Protein supplements – Do you need protein shakes?

Intro

Anyone with ears, eyes and a smart phone knows that protein is something people apparently need when they are hitting the gym. There are a quazillion (bigger than gazillion) protein supplements out there. Whether it’s casein, whey, plant based, shakes, smoothies or powders, the industry has you covered.

Protein Powder

Here’s the big question. Do you really need to fork out for expensive protein supplements, that you eat it in food anyway?

That’s right let’s not forget that you are most likely a human, and as a human you eat that thing called food. Which is made up in part by protein. 

The answer depends on your protein requirements.

My immediate answer would be no, as protein is part of all sorts of foods. Including legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds. If you try and get a 1/3rd  of your protein from a supplement, you are missing out on loads of great and potentially more bio-available vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, and fibre. All of which are beneficial, some of which are really important for energy production them-selves. However some people, who have very active lifestyles may need a protein shake on training days.

Let’s address a couple of scenarios.

Scenario A)

When training 3 times a week for an hour in whichever sport/activity you like to engage in, or less, and you eat a varied diet. You are probably hitting your protein requirements.

Scenario B)

Equally if you are training 5 times a week for goals such as muscle hypertrophy (normal gains), healthy weight loss, a particular sport, the answer is still probably no if you focus on eating lean meats and a variety of foods. 

Scenario C)

If you are training 5 times a week and for some reason don’t eat a lot of animal products or train more than 6 times a week, you probably need a protein shake. 

What are your protein requirements?

If you don’t know your requirements, let’s work these out. 

  • Maintenance (what you need to maintain exercise, weight, life) is usually one number, I’ve made it a range to aim for.
  • For gains, there are two ranges, which I will give you in the below table
  • Use the simple equation to work out your needs.

All equations below are working out the protein requirements for a 77 kg person. There are example days for the 77 kg person in the next row.

Maintenance Normal gains Gains with Calorie deficit
0.8-0.85 gram of protein x BW (kg)
Example: Adult weighing 77 kg
0.8 x 77 = 61.6 grams of protein a day
1-2 grams of protein x BW (kg)
Example Adult weighing 77 kg
1 x 77 = 77 grams of protein per day
2.3-3.1 grams of protein x BW (kg)
Example Adult weighing 77kg
2.3 x 77 = 177.1 grams of protein per day
Maintenance in Food 61.6 gNormal Gains in Food 77 gGains with Calorie def in Food
177.1 g
1 cup of beans or lentils (16 g)
150 g of white fish (30-37 g)
30 g of nuts/seeds (6 g)
1 cup of milk (8 g)
Total =60-67 g 
½ cup of beans or lentils (8 g)
½ cup of brown rice (2.5 g)
200 g of chicken (60 g)
30 g of nuts and seeds (6 g)
Total  = 76.5 g
200 g of chicken (60 g)
1 cup of beans (16 g)
1 cup of quinoa (8 g)
1 cup of milk (8 g)
30 g of nuts and seeds (6 g)
2 large eggs (12.6 g)
150 g White fish (30-37 g)
Total = 140.6-147.5 g
Protein requirements

My recommendation would be to start at the bottom ranges, and see how you go with that number. If you are feeling sluggish, experiencing consistent muscle fatigue then up the amount of protein in your food first. You may want to consider protein supplements like protein shakes.

Times where a protein shake become an important tool in your nutrition tool box, are usually when your trying to hit 2.3-3.1 g / kg of body weight. This is a lot of protein, and could get expensive. If you are aiming for a deficit to lose weight, then all the added protein could push you into eating more calories. A protein shake will help increase protein, without all the added fat if you increased your animal products in your diet. 

How to tell you are getting too much protein?

First off, too much protein is just wasted money, you’re weeing it out. In rare cases it’s flat out not good for you, which is why I recommend caution in the higher protein range. This range is really for people who exercise every day and have a large calorie deficit, or doing multiple work outs each day.

Why is it wasted money?

Protein is broken down into amino acids. Amino acids are then used by tissues in your body (muscles). If your muscles are not using the amino acids, the excess amino acids are broken down in the liver.

They are broken down into alpha-keto acids and ammonia (NH3). The ammonia in excess is toxic and has to be converted into something else. That something else is ammonium (addition of a hydrogen NH4+), ammonium also not great in high amounts.

Ammonium (NH4+) only has a few pathways it can go down to be disposed of, one of these is a super lengthy series of reactions via the mitochondria where ammonium is turned into Urea. The Urea then travels to the kidneys and can be urinated out. If there is lots of urea, because there is lots of protein, this makes your kidneys work much harder. For this reason, if you have kidney disease you cannot have a high protein diet. For most people this isn’t a problem, just wasted money.

Dangers of protein toxicity

Where excess protein is really dangerous, is excess ammonium can go to your brain. If this happens you’re going to have a really bad time, it can cause cerebral oedema. This is more of an issue for people who are missing important enzymes that help turn ammonium into Urea. Because this is rare and can be undiagnosed. Again this is rare, as with most things in life, moderation is best.

The most notable take away is that excess protein beyond your needs is pointless. If you require a lot of protein, protein supplements may be cheaper. It all depends on your body size, activity levels and goals.

How do you tell your wasting money on all those meat or protein supplements. Your urine probably smells strong, even though you’re hydrated. If it is, that’s an easy tell, cut down on the protein. Save some cash bro. 

In Summary

Supplements are a personal choice. We should always consider the down side of not getting the nutrients we want form whole foods which contain lots of other beneficial stuff. A protein supplement is not a bad thing, you just may not need it depending on your:

  • Goals
  • Body weight
  • Overall diet

Want to learn more about protein and protein supplements, check out our article on protein and amino acids.

References

Jӓger, R. et al., (2017, June 20), International society of sports nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14: 20. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pubmed/28642676-international-society-of-sports-nutrition-position-stand-protein-and-exercise/?from_term=Protein+requirments+for+active+person&from_pos=2&from_exact_term=protein+requirements+for+active+person

Protein, 2014, April 9, Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, retrieved from: https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/protein

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