Protein supplements – are they really necessary in my fitness routine?

Proteins, made up of long chains of amino acids, are the body’s building blocks and every cell requires them for structure and function like in protein synthesis, tissue repair and nutrient absorption.

With a total of 20 amino acids: 9 that are “essential” and you must get them through your diet, and another eleven that are “non-essential” and your body produces them from other organic molecules. [1]

The best sources of protein in our diets contain all essential amino acids in ratios that the human body needs. The basic recommendations for daily protein intake are 0.8-1.0 grams per kg of body weight. This is only 56-70 grams of protein for a 70-kg (or 154-pound) person. [2]

You’re probably thinking that sounds far too low, and many scientists would agree that it’s not sufficient for optimal health and body composition.

Those who are physically active or lift weights need a lot more, and studies also suggest that older people may benefit from higher protein intake, more in the range of 1.2-1.6 grams per kg of body weight daily. [2][3][4]

This being the case – how do you get in all that protein in your day? You might be tempted to supplement your diet, especially where your fitness goals are concerned.

The potential benefits of increasing your protein intake, specifically for your fitness goals:

  • Can help increase lean mass
  • Can increase strength and power
  • Can improve your recovery after an intense workout
  • Can lead to a reduction in body fat
  • Can reduce appetite (by decreasing ghrelin hormone levels and increasing satiety)
  • Can lead to increased muscle protein synthesis
  • Can stabilize blood sugar
  • Can lessen muscle wasting (sarcopenia) in older individuals [2][6]

 

Here’s where many protein supplements fall flat – buyer beware!

If you are looking to up your protein intake, there are plenty of healthy protein supplements available these days – like shakes and bars. But, then again, there are some that might as well be a milkshake or candy bar considering how much added sugar and fillers they contain!

Plus, the packaging and healthy-sounding names make you think they’re on the other end of the health spectrum from decadent desserts, but sometimes that’s just not the case.

In reality, many protein supplements could have even MORE calories than the junk foods you may be trying to avoid. Not all protein bars and shakes are created equally, so buyer beware!

Do your due diligence and choose the one that will work for your individual nutritional needs, fitness goals, tastes and preferences – and don’t let slick marketing tactics fool you either!

 

  1. CALORIE & CARB BOMBS

Protein bars are not intended to be “energy bars” which are meant to give you a quick energy boost BUT can also leave you feeling drained and hungry a short time after. The classic blood sugar crash.

That’s because energy bars contain mostly carbohydrates – often in the form of added sugars. Even those healthy-looking “nut & seed” bars are usually all glued together with some type of sugar syrup.

Conversely, protein bars should contain relatively low amounts of carbs, with the nutritional emphasis being on protein. This should translate into less calories, so look for a bar with under 400 calories, and 10 grams of protein or greater. [5]

 

  1. SUGAR & SUGAR ALCOHOL ALERT

As mentioned, protein supplements aren’t meant to be energy bars & shakes, but some do contain a whack of added sugars or sometimes worse (especially for sensitive digestive systems), they’re filled with sugar alcohols like maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt and glyercol.

Also, you’ll want to look out for protein bars & shakes that DON’T have ‘sugar’ listed as the first ingredient and aim for less than 15 grams of sugar or less per bar. [5]

 

  1. FILLER FAIL

Ingredients that don’t sound like food, probably aren’t. As the saying goes, “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!”. Supplemental protein products are known for being stuffed with unnecessary filler ingredients.

 

  1. PROTEIN OVERLOAD

While these products are convenient, on-the-go foods, adding in protein bars & shakes into an already high protein diet could increase the risk of kidney disease and/or kidney stone formation. However, individuals with healthy kidney function should be fine, even with increased protein intake. [2]

Other signs & symptoms associated with eating too much protein:

  • Intestinal discomfort, cramping, bloating and indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Constipation &/or Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Tired & sluggish
  • Irritability & moodiness
  • Headache [3]

Obviously extremely high protein intake is unhealthy, but it’s unclear at what level of protein intake that it becomes harmful, and it likely depends on the individual, i.e. age, health status, physical activity, fitness level, etc. [2]


Portable, healthy snacks that are high in protein – that aren’t shakes or bars!

  • Mixed nuts & cacao nibs
  • Red bell peppers & cucumber with hummus
  • Apple slices or celery sticks with nut/seed butter
  • Dark chocolate & almonds
  • Chia pudding
  • Nitrate-free turkey (or chicken) roll-ups with cucumber & guacamole
  • Nitrate-free jerky (beef, turkey or salmon)
  • Canned fish
  • Edamame (boiled green soybeans) – look for organic
  • Homemade protein balls
  • Hard boiled eggs

Did you know that 1 whole egg provides 7 grams of complete protein & only 80 calories?!

The bottom line on adding protein supplements to help achieve your fitness goals…

There are certain situations that do merit extra protein – like anytime you’re in a building-muscle (anabolic) state. Athletes and very active individuals, for example, expend a lot of energy breaking down, repairing and building muscles, and additional protein can give them an edge in the recovery process. Individuals recovering from surgery or an injury may also benefit from extra protein in their diet. [6]

Whole foods, like the ones we’ve listed, are always the best option to increase your intake, rather than adding in supplements. But, if you are considering a protein bar or shake (powder), be sure to read the list of ingredients carefully, as you don’t want to be wasting your money or causing detriment to your health.

But, for someone who’s always on-the-go and may not have time for a light meal or snack, a protein shake, bar or ball can be a good option for a quick meal replacement or portable snack option.

Additionally, vegans may also benefit from protein supplements since they do not eat animal-based protein sources like meat, poultry, fish or eggs. [6]