Faith, trust and protein powder: those are the ingredients required to slim down, gain muscle and look swole — or so they say. To the average consumer, protein powder comes across as a mysterious, magical powder that, through regular and sometimes overuse, gives the illusion of a healthy lifestyle and hot beach bod. I, myself, have even used protein supplements from time to time, especially when on the go. But we all have to wonder what in the world constitutes the magical fairy mix that transforms our cells from fat to muscle.
According to basic biology, food itself is comprised of three basic nutrients — carbohydrates, fats and proteins — all of which the body needs to survive, function and maintain homeostasis. Proteins are molecules that serve an innumerable amount of functions in the body such as binding together to build enzymes that aid in the process of energy consumption. Proteins themselves are made from basic building blocks known as amino acids, and they ultimately serve as one type of gear that makes up the machine of the human body. If our bodies are machines, food is our fuel.
“[A food’s] protein quality is determined by assessing its amino-acid composition, digestibility and bioavailability, or the degree to which amino-acids can be used by the body,” according to the American Council on Exercise.
Essentially, what we put into our bodies breaks apart into its respective pieces to be utilized by our bodies, maximizing energy output of every single cell. Just reading this column requires that kind of energy.
But like other machines, the human body runs out of gas from time to time, and we have to replace the nutrients we use, repairing muscle and keeping up our energy stores. Active individuals cause damage to their muscles during workouts. The muscles form microscopic tears that must be mended. Generally, nutritionists and health experts recommend protein as the antidote for beneficial muscle damage. The American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine both recommend “endurance- and strength-trained athletes consume 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg of body weight per day,” including protein. The minimum for all healthy individuals, as transcribed by ACE from the Journal of the American Medical Association, should level out to a protein intake of 0.8 kg/g per day. The authors of the piece on protein intake also acknowledge that “higher levels benefit muscle mass, strength, and function; bone health; maintenance of energy balance; cardiovascular function; and wound health.”
The ADA recommends consuming protein directly after workouts as it aids in the repair and synthesis of proteins, suggesting that, based on research, protein “helps to preserve” as well as build muscle mass. So protein powder after a workout seems like a great option for those who want to quickly replace the nutrients lost or damaged. However, ACE refutes this argument as basic biology states that up to a certain point the body will intake protein and that any and all excess will be stripped back down to its carbohydrate or fatty forms for storage.
On top of the biological factors, the Food and Drug Administration does not closely regulate the production of protein powders, so the ingredients within each powder have the potential to significantly vary. Research done on these powders, as reported in ACE Essentials of Exercise, remains inconsistent and therefore lies outside the scope of the practice of fitness professionalism. As a result, the Council requires that all trainers under their license do not recommend protein powders to any clients. The ADA follows suit, “advising against [any] supplementation overall.”
These facts are not to say you have to give up your favorite protein shake or throw away the box of bars stored in your room. Instead, substitute the synthetic for whole and clean foods. A cup of Greek yogurt and granola, or a couple of eggs, or even toast with peanut butter provide the same nutrients as the mysterious powder but in a more wholesome manner. If you cannot cut out your favorite protein bars entirely, treat yourself every once in awhile or when you know you will especially be on the go. I, and most fitness professionals, preach the mantra “everything in moderation,” so know that you can receive your protein in more ways than just the magic powder.