Recently I had a reader question about drinking protein shakes to improve results of a workout - specifically about the benefits of getting protein from a shake vs. from whole foods. The question follows:
"Hello, I love the photos!
And I do have a question for you whenever you get the opportunity. I do a fairly intensive strength and cardio training program and I eat quite well but I haven’t been getting the results I was hoping for. The personal trainer here has suggested adding a protein shake to my day. What are the advantages or disadvantages of protein shakes versus whole foods.
Though I could quickly and easily list just the pros and cons of getting protein from a shake/supplement vs. whole foods (and I will), I really wanted to take the topic a little further and talk about how much protein we really need, especially for working out. This type of question was SO common when I was working as a dietitian, that I figured it could be applied to many people, so I figured I'd write a post all about it.
How Much Protein Do We Need Anyway?
There are a lot of myths out there regarding protein requirements, most of them implying that we need more than we actually do. This is especially the case around marketing of protein shakes and supplements. After all, if they didn't tell us we needed more protein, they'd probably go out of business.
The tricky thing about protein recommendations is that there is no standard answer like there is for other nutrients. Requirements are typically given in many different ways:
As a percentage of daily calorie requirements:
It's generally recommended to get 10-35% of your total daily calorie intake in the form of protein.
Cons to this method:
- must first know how many calories you need/are getting to complete the calculation
- the final number results in a wide range and then you need to figure out which end of the range you're going for
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs):
According to the Institute of Medicine's RDAs, women (non-pregnant, non-lactating) need 46g of protein/day and men need 56g/day. To give you an idea of how much that is, one average sized chicken breast (which would be 2 servings of meat) would provide you with approximately 50g of protein.
Pros to this method:
- easy to use
Cons to this method:
- may not provide accurate recommendations for certain populations (eg. those that are ill or those that are very active)
Amount of Protein per body weight:
The final method for calculating protein requirements is by determining how much protein a person needs based on his or her body weight. In general, healthy adults need 0.8g/kg of body weight, with pregnant/lactating women and the elderly requiring more. This amount would be for sedentary to moderately active people.
Pros to this method:
- most exact and tailored to your body
Cons to this method:
- slightly more complicated calculation
- You need to remember to recalculate as your weight changes
What About Athletes?
People who are VERY active would require a little more protein - 1.1g-1.4g/kg of body weight. Weight lifters or those participating in vigorous strength training programs would need toward the higher end of the range, while those focusing more on cardio and endurance don't need as much. Athletes (those who are vigorously active for long periods EVERY DAY) would require even more.
Is More Protein Better?
Based on the above recommendations, and the typical North American diet, most people (even those that are active) are already eating more than enough protein. And more is not necessarily better. It's important to remember that increasing protein intake, without changing anything else in your diet, would result in increased calorie intake and possibly weight gain. Studies have not been able to consistently show that high protein diets improve weight loss. However, if your diet is higher in protein while you're losing weight, you may lose less muscle mass. That means that if you're cutting back on calories, it makes the most sense to cut back on foods high in fat and carbohydrates, while avoiding cutting back on high protein foods.
Should I Try a Protein Supplement?
Since most people already get enough, a protein supplement usually isn't necessary. If you're unsure how much protein you're actually getting, try a food tracking program like MyFitnessPal for a week or so to find out. If your protein intake is low or borderline, you have a couple of options: try to increase protein intake through your diet or add a protein supplement, which would normally be in the form of powders, shakes or bars. Each option has pros and cons.
- probably less expensive
- probably tastes better
- possibly more nutritious, depending on the foods you choose
- may also add carbohydrates and fat, depending on what you choose. Depending on your goals, this may be undesirable.
- you have the option of adding ONLY protein calories (depending on the type you choose - be careful though, some are high in sugar)
- typically expensive
- in my experience, most taste horrible
- may contain ingredients you may not want in your diet, like sugar, artificial sweeteners or other additives
If you do need to add more protein (which again, you probably don't), I don't think there is a right or wrong answer as to whether you choose whole foods or supplements.
If I Don't Need More Protein, Why Isn't My Workout Working?
Unfortunately, without more info (like a complete diet and physical activity history), I can't answer that question. I can however, tell you that this was an extremely common scenario in my former practice. In some cases, the client wasn't eating enough. In some cases, they were underestimating how much they were eating, and eating too much. The best way to have your diet assessed is of course, by seeing a registered dietitian. In North America, this is typically available by a referral through your physician (which would be covered by health insurance, but in Canada may be a long wait). Seeing a private practice dietitian is always an option too. You will probably have to pay for it, though it may be covered by extra insurance or a flexible spending account.