Whether you're an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, you may have heard some buzz about protein supplements. It seems that protein and exercise somehow go hand-in-hand. Nowadays you can buy these protein supplements in the form of powders or shakes in just about every nutrition store or on the Internet. But you may be thinking ‘what exactly is protein?’ and ‘should I be taking this stuff too?’ This article will explain why protein is important and what the pros and cons are to taking protein supplements.
Protein is a macronutrient, which means that it is essential to all human beings. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, 9 of which our body cannot produce. These are called essential amino acids and we need to consume them in our diet. The different proteins in our body have very important structural roles such as making up our bones, muscles and cartilage, as well as our skin, hair, and nails. However, the main function of protein is to build and repair muscles that have been damaged during exercise. It is for this reason that protein is often associated with working out.
Everyone needs protein; however, not everyone needs the same amount of protein. Those who exercise more require extra protein. Before taking a protein supplement consider the types of foods in your diet and see if you can add higher protein food options to your meals. Having food first is always better. Dietary sources of protein can be found in a variety of foods such as meat, dairy products, nuts, beans, or legumes. Consulting with your doctor or a registered dietitian is also recommended before you supplement your diet.
With protein supplements, there are some pros and cons to consider. Some of the benefits and reasons why people take protein supplements are to improve muscle mass and strength. These supplements are also a much more convenient way to help individuals who might have higher protein requirements meet their daily protein needs. The downside would be that there are so many different protein supplements in the market and purchasing one of these products can be both confusing and expensive. When taken in excess, there is a potential for health concerns such as kidney problems or increases in fat stores. In addition, the FDA has more lenient rules and regulations regarding supplements which could lead to unsafe or ineffective supplements in the market.
If you think that protein supplements might be for you, you will need to know the different types of products in stores or online. There are three main sources of protein in the supplements that are most commonly purchased.
- Whey protein: Whey protein, which comes from milk, contains all the essential amino acids and is digested very quickly. For this reason, it is usually taken shortly after a workout to best promote muscle development.
- Casein protein: Like whey, casein also comes from milk and contains all the essential amino acids. However, it is digested much slower in our body so it is usually taken before bed in order to prevent muscle breakdown during a state of rest.
- Plant-based protein: The three most common plant protein sources are soy, brown rice, and pea protein. Unlike whey and casein, plant based protein sources do not contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs. However, this type of supplement would be a good option for consumers who are vegan or those with a lactose intolerance or allergy.
Hopefully, this has helped clear up some questions regarding protein supplements and whether or not they are right for you. Remember, if you do take these products, you should still be getting protein from the whole foods you eat every day. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, the choice is yours… are protein supplements for you?
by Erica Hill, Penn State Dietetic Intern, Class of 2018