build and repair lean body mass (muscle). But protein has other important functions as well. It’s necessary for making antibodies that help with fighting infection, illness and disease. Hormones (messenger proteins that help transmit signals and coordinate functioning between different cells, tissues and organs) and enzymes (proteins that increase the rate of chemical reactions in the body) also come from protein.

Protein foods

Protein-rich foods are fish, meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt. Non-animal protein sources include soy products, legumes, lentils, nuts, nut butters seeds, meat substitutes, and grains.

Protein powder

Often made from whey protein (whey is the main protein found in milk), protein powder can be added to smoothies or shakes as a supplement to increase the protein content.

How much protein do we need?

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams protein per kilogram of body weight. So a 160-pound (72.3 kg) person needs 58-59 grams protein per day to fulfill their protein requirement. Here is an example day that provides more than adequate protein for this 160-pound person:

Breakfast: english muffin (4 grams protein) with 2 eggs (13 grams protein), an orange and a 12 ounce latte (8 grams protein)
Snack: greek yogurt (11 grams protein) and fruit
Lunch: turkey sandwich (21 grams protein) with sides (protein varies)
Snack: pretzels dipped in peanut butter (10 grams protein)
Dinner: black bean tacos (7 grams protein in ½ cup black beans, 8 grams in ⅓ cup shredded cheese, 5 grams in tortilla)

Total = 87+ grams protein

Pregnant women and athletes need more protein than others.

Pregnant women

Pregnancy and lactation require more protein in order to support the baby’s growth. Pregnant and lactating women need at least 71 grams per day (the example day above provides over 100 % of that same person’s needs if they were pregnant).

Athletes

Athletes need the added protein in order to properly repair and strengthen muscle tissue, but the amount of additional protein needed is often blown out of proportion. Some athletes have the “more is better” attitude with protein and assume that the more they eat, all the more muscle mass they will have. While athletes do need more protein than the non-athlete, there are limits and going beyond these will be of no benefit. If an athlete isn’t consuming adequate carbs and fat too, the athlete’s body will be forced to burn protein for energy – something it doesn’t like to do (carbs and fat are the preferred energy sources).

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training. Using the same example person above, the 160-pound athlete would need between 86 and 144 grams protein per day. The 160-pound example athlete would be meeting the 1.2 grams per kilogram body weight end of the recommended protein range by simply eating the menu outlined above. The elite athlete aiming for closer to 2.0 grams protein per kilogram body weight needs 144 grams of protein per day. This could be achieved by adding 4 ounces (28 grams protein) of grilled chicken to the tacos at dinner, 1 cup of nuts (24 grams protein) to lunch or the morning snack, and 1 cup of milk (8 grams protein) to the pretzels dipped in nut butter in the afternoon. The day above modified to accommodate the highest possible protein needs of our athlete now looks like this:


Breakfast: english muffin (4 grams protein) with 2 eggs (13 grams protein), an orange and a 12 ounce latte (8 grams protein)
Snack: greek yogurt (11 grams protein) and fruit
Lunch: turkey sandwich (21 grams protein) with 1 cup nuts (24 grams protein)
Snack: pretzels dipped in peanut butter (10 grams protein) with 1 cup milk (8 grams protein)
Dinner: chicken & black bean tacos (28 grams of protein 4 oz of chicken, 7 grams in ½ cup black beans, 8 grams in ⅓ cup shredded cheese, 5 grams in tortilla)

Total = 147 grams protein

When are protein powders necessary?

As you can see, protein powders are not necessary for an athlete to meet his or her protein needs because protein needs can be met through food alone. The usefulness of protein powders or drinks is related to convenience. If an athlete doesn’t have time to prepare a snack and a protein supplement or a protein powder added to milk or a smoothie is more convenient, then it would work out nice and conveniently. If you decide that incorporating a protein powder is an important part of your routine, look for one with 25–30 grams per serving. This amount of protein isn’t always what you find in a plant-based (versus whey) protein powder, but by mixing it with a protein-containing liquid like milk or soy milk, you’ll be fine.

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