Big tubs of protein supplements are becoming increasingly more prevalent – they’re almost impossible to miss if you’re at the gym, they’re in all kinds of nutrition stores, and regular grocery stores are even starting to carry them. However, protein supplements are not for everyone, and even if they are for you, some supplements are better for reaching certain goals than others.
Some people, especially from older generations, are leery of protein powders because they don’t look like regular food and, let’s face it, GNC stores can be intimidating. The first thing you should know is that straight protein supplements that don’t have creatine or other performance enhancers (check the label and ingredient list) are food. This has two implications: First, they aren’t dangerous, they won’t lead to strange growths, and they’re not like force feeding chickens on a farm (Yes, I’ve heard this analogy). Second, because a protein powder is simply food, no one NEEDS a protein supplement because other more recognizable foods are also high in protein. However, protein supplements may still be beneficial depending on your health quietum plus and fitness goals.
Gaining Muscle Mass
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, you should be consuming about as many grams of protein as your target body weight daily, so if I want to weigh 150 pounds, I should get about 150 grams of protein every day. Sound like a lot? It is. That’s why people who are looking to put on muscle will be the most benefited by a protein supplement. Again, having a protein powder isn’t an absolute necessity, but it is a quick, easy way to get the amount of protein you need to gain serious muscle mass.
Eating lean, high quality protein is essential to any weight loss program. Unlike carbohydrates, fats or starches, your body doesn’t store excess protein; so if you eat more than you need, it won’t weigh you down. Even if you’re counting calories, you should be aiming for at least 75-100 grams of protein every day (which is only 300-400 calories). Protein supplements are a good, convenient way to get lean protein, but lean protein can also be found in chicken breasts, ham, lean beef, low fat dairy products and more. If you think you can get enough protein without a supplement, go for it. If not, try adding a supplement to smoothies or even some baking recipes if you don’t like it with water or milk.
Weight Maintenance/General Health
Even if you’re perfectly happy with your body type, you should still be getting 75-125 grams of protein daily depending on your size. Try using nutritional labels to figure out how much protein you eat in a day (a rough estimate should be fine). If you’re within this range without altering your regular eating habits, you can skip a protein supplement. However, if you’re finding it difficult to reach that amount because you don’t like eating a lot of meat, high quality sources of protein are expensive and difficult to store (this is especially true for me as a college student who lived in a dorm last year), or you’re a carboholic, supplementing your diet with a protein shake may be beneficial. Remember, if you’re just short of your goal, you don’t necessarily have to use their recommended serving size – a half scoop is fine and will make the powder last longer.
What kind of supplement should I get?
There are three basic kinds of protein that almost every single protein powder will have one or a combination of: whey, casein, and soy. I’ll explain each type, how they’re made, what they’re best for, and why you should avoid a soy protein supplement.
Whey protein is the most popular kind of protein on the market today. It is derived from the protein found in milk after the casein protein has already been removed, usually to make cheese (about 20% of the protein found in milk is whey and the other 80% is casein protein). Whey protein is absorbed by the body very quickly, making it a favorite among weightlifters who take it both before and after lifting. In fact, traces of whey protein can be found in the bloodstream in as little as 20 minutes, though it generally doesn’t last for much more than an hour. Because of its fast absorbing nature, I would recommend taking a whey protein supplement immediately before and/or after exercising to give you an energy boost during your workout and to give your muscles some much needed relief after a strenuous workout. However, whey protein may not be your best choice is you’re looking for sustained energy or a supplement to your diet.