Lately, it seems like everywhere you go you will see some sort of advertisement for a protein supplement in one form or another. Have you ever wondered if you need to supplement your protein intake? You may have noticed that many of these supplements claim to help boost your performance, increase muscle mass, speed up your metabolism, or have some other catchy phrase declaring some benefit. But, how true are these claims? Do you need to take a protein supplement? How much protein should you be getting? Why do you even need protein? I will try to address these questions.
What is Protein?
Let’s begin by taking a look at what protein is and why we need it. Proteins are the body’s structural materials that are made up of twenty different compounds called amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks for all of our different cells, tissues, and organs. One of the most commonly recognized functions of protein it to help us build or maintain our muscles. In order for our bodies build these muscles and make these cells, tissues, and organs, we need to have all of the amino acids on board. There are nine of these amino acids that we can get from our food. These are called essential amino acids. We can get these essential amino acids from a variety of good protein sources such as:
- Poultry, fish, meat, beans, whole grains, nuts, eggs, dairy, soy products
It’s important to recognize that not all protein food sources are the same. Soy products, quinoa, and animal foods are called complete proteins. This means that they contain all nine of the essential amino acids we need in the right amounts. Other plant based protein sources include beans, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains. Since these foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids in the right proportions, they are called incomplete proteins.
Protein Content of Different Foods
|Protein Source||Portion Size||Protein Content|
|Steak||4 oz*||34.2 g|
|Chicken Breast||4 oz*||35.6 g|
|Salmon||4 oz*||25 g|
|Cottage Cheese||4 oz*||14 g|
|Tofu||4 oz*||17 g|
|Skim Milk||8 fl oz||8 g|
|Large Egg||1 egg||7 g|
|Kidney Beans||½ cup||7 g|
|String Cheese||1 stick||7 g|
|Almonds||1 oz (23 almonds)||6 g|
|Quinoa, cooked||1 cup||8 g|
|Gatorade Whey Protein Powder||One serving
(1/2 cup powder), 71 g
|Muscle Milk Genuine Protein Powder||One serving
(1/2 cup powder), 70 g
|*A 4 oz portion of protein is about the size of a deck of cards.|
However, by having a variety of protein foods in your diet, you can get all the essential amino acids you need, even if you eat a vegetarian diet. If you eat a variety of incomplete proteins each day you can achieve a diet with all nine essential amino acids. Furthermore, we now know that different incomplete proteins don’t have to be eaten at the same meal to get all the amino acids we need. Choosing a protein source from at least two of the plant based protein food categories each day will ensure that you are getting all of the essential amino acids.
|Eat proteins from each group to get all nine essential amino acids|
How much protein do you need?
So, how much protein do you actually need? The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein intake, or the level needed to meet the needs of almost all healthy people, is 0.4 grams of protein, per pound of bodyweight every day. For example, a person with a weight of 165 pounds would multiply their weight by 0.4 to find that they need 66 grams of protein to get 100% of their daily value (DV, which is what you will see on the label of packaged foods). But most people get more than the recommended level of protein every day.
Protein Needs based on Body Weight:
|Protein Needed to meet RDA||48 g||52 g||56 g||60 g||64 g||68 g||72 g||76 g|
The exceptions: Who needs more?
As stated above, the DRI is the amount needed to meet the needs of almost all healthy people. There are some people who need more or less than this recommended amount of protein. One of the groups of individuals who may need more protein than the DRI recommends are athletes or people who participate in a lot of physical activity on a regular basis every day. When we exercise our muscles, and make them work really hard, we form small tears in the muscles that need to be repaired. To do this, our body uses protein to not only fix these tears, but make them bigger and stronger than they were before. This is how we build more muscle from the exercise that we do.
For active individuals, the recommended amount of protein is about 150% of the DRI or 0.5-0.9 grams, per pound of bodyweight, per day. Remember, most US adults already eat more than the DRI for protein, so it doesn’t mean athletes need to eat ‘more’ protein. However, they do need to space this protein out during the day. It is recommended that active people eat between 10-20 grams of protein after they exercise. This protein can come in the form of a meal or snack. You don’t need to eat a protein bar or shake or buy a protein supplement. Selecting appropriate foods will do. Some great protein packed foods to try after a workout include milk, nuts and nut butters, yogurt, string cheese, or hard boiled eggs.
The exceptions: Who needs less?
It is important to realize that, while we do need more protein when we increase our physical activity, there is such a thing as too much protein. Studies have found that we do not get any additional benefits from consuming more than 0.77 grams of protein for every pound of bodyweight every day.1 Additionally, a study that looked at athletic performance while eating a very high protein diet, 1.05 grams of protein for every pound of bodyweight each day, saw negative effects and the athletes that were eating this amount complained of not feeling well.2
Another reason that too much protein can be a bad thing is because it can negatively affect our performance when we exercise. One thing that happens when we eat carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, and grains, is that some of the carbohydrate is stored in our muscles. When we exercise, we will use the carbohydrate that was stored in our muscles for energy. When someone is eating a very high protein diet, they may be getting inadequate amounts of carbohydrates. If you are not getting enough carbohydrates, it will not be stored in your muscles and used when you exercise. If this energy in our muscles isn’t there, our performance will not be as good. This is why it is important to eat a balanced diet that includes enough protein, but also gets enough carbohydrates as well.
Do you need to take protein supplements?
For most people, it is entirely possible to get all of the protein we need from food alone. By including a good source of protein, you are more than likely to be meeting your daily protein needs. For some people that may have a harder time getting enough protein in during the day, such as vegans or vegetarians, people suffering from low appetite, or conditions which hinder their food intake, protein supplements can be a great way to easily meet your needs. However, it is entirely possible for even vegans and vegetarians to meet their needs through food alone as well.
If you are thinking about taking a protein supplement, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and could contain unknown additives, and the purity and quantity of active ingredients is not assured.
- Look for supplements with a NSF, USP or ConsumerLab.com symbol on them. This means the product has been tested for safety.
- Many supplements contain a lot of added sugar.
- This can add a lot of empty calories to your day. Look at the nutrition facts panel to find ones with lower amounts of sugar.
- Our bodies can only use so much protein at once.
- For most people, the total amount of protein that can be used at one time is 20-30 grams. Supplements advertising large amounts of protein are not worth the extra money.
The bottom line
Protein is an essential part of our diets. It helps provide the building blocks for every cell, tissue, and organ in our body including our muscles. For most people, we can get all the protein we need in our diets. For those who may have difficulty consuming adequate protein, supplements might provide a little help getting more protein into their daily diet. Just remember to pay attention to what you’re buying and consuming and consider whether or not this is your best option.
- Gaine PC, Pikosky MA, Martin WF, Bolster DR, Maresh CM, Rodriguez NR. Level of dietary protein impacts whole body protein turnover in trained males at rest. Metab Clin Exp. 2006;55(4):501-7.
- Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(2):326-37.
- Symons, T. B., Sheffield-Moore, M., Wolfe, R. R., & Paddon-Jones, D. (2009). Moderating the portion size of a protein-rich meal improves anabolic efficiency in young and elderly. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(9), 1582–1586.
- Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics, dietitians of canada, and the american college of sports medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.