Jan 24, 2017 12:08PM
Think before you drink: Do you need that protein shake?
Made in a variety of tasty flavors, these powders now make it easier than ever for people to consume large amounts of protein. There are dozens of brands and types, ranging from whey protein and isolate proteins to "protein blends." Most are designed to be mixed with water or milk and contain an average of 24 grams of protein.
Dr. Cate Shanahan, author of "Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food," says protein is one of the three essential macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat. She says proteins supply amino acids that our bodies can't synthesize on their own, and that they help make muscle, skin, bone and other tissues.
Shanahan says there are a "lot of myths" around protein, often involving the belief that those who exercise more need more protein or can build more lean muscle by consuming more protein. While body builders and endurance athletes may have a need for more, it's questionable for others. For an ordinary person who exercises moderately, Shanahan says there's "no benefit" in consuming extra protein beyond that found in a well-balanced diet.
"There's no evidence that habitual exercise increases protein requirements. And in fact, protein metabolism may be more efficient as a result of training," Shanahan says.
Protein does help build muscle, but there are conflicting studies on how much people need and how excess protein can impact the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of weight, roughly 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. Yet most Americans already receive more than their minimum RDA. A 2015 analysis of the 2007 to 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that American men already consume a daily average of 100 grams.
Some servings of protein powders have as much as 60 grams, the equivalent of 9 ounces of tuna or chicken. Many nutritionists and doctors also are worried that these products are relatively new and there are no long-term studies on how these protein powders can impact the body. Shanahan says the unnecessary intake may not only cause the person to gain weight, but could also increase the workload on their kidneys.
A number of large observational studies have linked high-protein diets with a high incidence of heart disease and cancer. One study by the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California examined a sample of 6,300 adults and found those who ate a high protein diet between the ages of 50 and 65 were four times more likely to die of cancer than those who consumed less. Yet other health professionals, like Stuart Phillips, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says the risks of a high protein diet are "overblown."
Shanahan says those too focused on protein may also be shorting themselves of other macronutrients they need, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and good fats. Even most protein powder labels encourage consumers to use it in combination with high protein foods to meet daily requirements. Many also state that it is a "food supplement only" and "not to be used for weight reduction."
While there may be a need for elderly and sickly to consume protein supplements, many younger and healthier Americans are likely receiving the protein they need. A protein shake here and there may not do much harm, but excess consumption combined with a typical American diet may result in more fat than muscle.
"If you're getting more of anything than you need, you're going to gain weight by definition. You can already get (protein) through foods. I'm hard-pressed to find anyone I imagine really needs this," Shanahan says.
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