Proteins, made up of long chains of amino acids, are the body’s building blocks. Every cell requires them for structure and function, like in protein synthesis, tissue repair, and nutrient absorption.
There are a total of 20 amino acids: 9 are “essential” and you must get them through your diet, and another 11 are “non-essential” and your body produces them from other organic molecules.
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.
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.
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
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 fewer calories, so look for a bar with under 400 calories, and 10 grams of protein or greater.
2. 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 glycerol.
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.
3. 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.
4. PROTEIN OVERLOAD
While these products are convenient, on-the-go foods, adding 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.
Other signs & symptoms associated with eating too much protein:
Intestinal discomfort, cramping, bloating, and indigestion
Constipation &/or Diarrhea
Tired & sluggish
Irritability & moodiness
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.
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
Nitrate-free turkey (or chicken) roll-ups with cucumber & guacamole
Nitrate-free jerky (beef, turkey, or salmon)
Edamame (boiled green soybeans) - look for organic
Homemade protein balls - see recipe below
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.
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.
Grab the incredibly easy vegan protein ball recipe for just such an occasion!
Two-bite Cashew Butter Protein Balls
1 cup old fashioned oats (NOT steel-cut, quick, or instant oats)
⅔ cup cashew butter, no sugar added
½ cup cacao nibs
¼ cup your fave protein powder
2 Tbsp each: flax seeds (freshly ground if possible), hemp seeds/hearts
2 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, then place “dough” in the refrigerator for 15-30 minutes.
Roll into approx 12 balls (two-bite sized).
Store protein balls in the fridge for up to one week - if they last that long!
1. Any other nut butter will work, but use seed butter for a nut-free option.
2. Vegan protein would work fine, but the texture is often “gritty” so whey protein may work best for this - look for high quality, organic & grass-fed.
3. Don’t be tempted to skip the relatively small amount of natural liquid sweetener as it offers a bit of much-needed carbohydrate for post-workout recovery AND it helps the dough to stick together
Making it EASY for you to feel ALIVE!