Protein powders typically sport images of chiseled “Gods” on their product labels. Add a litany of promises to the pic — “Lose weight,” “Bulk up,” “Have more energy” — and it’s no wonder protein powders are all the rage among athletes, weight lifters, even moms trying to slip back into their skinny jeans (and coax their kids to eat more nutritiously).
No matter how you shake it, protein supplements — whether consumed in a liquid, gel, or souped-up bar — are becoming an increasingly popular, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, associate professor at the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine and author of “The Doctor’s Detox Diet.” And while science supports eating protein after a strength workout for muscle rebuilding, the real scoop on this so-called super food is less clear cut.
Protein is the building block for muscle, tissue, bones, and blood. It’s essential for maintaining bodily functions, regulating insulin, and, yes, maintaining a healthy metabolism. In fact, since Atkins came on the scene in the 1960s, high protein diets have been a popular weight-loss strategy, says Gerbstadt. And studies show that eating protein during the hours following a resistance exercise provides essential amino acids needed for muscle recovery.
“Some body builders intuitively eat every two to three hours,” says Martin Gibala, PhD, professor and chair in The Department of Kinesiology at Canada’s McMaster University. “We don’t know which specific amino acids are best, but there’s some evidence that milk-based proteins (including casein and whey) are better for muscle repair and rebuilding than other proteins like soy.”
According to Gibala, a single dose of 20 grams of protein stimulates muscle growth and repair (about the amount in 3 eggs). Protein shakes, on the other hand, boast five to three to four times that much.
While protein shakes may seem like a perfect health food, they really represent a step away from whole foods. Manufacturers process protein powders often adding sugars, non-calorie sweeteners, preservatives, and food dyes, says Gerbstadt. And since they are considered supplements, not food, the Food and Drug Administration has no purview. The worst offenders have loads of artificial sweeteners, additives, and preservatives, and some powders contain low levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic according to a 2012 Consumer Reports investigation.
The base of most powders is whey or casein, both dairy-derived proteins that can create food intolerances (among other issues). Soy powders, too, may trigger allergies. In addition, most soy in this country is genetically-modified and may become denatured during processing. That leaves pea, rice, and hemp, but of course, all three come with a higher price tag.
On a more basic level, most Americans already get too much protein (even the heavy lifters of the lot). According to the Institute of Medicine, the recommended intake of protein for men and women are 56 grams and 46 grams respectively. Yet, surveys show women eat an average of 70 grams of protein per day, and men eat about 100 grams. The rub: Whatever your body doesn’t break down for energy will likely tax your liver and kidneys. It may also add a layer of unnecessary padding.
“Since protein contains calories, consuming too much can actually make you gain weight,” says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, CSSD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — especially if you drink protein shakes in addition to your usual diet and you’re not exercising.
In today’s fast-paced world, preparing a healthy, nutritious meal is a tall order, and protein shakes offer a quick, portable way to maximize nutrition with minimal effort. But, according to Gerbstadt, protein shakes should be an occasional post-workout treat, or in-a-pinch-meal replacement, not a plant-based, whole-foods diet in the making. Rely too heavily on them to replace regular meals, and you’ll miss out on the perks available in protein-rich real foods, including chicken, beef, nuts, and fish.
Still want to shake things up? Look for 100 percent unflavored, unsweetened dry protein powder from a reliable company (preferably one that does third-party testing on their products), suggests Gerbstadt. Then toss in high-quality ingredients like leafy greens, berries, milk (plant-based or conventional), and flaxseed. A bonus: each of add on contains essential vitamins and minerals that aid in recovery and muscle building.
“The message for athletes is that eating some protein after a workout is going to be beneficial. Does it matter if you get it from a glass of chocolate milk or a tuna fish sandwich or a protein shake? Right now, we can’t say, so our advice is just to eat real food when you can. And split meals containing protein throughout the day,” says Gibala.
March 16, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN