Table of contents
- Protein supplements – are they necessary?
- Increasing protein intake
- Potential issues with excessive consumption
- What do authoritative bodies say?
- Making your own protein supplements
- Protein requirements
- The verdict on supplements
The supplement industry is booming, providing bodybuilding supplements to enhance weight gain, encourage weight loss, replace meals, increase performance and aid in recovery. Some of the more popular types include protein powders, nitric oxide, colostrums, branched-chain amino acids and creatine.
There is no denying that protein certainly plays an integral role in building muscle, but is supplementation necessary?
The public opinion on protein intake is strongly influenced by the media, pseudo-scientists, the internet and word of mouth. Many individuals see a sharp increase in protein intake as essential to muscle building. It has been recognised, however, that even athletes in heavy training generally receive surplus protein from dietary intake alone!
The effortlessness of receiving protein via dietary means is underappreciated. It could therefore be wiser and healthier to instead turn the focus to timing and distribution of protein intake, opposed to vastly increasing the quantity.
The issues with excessive protein/ supplement consumption are:
- The potential for other important foods to be displaced, for example, if you are focusing on eating a lot of protein rich foods or filling up on liquid, you may reduce the variety in your diet of things like fruit, vegetables and grain foods.
- Excessive protein intake can potentially put extra stress on kidneys. High protein intakes are also known to speed up the progression of pre-existing kidney disease.
- Increased excretion of calcium in the urine which can lead to weakened bones for those at risk.
- Can cause dehydration due to an increased requirement for fluids.
- Increased intake of total and saturated fat from animal products e.g. meat and dairy.
- Heightened risk of kidney stones.
- Increased risk of bowel cancer if consuming large amounts of meat.
Sports Dietitians Australia recognises the popularity of protein supplements and how effective marketing is for those trying to gain muscle. In their opinion, for the purpose of building muscle, adequate protein can be easily obtained from dietary means.
The SDA acknowledges that the majority of supplements on the market have limited evidence to support their effectiveness and that many fail to provide the expected results. They do however state that creatine and liquid meal supplements may be an exception but should only be considered once diet and exercise have been optimised.
Points to consider before considering a supplement:
- Am I consuming enough calories?
- Am I timing my protein consumption as best I can?
- Is my resistance training adequate for the results I want?
The AIS warn against clever marketing. There are innumerable supplements for sale that make promises not based on any scientific evidence and are hence a “waste of money”. They comment on the fact that most of the protein supplements for sale are in fact suboptimal for the purpose of building muscle – they are too low in carbohydrate and far too high in protein.
The AIS has also recommended obtaining protein through dietary means, where possible.
The DAA along with both the AIS and SDA focus on optimising muscle growth and maintaining optimal health. They recommend focusing on the right type of training and obtaining protein through diet opposed to supplementation. They stress the importance of first ensuring the diet you choose to follow provides all essential nutrients, be it one that involves protein supplements or not. However, this can be hard to achieve when there is a steep increase in the quantity of protein.
Both the AIS and SDA recommend a supplement that is rich in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat, has added vitamins/ minerals and is economical.
The AIS uses PowerBar protein Plus Powder for athletes who need added nutrients to increase muscle mass.
If you want a more cost effective approach to increasing your protein intake, there are easy ways to create your own! Following a homemade recipe can easily provide all the ingredients you need for increasing muscle mass. It can also be healthier as they can provide more important nutrients.
Ideas for home made supplements can be found in my next article ‘Building muscle mass’.
The requirements listed in the table below are the recommendations for both sedentary and athletic individuals. They were obtained from the AIS.
|Group||Protein intake (g/kg/day)|
|Sedentary men and women||0.8-1|
|Elite male endurance athletes||1.6|
|Moderate-intensity endurance athletes (a)||1.2|
|Recreational endurance athletes (b)||0.8-1|
|Football, power sports||1.4-1.7|
|Resistance athletes (early training)||1.5-1.7|
|Resistance athletes (steady state)||1.0-1.2|
|Female athletes||~15% lower than male athletes|
(a) Exercising approximately four to five times per week for 45-60 min
(b) Exercising four to five times per week for 30 mins
- Endurance athletes: Require additional protein to make up for the energy losses from training and to aid in repair and recovery post exercise.
- Strength athletes: An increase in protein intake is required during the initial stages of intensive resistance training, when an increase in muscle size is required. Eventually the need for additional protein tapers off as the muscle adapts to the resistance training. Protein requirements are then deemed more than an individual who is generally active, but only marginally.
- Adolescents: Adolescents will require more protein because they are still growing.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming article on ‘Building muscle mass’!
In most cases, athletes and those wanting to gain muscle can receive all the protein they need from a healthy diet. This includes those who are vegetarian. However, there are occasional circumstances where an athlete will find a protein supplement useful – this is normally when they are struggling to consume enough energy from food.
Protein supplements are very expensive due to their popularity and the processing that is involved in extracting the protein from cow’s milk. They offer significant (and excessive) amounts of protein and very little quantities of other nutrients. Additionally, supplements can take the place of food in your diet and jeopardise important nutrients.
In saying that, it is up to the individual and your own circumstance. If choosing a protein supplement, aim for one that is rich in carbohydrate and moderate in protein. Alternatively, make your own!
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have diet related questions or if you want more advice on protein, Contact us today!