Re­think­ing pro­tein pow­der

Los Angeles Times - - Fitness - James S. Fell james@body­for­ Fell is a cer­ti­fied strength and con­di­tion­ing spe­cial­ist in Cal­gary, Canada.

When it comes to mis­guided ef­forts of av­er­age peo­ple wish­ing to pack on mus­cle, pro­tein sup­ple­ments are way up there. A 2004 study of ex­er­cis­ers at a Long Is­land com­mer­cial gym that was pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Sport Nutrition re­vealed that more than 40% of reg­u­lar ex­er­cis­ers take pro­tein sup­ple­ments more than five times a week.

For peo­ple look­ing to get as huge as pro­fes­sional body­builders, pro­tein pow­ders do make sense. But for us reg­u­lar folks who merely want to look good for the beach, bar or bed part­ner, these prob­a­bly are un­nec­es­sary.

This doesn’t stop the sup­ple­ment in­dus­try’s mar­ket­ing ma­chine, mak­ing pro­tein the most pop­u­lar sup­ple­ment by far among the fit­ness crowd.

But when you look at the sci­ence and run the ac­tual num­bers, a dif­fer­ent story comes to light.

The Di­etary Ref­er­ence In­take (DRI) for pro­tein for the av­er­age per­son is 0.8 grams per kilo­gram of body weight per day.

The sup­ple­ment sell­ers as­sert that weightlifters are dif­fer­ent. They bom­bard us with claims that, at the very least, we re­quire al­most three times as much pro­tein as the govern­ment rec­om­mends — 2.2 grams of it per kilo­gram of body weight.

Dr. Carmen Cas­tanada Sceppa, a nutrition re­searcher at Northeastern Uni­ver­sity, says the pro­tein needs of ex­er­cis­ers are con­sid­er­ably more mod­est. Peo­ple en­gaged in en­durance train­ing might need to up their pro­tein in­take to about 1 to 1.2 grams per kilo­gram of body weight per day. But the DRIs for pro­tein “seem to be ad­e­quate” for weightlifters, she says.

These state­ments are sup­ported by a 2005 study pub­lished in the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Sport Sci­ence.

“Ha­bit­ual per­for­mance of mod­er­ate phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity does not in fact in­crease pro­tein re­quire­ments,” re­searchers from McMaster Uni­ver­sity in Hamil­ton, On­tario, re­ported. In­stead, they rec­om­mended ath­letes con­sume a 60% to 65% car­bo­hy­drate diet to fuel sport per­for­mance — a fig­ure that sends fans of Dr. Atkins into col­lec­tive apoplexy.

‘Min­i­mal’ ben­e­fits

Yet more ev­i­dence comes from re­searchers at the School of Hu­man Ki­net­ics at Lau­ren­tian Uni­ver­sity in Sud­bury, On­tario.

In a 2006 paper pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Sport Nutrition, they de­ter­mined that young peo­ple en­gaged in re­sis­tance train­ing who sup­ple­mented their di­ets with whey pro­tein got only “min­i­mal ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects” com­pared with those who did not take the sup­ple­ment.

The sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture seems con­vinc­ing that most peo­ple don’t need pro­tein sup­ple­ments to achieve their fit­ness goals.

But I de­cided to go ahead and get the opin­ion of Alan Aragon, a sought-af­ter nutrition con­sul­tant whose clients in­clude not only body­builders and physique mod­els, but the Los An­ge­les Kings, the Ana­heim Ducks, and even the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers.

“Pro­tein pow­der is more of a mat­ter of con­ve­nience than any­thing else,” Aragon says. “The big part of this is just mak­ing sure you get what you need. There is noth­ing spe­cial about pro­tein pow­ders that makes them any bet­ter than get­ting pro­tein from food.”

For new weightlifters aim­ing to both lose fat and build mus­cle, Aragon rec­om­mends 1.7 grams of pro­tein per kilo­gram of body weight per day. Those fo­cused merely on adding mus­cle need only 1.4 grams, he says.

Be­sides his years of ex­pe­ri­ence, Aragon has some re­search to back his en­dorse­ment of higher pro­tein re­quire­ments for a more am­bi­tious ath­letic pop­u­la­tion.

He sent me a 2006 ar­ti­cle from the Jour­nal of the In­ter­na­tional So­ci­ety of Sports Nutrition, in which re­searchers at CalS­tate Hay­ward con­ducted a meta-anal­y­sis of stud­ies on pro­tein in­take for weightlift­ing ath­letes. They found that, when av­er­aged out, the best re­sults were ob­tained by con­sum­ing around 1.6 grams per kilo­gram of body weight.

That’s dou­ble the DRI, but still well be­low what the sup­ple­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers claim.

So what does this all mean for pro­tein sup­ple­ments? Aragon calls them a mat­ter of con­ve­nience, but renowned sport nu­tri­tion­ist

Nancy Clark is less kind.

“Pro­tein sup­ple­ments are not a whole food and fail to of­fer the com­plete pack­age of health that pro­tec­tive nu­tri­ents found in nat­u­ral foods do,” she says.

Fa­vor­ing food

Since Clark fa­vors food over sup­ple­men­ta­tion, let’s ex­am­ine how re­al­is­tic that is for the am­bi­tious case of an om­niv­o­rous ath­lete look­ing to max­i­mize his mus­cu­lar gains. If he weighs 85 kilo­grams (187 pounds), the Cal State re­searchers would have him con­sum­ing 136 grams of pro­tein each day.

When you con­sider that a mod­est 6-ounce chicken breast and a 16-ounce glass of milk would get him more than half­way there, it seems like our work­out war­rior can get all of his pro­tein needs met via real and un­pro­cessed food with­out too much dif­fi­culty.

If this hy­po­thet­i­cal am­bi­tious ath­lete can man­age to meet his needs with food in­stead of sup­ple­ments, odds are you can too.

Nev­er­the­less, if you de­cide to take a sup­ple­ment for con­ve­nience, use cau­tion.

Paul Klinger is the di­rec­tor of In­formed Choice, a test­ing body based in New­mar­ket, Eng­land, that looks for con­tam­i­nants in sup­ple­ments that are banned by the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency. He in­formed me that straight whey pro­tein prob­a­bly isn’t too risky, “but pro­tein sup­ple­ments that are sold as part of a blend of other per­for­mance boost­ers def­i­nitely have a risk of be­ing con­tam­i­nated with pro-hor­mones like DHEA and an­drostene­dione, as well as stim­u­lants like ephedrine.”

Just FYI: pos­ses­sion of an­drostene­dione is a fed­eral crime that can land you in prison.

So be care­ful what you put in your mouth.


Francine Orr

Pro­tein in­take for weightlifters does not need to be as high as sup­ple­ment mak­ers rec­om­mend.

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