What’s Up with Protein and Protein Supps?

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Chatter about protein and protein supplements have been getting a good deal of attention recently. With so much misinformation about amounts, timing and sources here are the answers to five common questions about this important macronutrient.

Why is protein important?

Protein plays vital functions in our bodies, including building connective tissues and supporting the immune system. Protein can also help us maintain a healthy weight by increasing satiety and preserving lean body mass. In addition, protein can support exercise and fitness goals since protein aids muscle growth and repair.

How much protein is needed?

While there are extremely rare conditions where protein intake should be carefully monitored, the large majority of us get significant health benefits from eating the right amount of protein for our needs. Macronutrient amounts, including protein, are determined by the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) set by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine (IOM)). The RDA for protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d) for adults. However, a recent position statement from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) suggests that the majority of people who exercise should eat a minimum of 1.4 to 2.0 g/kg/d of protein. Training athletes, which most of us are not, may require even more protein than that.

Now before you start busting out your calculator to crunch these g/kg/d numbers, let’s talk about what it means. The recommended amount of 0.8 g/kg/d was defined by the IOM as the intake level necessary to meet sufficient protein needs for an average healthy adult, which varies based on activity level, gender, weight and genetics. The amounts suggested by ISSN for exercising individuals and training athletes are designed to support building and maintaining muscle mass.  

Additionally, the IOM has established Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for each of the macronutrients. The AMDR for protein says that between 10 and 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from protein. On average, Americans consume about 16 percent of their calories from protein, showing that there is some more room for protein on our plates. 

What are some common food sources of protein?

There are two types of protein: “complete” and “incomplete.” Complete proteins are foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are the types that our body cannot make; hence, they’re “essential” to get from food. Incomplete proteins are foods that are missing one or more of these essential amino acids. By varying the sources of incomplete proteins throughout the day or within a single meal, you can get all the essential amino acids. Classic examples in a single meal include beans and rice or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread. Regardless of completeness, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend choosing lean sources of protein. Some examples of lean proteins are below, grouped by completeness.

  • Complete proteins: Chicken, pork, beef, fish, tofu, eggs, yogurt, dairy
  • Incomplete proteins: Nuts, beans, oats, brown rice

Looking to incorporate more protein in a healthy diet?

Protein powders can be a great way to help meet or increase your protein needs, particularly for those who don’t regularly eat enough protein-rich foods and may struggle to reach their RDA. Generally, protein powders are derived from milk (whey or casein) or plant (soy, hemp, pea or rice) sources. Milk-based and soy-based protein powders are complete proteins, so they supply your body with all of the essential amino acids. Plant-based protein powders that not made with soy can be incomplete sources of protein. Some plant-based protein powders contain a combination of plant proteins which makes them complete protein sources.

Is it better to get protein from food or protein powders?

It’s always preferred to seek nutrients (protein included) from whole foods first. And with a little bit of meal planning, depending on your dietary needs and preferences, protein needs can be met from whole foods alone. But that doesn’t mean that protein powders can’t be included in a healthy diet to give you a boost with reaching your protein intake goals. Powders may also come in handy if you: a) skip meals; b) need to increase your protein intake due to your exercise routine; c) are an athlete; or d) enjoy the taste and consistency of protein shakes. If any of these sound like you, then protein powders might be a good option. Protein powders can be a great way to help space your protein more evenly throughout the day, but they can be calorie-dense. Pay attention to the total number of calories (and protein grams) that you may be adding to you diet from protein powders so that you’re not exceeding your daily requirements.

What’s the bottom line on protein?

We need protein in our diets and fortunately we can get it from a variety of sources.
So whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or partial to paleo, you can get your protein however you like it. And that includes in the form of protein powders. While seeking nutrients from whole foods first is the recommended approach to healthy eating, there may be some cases where supplements offer a much needed boost. Protein powders can be one of those options. The most important part about protein; however, is getting the right amount each day.

This blog post includes contributions from Debbie Fetter.