Are protein supplements from a bottle more effective at building muscle than protein ingested through a well-balanced diet? And should athletes who work out in the weight room supplement their diet with additional protein supplements to help build more impressive muscles?
What the experts think of protein supplements
Sports nutritionists and scientists agree that active individuals who work out strenuously either in the weight room or in the gym need more protein than someone who never breaks a sweat. Exercise, especially strenuous exercise, breaks down the muscle. Protein helps repair it. And if consumed in adequate amounts and timed appropriately, protein works in tandem with exercise to increase muscle mass.
Most North American diets are rich enough in protein (meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy and legumes) to adequately repair and rebuild muscle post exercise – especially if that exercise bout is moderate in length and intensity. But for bodybuilders and endurance athletes who continually push their muscles to go above and beyond, the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine agree that 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.5 to 0.8 g per pound) per day is more than adequate to repair damaged muscle and develop lean body mass.
To help put the equation into perspective, a 150-pound active female should consume 75-120 grams of protein a day while a 180-pound active male needs 90-144 grams. The protein needs for an active female can be met by consuming two glasses of milk (2 cups/ 454ml = 15 grams of protein), one chicken breast (6 ounces/ 170 grams = 42 grams of protein), one serving of legumes (one cup/ 227 ml = 16 grams of protein) and one serving of peanut butter (two tablespoons/ 28 = 8 grams of protein) a day. Add a serving of yogurt or cottage cheese (11/15 grams of protein), a handful or two of nuts or seeds (6-8 grams of protein per handful) and we’re nearing the maximum amount of protein for an active woman and more than the minimum amount necessary for an active male.
Of course, it’s not usual for athletes to operate on the “if some is good more is better” principle. Bodybuilding websites and blogs routinely recommend ingesting protein supplements in amounts far above those supported by science. They also suggest engineered sources of protein supplements are superior to food when it comes to building mass.
Most nutritionists disagree. More protein supplements doesn’t equal more muscle. What it does equal is more calories. And then there is the expense factor. Protein supplements is substantially more expensive than food with no agreement among scientists that it offers superior results.
“The protein from natural foods works perfectly fine,” said sports nutrition guru Nancy Clark in a 2007 article called Protein: The Pros, Cons, and Confusion. “Any animal protein is ‘high quality’ and contains all the essential amino acids you need to build muscles. Hence, eating balanced meals and then drinking protein shakes for ‘high-quality protein’ is an outrageous concept – and expensive.”
So whether you consume protein supplements or in its more natural form, chances are you’ll achieve the same results. The added bonus of getting your protein in food, however, is that food contains other important micronutrients that aren’t found in store-bought protein supplements.
But it’s not just what to eat that’s important. Discussions about the timing of protein ingestion is generating the most buzz among the scientific community. Traditional theories suggesting that protein was best consumed immediately post-exercise has been replaced with the belief that having a small protein snack (15-25 grams) both before and after exercise is the best way to repair and build muscle. There’s even some research suggesting that having a small 100-calorie protein snack (yogurt, milk, cottage cheese) before bed and small amounts of protein during your workout can further aid muscle growth.
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