The Scoop on Protein Powders & Supplements

June 1, 2009

By Dawn Peacock, BSc, RD
Dawn is a Registered Dietitian at Talisman Centre

Q. "I know that protein is important when trying to build muscle, so I use a protein powder to make sure I get enough. What are your thoughts on protein powders?"

A. Great question! You’re absolutely right that you need protein to build muscle. Other reasons why it’s important to get enough protein include making enzymes and hormones, keeping your immune system strong, healthy skin and nails, mental alertness, weight loss and appetite control (protein keeps you full longer). But before we get into your question about powders we need to take a quick look at how much protein we need in a day (it may be more, or less, than you think!)

The current recommended daily intake (RDA) for protein for adults over 19 is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. It’s important to note that this amount is a conservative estimate of our needs and that getting more is generally considered safe by most experts (while still staying below 2 g/kg). Protein requirements are higher for endurance and strength trained athletes and range from 1.2-1.7 g/kg.

What you may not know is that protein is not stored in your body, and is not used as a readily available energy source. However, if carbohydrate and fats are not available, your body may use protein as fuel. This means that if you are not getting enough carbohydrates, your body will use protein as an energy source instead of muscle repair and growth. Bottom line is that you need both protein and carbohydrate to build muscle (some people only focus on the protein).

So, what do I think about taking protein powders and/or supplements?

Well, I believe that the first question you should always ask yourself before taking any supplement (including protein) is “do I need it?” Generally, most people are able to get all the protein they need from a balanced diet without needing to take protein supplements. I do recommend that you try to meet your nutritional needs from whole foods first, because of all the additional nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and minerals you get from food that are usually not in a supplement.

Protein supplements tend to provide very large amounts of protein but are missing important nutrients that you get from eating protein rich foods (Iron, Vitamin B12, Zinc). (See the table below for a comparison of protein, iron, Vitamin B12 and zinc from foods vs protein supplements). I took a look at a number of protein supplements on the shelves and most don’t provide much, if any, iron. This can be a concern for people who use protein supplements as their main source of protein, because it is protein rich foods that typically provide a lot of iron in our diets. Additionally, the iron requirements for athletes may be increased by up to 30 to 70%. Women, long distance runners, endurance athletes, adolescents and vegetarians are at a higher risk of iron deficiency and anemia which can lead to fatigue and poor athletic performance.

Another concern with protein supplements is that you are more likely to go over your protein requirements when you use supplements. Excessive focus on protein may mean that you’re missing out on other important foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

My final issue with protein supplements is that many of them are expensive. If you do chose to use supplements, just keep in mind that you don’t have to spend a fortune on a designer supplement to see results. Expensive does not necessarily mean better quality, (it usually means better advertising!)

So when are protein supplements helpful?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against protein supplements! In the right situation they can definitely play a role in helping you meet your protein needs. If you find that you are not able to meet your protein requirements with your food choices, they can be an option. Protein supplements also have the advantage of convenience and portability

A quick note for athletes (well I guess not just athletes!) – Many protein supplements are not third party tested (or even tested at all) and may contain substances that could potentially cause issues if you are regularly tested for your sport. Don’t assume that they are safe to take, you need a guarantee. It is ultimately your responsibility to know what you are consuming.

Bottom line – If you feel that you need to (or want to) use protein supplements, the first step is to check how much protein your regular eating provides. If you do use supplements, don’t overdo it (more is not better), spend too much money or miss out on other important nutrients because of it!

Curious about whether you’re getting enough protein? Curious if your supplement is suitable for sporting regulations? Contact the Talisman Centre nutrition services (403-355-1281) and book an appointment with our Registered Dietitian.

Do you have a question for Ask the Dietitian? Contact us today!

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