No. I Prefer Food. Not Protein Powder.

I asked a colleague if she had any suggestions for topics. She suggested protein powders.

I said, “ugh, no. I prefer food.”

So she suggested I explain why. And fine, I will.

Protein Powder for Strength Gains

The basic concept behind protein powder and supplements is that they “help” or are even necessary for strength training. Because you need sooo much protein (I resisted the urge to insert an eyeroll emoji). I saw some pretty big numbers for protein requirements for strength training, as big as 400g per day! And if you really believed those numbers then sure, protein powder would help you hit that number.

To the research!

How much protein do people need? The USDA gives a value of 0.8 g/kg/day. This number is set to be sufficient for 97.5% of the population. Let’s assume that people who are serious about strength training make-up the 2.5% who need more (not actually a reasonable assumption, but let’s pretend). But remember that plenty of folks actually need less than the RDA.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) recommends (PDF) 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day for strength training. With a floor of 1.5 for novice lifters recommended by the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Published research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that most people are getting enough protein. The average American is actually already getting enough protein to be engaged in serious strength training without having to change their diet or add protein powder/supplements.

The exceptions found in the NHANES study were that a small but significant number of adolescent and elderly women who were not getting enough protein. That’s it.

If most people are getting enough without doing anything extra then why is there such a business in protein powder sales?

Protein Powder is Easy

If you’re worried that you’re not getting the gains you want then protein powder provides an easy route to thinking you’ve solved the problem. Just buy something and you’re all set! You don’t have to actually analyze your diet, activity, form or program. Just buy something.

But protein consumption doesn’t trigger muscle building. If I deliver a bunch of construction materials to a local builder they aren’t going to just build a building because I provided the supplies. And you won’t build muscle just from eating protein. You need to do the strength training. You need to have a sensible program, with proper rest periods and enough work etc.

From looking around the gym it seems like a lot of the folks who are consuming the protein powder are already doing a reasonable program and are probably doing just fine with building muscle. In which case the powder is just a placebo. It does nothing but helps them feel like their approach is great. That feeling that they are doing all the right things probably helps with motivation and effort – which improves the outcomes. But the powder still isn’t actually helping.

But why not use it, just in case?

Because it’s false.

Because it’s a waste of time.

Because it’s a waste of money.

Because it causes some people digestive problems. And telling those people they “need” to do it is a problem.

Because facts matter.

But maybe I’m not getting enough protein.

Then use MyFitnessPal and check. The app is free, unlike the powder. Or any other fitness and nutrition app – I can personally vouch for liking this app and finding it useful and having heard almost universally positive reviews.

Odds are you are getting enough protein, though.

Don’t use the target number the app generates. Use the math above.

Vegetarians and Vegans

Folks with these types of diets are more likely to be not getting enough protein. For meat eaters it’s pretty easy to get enough protein. For non-meat eaters is frequently takes a bit more effort and planning. But it’s still perfectly possible to do so just using food. And they need to make sure they’re protein sources are complete, which most vegetarians and vegans seem to already be aware of. Vegetables and fruits do have protein and a quick Google search brings up plenty of lists of high protein plant foods.

Conclusion

Protein powder is unnecessary and if you really are having trouble getting enough with the foods you are eating then I encourage you to first try upping your intake of protein rich foods to hit the goal. In particular vegetables and fruits. The real reason for preferring food though is the benefits of the micronutrients and fiber contained in the food. Both of which are good for health.

Bibliography

Fulgoni, V. L. (2008). Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1554S-1557S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1554S
protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/brochures/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
Szedlak, C., & Robins, A. (2012). Protein Requirements for Strength Training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 85. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826dc3c4

Appendix: Looking at Online Searches

I expected to find that most of the links I clicked would overestimate protein needs. And perhaps my results are associated with my search history and particular search terms, but I was pleasantly surprised to not find that. In fact WebMD even low-balled the protein estimate (and didn’t even say I had cancer!). Many of the sources I found just quoted the USDA and/or ACSM recommended numbers, which is encouraging.

But the hits weren’t all good. Strength training oriented sites (like BodyBuilding.com) tended to recommend higher amounts than actually needed. With the International Sport Sciences Association (ISSA) recommending 2-3 g/kg per day. Which is almost double the actual need. The reason I highlight this is the fact that ISSA does personal trainer certifications. Which shows that the cert isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of knowledge. (I’ll also point out that they provide references for the rest of the info on that ‘myths’ page but have no reference for this recommendation.)

In general the hits I got were for sites emphasizing the need to get enough protein and generally taking the attitude that you need more or need to make sure you’re getting enough. But the reality is that most people already are. So the emphasis is all out of whack.

Author: Steven Hirsch, DPT, CSCS

Physical therapist, strength coach, historical fencer.

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