I’m sure many of you who go to the gym can relate to a familiar scene: guys and girls coming out of the weight room, filling up a bottle with water and some type of powder, shake mixing and drinking this mystery beverage that resembles watered down chocolate milk. You’ve probably even overheard the same people talking about gains and their favorite supplements to take.
So what’s in this mystery drink? In this case, the answer is usually protein powder.
First, let’s talk about protein and its functions. Your entire body is made up of proteins—from the hair on your head to the muscles in your toes. It’s a key macronutrient that serves a multitude of functions. It’s essential for muscle growth, catalyzing metabolic reactions, and DNA replication, just to name a few. Proteins consist of a chain of amino acids, also called peptides, with each amino acid being individually unique.
As humans, we need a total of 20 amino acids. There are 11 amino acids that we can make in our body (called nonessential amino acids). There are some that we cannot make, and we refer to these as the 9 essential amino acids. These can be obtained from the food we eat. The essential amino acids are extremely important for fueling our muscles and bodies on a daily basis.
Where does protein powder fit into this?
Well, you can think of protein powder as a “powder form” of these 9 essential amino acids. It comes in a variety of forms, with the most common being whey, soy and casein. Whey and casein are proteins found in milk and dairy products. Both are considered complete protein, with whey being fast absorbing in the body, while casein is slow absorbing. This makes the ever-popular whey protein great to consume after strength training to quickly re-fuel your muscles. Casein protein is better to consume as a meal replacement, because it will slowly digest in the body to keep you full and focused throughout the day. Lastly, soy protein is a plant-based protein that comes from soybeans. The protein from these legumes is low in fat and a great protein source for vegans and vegetarians.
When is protein powder a useful dietary supplement?
According to the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), released by The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, the RDA for protein is 0.8 grams/kilogram of body weight. This is the “average daily dietary intake of a nutrient that is sufficient to meet the requirement of nearly all (97-98%) healthy persons.” That means the average American man needs about 56 grams/day, and the average American woman needs about 46 grams/day. To visualize, one egg, a lean 3-4 oz. chicken breast, and a 3-4 oz. piece of fish combined are around 50 grams of protein, about what the average woman needs daily.
The average person likely has no need for protein supplementation. But if you fall under one of the following categories, you may consider additional supplementation from protein powder.
- During a period of growth. Teenagers, who are still growing, may not get enough protein, or tend to consume protein rich foods that are also higher in saturated fat. Efforts to educate these consumers on healthy eating can help; a protein supplement is typically unnecessary.
- If you’re weight lifting. If you’re resistance training, your body will require an increase in protein to aid in muscle recovery. Consuming adequate protein in a snack that also contains carbohydrate [think chocolate milk or peanut butter on whole grain] within 1 hour of your workout will most effectively help with muscle recovery.
- If you’re recovering from an injury or suffering an illness. Protein is the foundation of scar tissue, and once an injury occurs, protein needs dramatically increase to help repair the damage. Anytime the human body must rebuild for any reason, including during the time one has a cold or flu, protein needs are elevated.
- If you’re vegan or vegetarian. Vegan and vegetarian diets sometimes eliminate a lot of meat, eggs and dairy sources of protein. Adding protein powder to a snack or smoothie helps, but optimal protein sources for vegan diets should continue to be proteins like tofu, beans, nuts, seeds.
Protein is an extremely important macronutrient, not only in the diet, but for many biochemical processes in the body. Eating a healthy balanced diet, as recommended by myplate.gov, is the preferred method for getting nutrients. There may be a time when protein supplementation is required, however always speak with your healthcare professional beforehand.