One of the most common concerns for anyone new to weight training is whether to supplement their protein intake. Answering this question becomes more difficult because just about everyone you meet believes he’s an expert on protein supplements. This leads to a lot of misinformation and confusion. However, with some key information about daily protein intake, the different types of protein, and what to look for when choosing a protein supplement, you will be able to cut through the junk and find the protein intake that is right for you.
Are Protein Supplements Necessary?
Before we decide whether protein supplements are required, we need to discuss two key myths. The first myth concerns the type of people who use protein supplements. Taking supplements is not just for bodybuilders or power lifters, and taking in protein will not make you “too big.” On the flipside, protein supplements are not just for people trying to lose weight. Likely a result of popular weight loss shakes (and because protein supplements are often found in the “weight control” section of grocery stores), people associate them with weight loss. The fact of the matter is that weight loss or weight gain is affected by your whole diet and exercise routine, and protein supplements may be used in either way.
The second myth concerns general protein requirements. The recommended intake of protein for men is approximately 0.35 grams per pound of bodyweight. For example, a 200-pound man should consume around 75 grams of protein per day.
This requirement increases to 0.55-0.80 grams per pound of bodyweight for individuals performing intense weight training. Therefore, a 200 lb man performing regular, intense resistance training should consume anywhere between 105 and 160 grams of protein per day.
Protein Intake Recommendations
|Protein Intake Per Pound||Description|
|0.35 grams/pound||Baseline intake recommendation for men|
|0.55 – 0.80 grams/pound||Recommended range when performing intense resistance exercise|
|1.00+ grams/pound||Recommended range when cutting for bodybuilding competitions|
These numbers are likely lower than you expected. They are definitely lower if you have ever talked with a bodybuilder at the gym. One of the most common protein myths is that if you want to build muscle, you need to take in 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is only true for bodybuilders who are cutting for competition, and therefore need the extra protein to spare muscle.
Protein Supplements and a Healthy Diet
Given these requirements, it is technically not necessary to take protein supplements. For most men, a well-balanced diet consisting of whole foods containing approximately 20% to 25% protein (based on a 2,250 calorie diet) will meet the increased protein needs due to resistance training. (See How to Eat Healthy) Most American men consume protein well in excess of this requirement. There is absolutely no need to consume excess quantities of protein.
While protein supplements are not usually necessary, they can be an integral part of a healthy diet. Many men are exceptionally busy, and maintaining a well-balanced diet consisting of whole foods alone is often impractical. Too often the choice comes down skipping a meal or opting for a fast food fix to save time. If this is the case, high-quality protein supplements low in sugar can greatly assist you in meeting your daily protein requirements and dietary needs. So, if you feel that protein supplements would helpful and convenient, and choose to incorporate protein supplements into your diet, you should become knowledgeable about the products you are using. Read on to find out more about the types of protein supplements available and what to look for in a high quality protein supplement.
Additionally, if your goal is to increase muscle and strength gains beyond those attained from resistance training alone, protein supplementation consumed at the proper times may enhance your anabolic response to resistance exercise.
Types of Protein Supplements
While there are many viable types of protein in the market (egg, beef, soy, pea, hemp), the two main types of protein available for supplementation are whey protein and casein protein.
- Whey Protein – Whey protein is the most popular source of supplemental protein. Whey possesses an excellent nutritional composition with all of the essential amino acids. Additionally, whey protein also contains an exceptionally high amount of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). There are three BCAAs, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The BCAAs are critical amino acids in muscle synthesis.
Whey is considered a “fast” protein source because it is quickly digested and causes a quick increase in blood amino acid levels. Since whey protein is digested so quickly, it is an excellent protein to take immediately following a resistance workout. As a result of this quick digestion, the body cannot use excessive quantities of whey protein taken at one time. The body simply eliminates the excess protein as waste. There are two types of whey protein: concentrate and isolate. People tend to make a bigger deal about these two types than needs to be made. Whey concentrate contains 70-80% protein per gram, while isolate is a purer form at 90-96%. Isolate has minimal carbs and fats compared to concentrate, and this should be factored in when choosing the type of whey.
- Best Uses: Immediately after a resistance workout, or as a snack between meals.
- Casein Protein: Casein protein contains a blend of essential, non-essential, and branched-chain amino acids. It contains a lower percentage of branched-chain amino acids than whey protein. Yet, casein protein possesses specific advantages. Casein protein is considered a “slow” protein source because it is digested slowly. Therefore, casein protein is an ideal protein for nighttime use or when meals will be unavailable for more than 3 hours.
- Best Use: Prior to bed or when meals will be unavailable for more than 3 hours.
How to Choose Protein Supplements
There are three main forms of delivery for protein supplements: powder, ready-to-drink shakes, and bars. The truth is that no form of protein is inherently better than any other. But, in order to find the best nutritional value, there are some things you should know. Follow these simple guidelines to find a healthy, effective protein supplement.
1. Select a protein type that meets your needs. For an after-workout protein supplement, choose whey protein. For a meal replacement protein supplement, choose casein protein or a combination of whey and casein. With powders, you often know exactly what type of protein you are buying; the name is right there on the label. When it comes to bars and shakes, you need to read the ingredients. Ready-to-drink shakes are often a mixture of whey (isolate and concentrate) and casein, and can even include some of the other sources mentioned at the beginning of the article. Bars usually contain a protein blend as well, with one of the types almost always being whey isolate. One of the problems with these blends is the label does not tell you what percentage of the blend comes from what.
2. Choose a powder, drink, or bar with approximately 20-25 g of protein. When it comes to protein, more is certainly not better. The body typically cannot process more than 20 g of protein at one time, so excessive amounts of protein are simply broken down and excreted as waste. You can increase the amount of protein you take in at different servings if you vary the type of protein. So you could mix a shake with a scoop of whey and a half scoop of casein if you want to up the protein content into the 30s. However, do not just do this for the sake of doing it. Think about why you need the various sources. Additionally, too much protein usually makes the ready-to-drink shakes and bars taste bad. To compensate, companies use sugar or sugar substitutes to offset the bad taste.
3. Avoid any powder, drink, or bar that contains excessive sugar. You would think that since protein supplements are supposed to be healthy, you would not have to worry about sugar. However, companies often enhance the taste of their protein supplements by including massive amounts of sugar. Specifically, watch out for protein bars with high levels of sugar. Some “protein” bars should be more aptly called “candy bars with protein added.” Avoiding sugar is not as much of a requirement when it comes to shakes taken immediately after a workout, which brings us into the last point…
4. Choose a powder, drink, or bar in which the number of carbohydrates meets your goals and needs. Lately, all carbohydrates have been incessantly vilified. However, carbohydrates are an essential element of any diet.
- If you are using your protein supplement as a post-workout supplement, look for a product with a moderate amount of fast-acting carbohydrates. The carbs will replenish your blood glucose levels allowing protein to be used to rebuild muscle. Often times, companies make shakes or powders that are designed specifically to be taken post-workout. These products will be higher in sugar, but they are often unrefined, and are what your body needs. If you purchase one of these products, only use it the way it was designed. Using it for meal replacement will not have the same effect, and could have negative effects.
- If you are using your protein supplement as a meal replacement supplement, look for a product with a moderate amount of carbohydrates, like fiber, that digest more slowly. This will keep your blood glucose levels more stable. If you are using a gainer protein supplement, this will likely be much higher in carbs than other ones. As stated before, keep in mind the recommended protein use.
EMG Exercise Homepage: Exercise for Men
EMG Nutrition Homepage: How to Eat Healthy
External Resources: Protein Supplements: Schwarzenegger.com