Protein Supplements – powders and bars

woman holding dumbbells
Can you build muscle without protein supplements like powders and bars?
Photo by @1raptor2

Nutrition on the run!

Protein supplements like powders and bars are an easy grab and go for most Americans especially when we are on the road and traveling. However, do we really need protein supplements to achieve our health and fitness goals? Are they necessary to build muscle?

There is no question about the benefit of additional protein in our diet particularly when there is an interest in weight loss or muscle gain. Protein increases satiety, uses more energy for digestion and absorption compared to carbohydrates and fats, plus protein helps preserve lean body tissue (muscle) particularly when combined with regular exercise.

Research finds that a dose of 20-40 g of a high-quality protein every 3-4 hours appears to be optimal, not only for muscle synthesis, but also in support of favorable body composition, and athletic performance outcomes.

What does 20-35 grams of protein look like?

Here are a few samples from the Nutritionix database:

  • Chicken meat, cooked (4 ounces): 35 grams
  • Turkey breast, roasted (4 ounces): 34 grams
  • 2 % cottage cheese (1 cup) 30 grams
  • Cooked tofu (1 1/2 cups) 30 grams
  • Soybeans (1 cup, cooked) 28 grams
  • 2% Greek yogurt (1 cup) 20 grams
  • Canned Tuna (5 oz) light to white 20-24 grams

A comparison real food vs protein supplements

Here is an example of a meal/snack comparable to a typical maple sea salt ” prescription” protein bar at 12 grams of protein and 220 calories. Twelve grams of protein falls below the recommended 20-40 grams so you would need to pair this snack bar with another high protein item or two. Whereas the meal below meets the recommendation with 20.5 grams of protein and just 232 calories.

FoodGrams of ProteinCalories
An egg678
An egg white3.517
1 piece of Ezekiel toast480
1 cup cooked spinach541
1 cup cooked mushrooms216
Total20.5232

So, as you can see it’s easy to get the protein you need from real food! When you combine several foods during a meal/snack it is even easier to reach your protein goals. Real food has the added benefit of “food synergy.” In most cases, real food is less expensive, more filling, satisfying, and satiating than a drinkable protein like a shake. One reason is that without chewing you might be missing out on an important cephalic phase of the digestive process. Real food does take a bit more planning but here are some other easy ideas when you are on the road.

So what’s all the hype with protein supplements?

The big push in marketing for protein supplements isn’t based on the phenomenal muscle gain results you’ll get but on the BIG money being made by the companies that sell these supplements. Supplements are often unregulated – meaning you don’t “actually” know what is in the product. Buyer beware – if you do need the convenience of protein powder from time to time be sure that it is marked with either the Informed for Sport or NSF International logo -shown below. These organizations are third-party testers who help athletes, dieticians, coaches and consumers make safer decisions in choosing sports supplements. They help athletes not only to comply with banned substance regulations but also to protect their health.

Although protein supplements can occasionally be handy for folks on the run, vegan athletes, or during travel the reality is that supplements should never replace a well-balanced diet of whole foods. What’s more is that you don’t need them to gain muscle and strength. You do need a calorie surplus, the right genetics, dedication and progressive overload in the gym.

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