December 3, 2018 5:02 AM ET
The marketing is enticing: Get stronger muscles and healthier bodies with minimal effort by adding protein powder to your morning shake or juice drink. Or grab a protein bar at lunch or for a quick snack. Today, you can find protein supplements everywhere — online or at the pharmacy, grocery store or health food store. They come in powders, pills and bars.
With more than $12 billion in sales this year, the industry is booming and, according to the market research company, Grand View Research, is on track to sell billions more by 2025. But do we really need all this supplemental protein? It depends. There are pros, cons and some ho-hums to consider.
For starters, protein is critical for every cell in our body. It helps build nails, hair, bones and muscles. It can also help you feel fuller longer than eating foods without protein. And, unlike nutrients that are found only in a few foods, protein is pretty much ubiquitous. “The typical American diet is a lot higher in protein than a lot of us think,” says registered dietitian Angela Pipitone with Johns Hopkins McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine.
She says it’s in foods many of us expect, such as beef, chicken and other types of meat and dairy. But it’s also in foods that may not come immediately to mind like vegetables, fruit, beans and grains.
The U.S. government’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) for the average adult is 50 to 60 grams of protein a day. This may sound like a lot, but Pipitone says: “We get bits of protein here and there and that really adds up throughout the day.”
Take, for example, breakfast. If you ate two eggs topped with a little bit of cheese and an orange on the side, you already have 22 grams of protein. Each egg gives you 7 grams, the cheese gives you about 6 grams and the orange — about 2 grams. Add a lunch of chicken, rice and broccoli, and you are already over the recommended 50 grams. “You can get enough protein and meet the RDA before you even get to dinner,” says Pipitone.
So if it’s so easy to get your protein in food, why add more in the form of powders, snack bars or a boost at your local juice bar? No need to, says Pipitone because, in fact, most of us already get enough protein in our diet.
“Whole foods are always the best option rather than adding supplements,” she says, noting the FDA does not regulate supplements as stringently as foods or drugs, so there could be less protein, more sugar and some additives you wouldn’t expect, such as caffeine and even steroids.
If you are considering a supplement, read the list of ingredients, she says, although this is not always foolproof. “I’ve seen very expensive protein supplements that claim to be high quality but they might not really be beneficial for the average healthy adult,” she says. “It could just be a waste of money.”
But there are certain situations that do warrant extra protein. “Anytime you’re in an anabolic state or building muscle,” Pipitone says, such as if you’re an extreme endurance athlete, training for a marathon, or you’re a body builder.
If you’re moderately exercising for 150 minutes a week, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, or less than that, you’re probably not an extreme athlete.
Extreme athletes expend lots of energy breaking down and repairing and building muscles. Protein can give them the edge they need to speed along that process.
Vegans can benefit from protein supplements since they do not eat animal-based protein sources like meat, dairy or eggs. And, for someone always on-the-go who may not have time for a meal, a protein snack bar can be a good option for occasional meal replacement.
Also, individuals recovering from surgery or an injury can also benefit from extra protein. So, too, can older people. At around age 60, “muscles really start to break down,” says Kathryn Starr, an aging researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, “and because of that, in addition to the fact that as we get older our body’s ability to break down protein is reduced, the protein needs of an older adult actually increases.”
In fact, along with her colleague Connie Bales, Starr recently conducted a small study that found that adding extra protein foods to the diet of obese older individuals who were trying to lose weight strengthened their muscles. Participants in the study were separated into two groups — one group was asked to eat 30 grams of protein per meal in the form of whole foods. That meant they were eating 90 grams of protein a day. The other group — the control group — was put on a typical low-calorie diet with about 50 to 60 grams of protein a day.