Do You Really Need a Protein Supplement?

Protein is found throughout the body — it makes up the structures of almost everything, from muscles to organs, skin, hair, bone and more. It’s no wonder that we can be obsessed with getting enough, particularly the fitness buffs among us.

Protein supplements, such as powders and bars, can help you sneak more protein into your daily diet, but are they really necessary? Let’s examine how to determine protein needs so you can decide if a protein supplement is really for you. If it is, we have a few tips for that, too.

Do You Actually Need More Protein?

Since individual protein needs are affected by many different factors, including age, weight, physical activity and health status, it’s hard to say if you’re getting enough protein. But, we do have a formula to ballpark your protein needs — it’s called the recommended dietary allowance or RDA. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. So a 150-pound person’s recommendation is to eat at least 54 grams of protein daily. Here’s what that looks like in food-terms:

  • 1(4-ounce) serving of cooked chicken breast = 37 grams of protein
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter = 7 grams of protein
  • 1 large egg = 6 grams of protein
  • ½ cup of cooked quinoa = 4 grams of protein

Naturally, your needs will be more or less than this depending on your weight, so try out the math and then translate that number into food. Check out this post for the protein contents of common foods.

A note to athletic folks: you need more protein. The protein recommendation for athletes is 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This number can be as high as 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for bodybuilders.

What Makes Protein Supplements Unique?

Protein bars and powders are popular with gym-goers. They make it easy for you to get 20-30 grams of high-quality protein right after you work out, which is when your muscles can most directly benefit. These products are also more shelf-stable compared to food sources of protein like meat, fish and eggs. The protein source for most of these supplements is two milk proteins, whey and casein. Both contain all nine of the protein building blocks (the essential amino acids) our body can’t produce — they’re the ones we must obtain through food. Additionally whey and casein are sources of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which can encourage muscle building.

It’s important to recognize that you can get these essential amino acids without tapping into protein supplements. Chicken, fish, eggs, yogurt, tofu, cheese, edamame and quinoa are just a few examples. Of course, chomping on a chicken leg as you’re rushing to get home after a workout session isn’t always the most convenient option.

3 Tips for Choosing a Protein Supplement

Still interested in using protein bars or powders to meet your goal? Here are three tips to get you started:

1. Be mindful of the protein source. Whey and casein powders are a good bet because they’re easy for the body to digest and use. But, if you have a milk allergy, soy protein is a great runner up; it contains all the essential amino acids and has a high concentration of BCAAs. If you follow a plant-based diet, pea, rice, bean, potato and hemp proteins are also available in a mixed protein powder to supply all the amino acids you need.

2. Be conscious of added sugar. Powder protein doesn’t taste all that great on its own. That’s why protein bars often contain added sugar. Always flip over to the nutrition facts to see how much sugar you’re consuming. Yes, sugar is an important source of energy when you exercise, but you don’t want to overdo it.

Rule of thumb: If you’re doing intense cardio for more than 60 minutes, shoot for a bar with more carbohydrates, around 25 grams of carbs or more. If you’re exercising less than this, go for a lower-carb bar with fewer than 20 grams of carbs.

3. Avoid problematic ingredients. Protein bars and powders contain other additives that you may not want to consume. The only way to tell is to read the ingredients list. Here are a few ingredient considerations:

  • Sugar alcohols. This class of sweeteners is low in calories. They’re used to sweeten gum, candy, toothpaste and more. Some folks experience gastric discomfort if they consume too much sugar alcohol.
  • Artificial coloring. Certain flavors of protein supplements use artificial coloring/dyes (think: orange cream) such as red 40, yellow 5, etc. These have been linked to hyperactivity in children, and can trigger allergic reactions in some people.
  • Partially hydrogenated oil or palm kernel oil. Hydrogenated oils are a source of trans fat, which is harmful to your heart. Palm kernel oil is high in saturated fat, which can raise “bad” cholesterol.

Got a favorite protein bar or powder? Share it with us in the comments below.

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