Combining balanced eating with daily exercise is an excellent combination for good health. It is recommended that exercise incorporate strength, endurance and stretching exercise; however people whose exercising goal is to increase muscle mass often focus their training on strength exercises. Many also believe they need to increase their protein intake and often do so through protein supplements. But is this needed, recommended or safe?
What is Protein?
Protein is essential for growth and development, maintain muscle, and to produce hormones, enzymes, red and white blood cells., but what is protein? Proteins are made up of chains of different amino acids. Different proteins have different amino acids or the same amino acids in different order.
An amino acid is a “building block” of protein. The easiest way to think of amino acids is as a car of a train; when amino acids are hooked together in certain combinations, they form a protein.
There are about 500 amino acids, but only 21 amino acids are needed for human nutrition. Some are called ‘essential amino acids’ and others ‘non-essential amino acids’.
Non-essential amino acids: can be made by the body (therefore does not have to be eaten);
Essential amino acids: cannot be made by the body, therefore needs to be eaten in food
Are all proteins created equal?
Not all proteins are created equal. High biological value proteins are readily absorbed protein from a food and incorporated into the proteins of the body, whereas low biological value proteins are less easily absorbed and incorporated.
High Biological Value Proteins include protein from meat, fish, poultry (chicken, turkey, duck), eggs and milk or milk products (such as yogourt and cheese).
Low Biological Value Proteins are proteins that may contain all the amino acids needed for human nutrition, but some of those amino acids may only be present in very small amounts. Low biological value proteins are often found in meat alternatives such as nuts, nut butters and legumes (beans and lentils).
Two factors that affect the biological value of a protein include its amino acid composition and the limiting amino acid (which is usually lysine), and the way a protein is prepared or cooked.
How much protein is needed daily?
For healthy adults it is recommended that the protein intake should range between 12-15 % of the total calories consumed per day.
In the case of people with illnesses these requirements can increase or diminish. As well, as for people who exercise and specifically wants to gain muscle mass, the requirements are increased to 1.2 – 1.7 g of protein / kg / day which translates to about 15-20 % of the total calories.
Protein is required daily, especially on days of physical training. However, excess protein from the diet and supplements are used for extra energy, excreted as waste or even could be stored as body fat!!!.
The role of protein in pose-exercise recovery
In 2010, Beelen M, et al. and, in 2013, Van Loon reported that the consumption of ~20 g intact protein or an equivalent of ~9 g essential amino acids has been reported to maximize muscle protein-synthesis rates during the first hours of post-exercise recovery.
Is extra protein or protein supplements required to build muscle mass?
To build muscle mass, a high protein diet or protein supplements is insufficient by itself. What is needed is;
1- Sufficient calories distributed throughout the day. This is best as 6 eating occasions a day (most commonly as 3 meals and 3 snacks)
2- The calories need to come from:
– high fibre carbohydrates (i.e. fruits, vegetables, whole grains)
– high quality / high biological value protein
– reduced fat milk and milk alternatives and
– good sources of fat (low in saturated and trans fats)
3- Regular strength training (2 – 3x per week)
Protein from supplements or food?
Supplemental protein from powders, bars and / or drinks is not superior to protein-rich foods. Moreover, many protein supplements lack essential carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that are found in natural foods and that are essential for proper nutrition. Hence, if you choose to use supplemental protein, do it as an “extra” rather than as a meal replacement or as a portable, convenient source of protein and calories.
Did you know?
- 125 ml (1/2 cup) dry skim milk powder = same amount of protein of 1 scoop of most whey proteins.
- So-called “weight-gain supplements” provide approximately 600-1200 calories per serving and are usually a combination of protein, carbohydrates and fat; with or without vitamins and minerals and are very expensive compared to the what is easily available from food. A much less expensive, quick and easy option is available by mixing skim milk powder, ice-cream, milk, fruit and sugar into a homemade high protein smoothie.
Can protein supplements be harmful?
Research has been inconclusive about the claimed benefits of some supplements such as L-Glutamine and creatine and some may even have detrimental effect.
For creatine to get into muscle, a lot has to be taken and most ends up in the urine. It is for this reason that there is concern that creatine supplementation could damage kidneys as the body has to make about 25% more urine each day to get rid of the extra creatine. That may produce some strain on the kidneys that might eventually lead to kidney disease
L-Glutamine supplements may also cause side effects that may include abnormal touch sensations, changes in urine color, back pain and body aches, gastrointestinal disturbances and vomiting.
What does the current literature demonstrate?
In 2012, Ormsbee MJ, et al. found that the consumption of multi-ingredient protein supplements (MIPS) during the course of a periodized – resistance program facilitated training-induced improvement in lean muscle mass and improved the measures in anaerobic power (strength) , in trained males, versus a placebo that did not have any effect.
In June 2013, Joy JM, et al. showed that either animal or vegetal proteins have the same effect. On these terms, whey and rice protein isolate administration post resistance exercise improved indices of body composition and exercise performance; however, there were no differences between the two groups.
How Nutrition to You can help
Nutrition to You’s Registered Dietitians can help you assess your diet based on your age, body size and activity level to ensure you are meeting your daily requirements for protein.
Click on the “Contact Us” tab above to learn more about how we can support your health and fitness goals.
Practice Evidence in Nutrition (PEN) Guidelines.
Coaching Association of Canada. “Protein and related sport supplements”.
Van Loon LJ. Role of dietary protein in post-exercise muscle reconditioning. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;75:73-83. doi: 10.1159/000345821. Epub 2013 Apr 16.
Beelen M, Burke LM, Gibala MJ, van Loon L JC. Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Dec;20(6):515-32.
Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, Purpura M, De Souza EO, Wilson SM, Kalman DS, Dudeck JE, Jäger R. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013 Jun 20;12(1):86.
Ormsbee MJ, Mandler WK, Thomas DD, Ward EG, Kinsey AW, Simonavice E, Panton LB, Kim JS. The effects of six weeks of supplementation with multi-ingredient performance supplements and resistance training on anabolic hormones, body composition, strength, and power in resistance-trained menJ Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Nov 15;9(1):49. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-