What's with all the Protein?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Protein is a very important part of the diet. Think about this: DNA is the 'code' that makes us who/what we are, right? Well, DNA makes protein molecules, and these protein molecules are involved in just about everything. If you don't consume enough protein, your muscles start wasting away, you lose energy, you are more likely to get an infection, and your body just doesn't work properly.

No wonder athletes are concerned about how much protein they are eating.

Question is: Do athletes really need to take protein supplements?

Let me voice my bias here: I wholeheartedly believe in doing everything you can do get your nutrients through food. The body is designed to digest food and get the necessary nutrients from food. There are cases when I would consider a supplement, but I would not make a general recommendation that all athletes should take Product X.

As far as protein goes, the typical North American diet contains more than enough protein. If you consume animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs) on a regular basis, and you get a number of servings each day, it is very likely that you don't need a protein supplement.

If you are a vegetarian, then you may have to pay more attention to the protein that you are eating to make sure that you are getting enough. Vegetarians also have to worry about pairing up different protein sources in order to get the right balance of protein in their diets. We can do another post on vegetarianism at a later date, if anyone is interested.

My suggestion to anyone out there in blog-land who is concerned about protein would be to get Heather or I (or any sports nutritionist) to calculate how much protein you need, and to translate this into actual food. You might be surprised how little food you need to meet your protein requirements.

Problems with a diet that is very high in protein:

- Protein is not stored in the body to be used later. The body uses what it needs, and then it breaks down the rest and gets rid of it through the urine.

- A diet high in protein may mean that there is less carbohydrates. Carbohydrates give you energy. Protein does have calories, but it is not really used for energy. The only time it is used for energy is when there is not enough carbs and fat to fuel the body, and this leads to a loss of function.

- Eating large amounts of animal protein (like meat) may increase the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet, which can lead to heart disease (and yes, even athletes can get heart disease).

- If you are using a protein supplement, you are probably spending a lot of money. Protein powders made from whey are among the most popular on the market, but do you really know what you're paying for? Whey powder is the protein that is left over from the cheese-making process, but without the calcium. Getting protein from milk would give you the benefit of the calcium, and it would also give you carbohydrates. It just may be cheaper, too.

- Some protein supplements, especially powders, may have other ingredients added. Always look at the ingredient list to make sure that no banned ingredients have been added. When in doubt, don't let a salesperson talk you into buying a product.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below. P.S. You don't need to have a blogger account to be able to do this!


D R-Lincoln said...

Really insightful post - I was writing a recent post and strayed across this blog, which I suprised to see is actually challenging the issue of protein supplements.

Keep it up!

D R-Lincoln

Ashley said...

Thanks for the comments D R-Lincoln! As a nutrition student, I was really surprised to see how little protein people actually need, and how relatively easy it is to meet your requirements, given a balanced diet.

And like I said in my post, I have a bias against the use of supplements (except if there's a really good reason to use them). Manufacturers obviously want to make money, and it's a billion dollar industry. Some decide to 'twist' the truth to make a buck.

prabs said...

Hi there.. Really usefull posts..

I have question: I am 24, recently goin to gym.. my body is thin.. so wanted to put some muscles (but not big big muscle).. so i got a protein supplement/mass gainer (getmhp.com) from my gym trainner.. My doubt is does it has any side-effect ? should I continue or not .. ?

Ashley said...

prabs - I took a look at the website you provided. I'm not sure exactly which product you are using, but I'm skeptical about those products.

You don't seem to want to gain muscle mass for athletic performance. My impression is that you are more concerned with looks, right? You don't need to take all of these products - just make sure you eat enough protein foods and do the proper weight/resistance training. The training will stimulate your muscles to add more muscle cells, and the protein foods will provide the building blocks for those new muscle cells.

One thing that you can do is to eat a small meal with protein within 30-60 minutes of finishing your workout. This will give your body the nutrients it needs to rebuild muscle mass.

It won't be an instant gain in muscle mass, but it shouldn't be.