Adding Protein to Your Diet  

In an earlier article (see The Power of  Protein) I addressed the role of protein in the diet and ways to get the most out of protein in your diet. However, a significant number of you are choosing to earlier take supplemental protein (in the form of protein powders in shakes), drink high protein beverages, or eat high protein energy bars. What are the pros and cons of eating these supplemental foods and how do they fit into your eating plan? 

What’s the point of protein supplements?
When you decide to eat a “meal replacement product” – protein shakes, bars, etc., what is your reason? Certainly the food supplement industry gives you a lot of reasons to consume their products – claims of increased fat loss, higher energy levels, or better protein availability are several of the more popular claims. But is there is any real evidence to support the use of these products? 

Bodybuilding and protein
Protein supplements have been very popular in the sport of body building for many years. Now, these products are used by the everyday person, usually as an aid to lose weight or lose fat tissue.   There is much heated debate about the value of specific sources of protein (whey v.s. casein or mixes of proteins), and the value of consuming individual amino acids or hydrolyzed proteins over whole proteins. However, despite the huge market for these products, there is no real scientific evidence to support consuming protein products over getting protein from real foods. 

Let’s Take a Look at Some Claims 

How much protein is enough?
In a diet that is well balanced, with high quality protein sources (lean animal foods, nonfat dairy products, or soy) there is very little chance that protein will be inadequate to meet the needs of most people for muscle growth, even for body builders. For one thing, bodybuilders and athletes usually pack on the calories to meet their energy needs, so their food intake is already quite high, and if a well-balanced diet is eaten, there will be more than enough protein in whole foods.  For those who are in a more strenuous program for strength training, to build muscle, it is important to:

  • Consume complete proteins (from one high quality source or a mix of foods) at every meal

  • Eat smaller meals about six times a day to have available fuel for building muscle

  • Eat a minimum of .8 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight

This is a higher intake of protein than what is needed for the every day person, however, once again, these needs can usually be met by eating whole foods. One exception is for those who have a vigorous strength training program and are cutting calories at the same time. It’s especially important in this situation to reduce calories quite moderately (lose weight slowly) so that food intake is high enough to meet the needs of building muscle. 

For the rest of us who are adults, not pregnant and not battling a major catabolic condition, protein needs can be met by getting about .8 grams protein per kilogram of body weight (this is for every 2.2 pounds, not for every one pound of body weight).  This translates to an average of about 50-60 grams of protein per day. For weight loss, protein need may be slightly higher, at about 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of desirable body weight. That is one reason your diet plan should not be much lower than 1400 Calories per day, so that adequate protein can be obtained with whole foods.  

Is More Protein Helpful?
More protein than what is needed for your specific needs for the growth and repair of body tissues is simply expensive, extra calories. Extra calories that are not burned for fuel will be stored as body fat, and this means weight gain. There is no advantage for weight trainers or the regular guy to consume extra protein, and it certainly doesn’t help to “burn fat”. 

What About Protein Supplements?
There is no biological advantage in consuming individual amino acids, (the building blocks of protein). Some people take them because the claim is that they are absorbed more quickly and better. However, the body’s digestive system was designed to consume and utilize whole proteins in whole foods, and it has plenty of enzymes to break down proteins for the needs of the body. (One advantage of “hydrolyzed” proteins may be in infant formulas, for babies who have a sensitivity or allergy to proteins). Otherwise, the average adult doesn’t advantage from consuming amino acids pills. 

There is a lot of debate about the optimum type of protein in these supplemental products. The most recent copy of BodyBuilder features an article about whey v.s. casein. Again, this is a huge industry, and that means that a lot of money is devoted to selling the benefits of these products. The bottom line is, extra protein, over what you need, is not going to do much for you for weight loss, or for building muscle. 

Protein Bars and Shakes

Argument against these foods
When these foods are supplemental to the diet (for those wishing to gain weight), high energy protein bars and shakes can do a good job of adding body weight in the form of easy to consume, highly dense calories. When you consume these products as a substitute for a real meal (as in the case of weight loss), I think they have much less value. Meal replacements are a poor, expensive substitute for real foods, because  they don’t contain the natural, beneficial substances present  in real food, and if you eat the same meal replacement regularly, you are essentially relying on that product to supply you with too much of your nutritional needs.  In this situation, you run the risk of poor nutritional intake, especially if you are trying to lose weight and exercise at the same time. Plus, did you notice how expensive these are? 

Argument for these foods
Well, the best argument is that they are a convenient source of energy, and in a jam, when you are simply too busy to eat a real meal, they offer quick nutrition of fairly high quality. The next argument is that if your choice is to eat a typical fast food meal or a meal replacement shake (with high quality ingredients, vitamin and mineral supplementation), you are probably better off choosing the meal replacement! 

How do these foods fit into your plan?
There are hundreds of these products, each with their own nutrition value. I have been searching for products that have the actual eating exchanges available, and will list those products in the member’s area. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite meal replacement, e-mail me the product contents, brand name, and nutritional info, and I’ll let you know how to count this into your eating plan.