*Disclaimer: this article is not intended to treat or diagnose any disease(es). You should consult with your physician/healthcare provider & registered dietitian before beginning a new regimen*

Protein powder can play a particularly important role in the lives of active as well as sedentary people, but it is often solely viewed as a supplement to gain as much muscle as possible. Although it does help with muscle gain, it is beneficial for plenty of other things such as: 

  • Supporting immune system
  • Repairing tissues
  • Preventing stunting of growth, anemia, and vascular dysfunction

The non body composition related benefits of protein can be an entirely separate article, but the focus of this one will be related to body composition and uses of protein foods in one's day-to-day life.

How Does Protein Intake Affect Body Composition?

Protein is one of the 3 main macronutrients (Protein, carbohydrates, and fat; alcohol is also a macro”nutrient” but it is not as important for health and thriving as the main 3 mentioned prior, in fact the argument can be made that alcohol is a literal toxin [perhaps an article for another time]). Eating any food has a metabolic cost, meaning there are calories needed to process (metabolize, absorb, digest) all macronutrients. This is called a thermic effect of food (TEF); protein has a TEF of approximately 15-30% which means we use 15-30% of the calories we consumed to process protein; for example, if you ate 100 calories worth of protein only, it would cost ~15-30 calories to process this food. This increased thermic effect would mean more calories are burned by consuming these protein containing foods. Protein foods also have a tendency to have a higher satiety index, which means they help people feel satisfied for longer periods of time which can ultimately help with impacting body composition if fat loss is the goal by helping create the most important factor for fat loss: A CALORIC DEFICIT.

Ways to Increase Protein Intake

Studies have shown that protein intake is not only essential for life and for living an optimal life with healthy amounts of muscle mass since protein helps recover from tough training sessions, but it is also SAFE for generally healthy individuals with no contraindications such as kidney problems3. Keeping this in mind, here are some ways to “up” protein intake:

  • Be mindful of whether or not you are eating protein on a regular basis. Common protein-containing foods are eggs, beans/lentils, milk, chicken, fish, and protein powders(see next bullet point); yes there are plenty more, but these are common foods that are good sources
  • Protein powder supplements. This is an unnecessarily controversial topic at times, but only because there are misconceptions around what a protein powder is. Protein powders are simply a powder of a protein containing food that was extracted and processed into powder form and made to be consumable by consumers like you and I (yes, taste is a very important factor- see the last bullet point). When we see whey protein or rice protein in powder forms, these supplemental foods have been extracted from their original form and made into a powder that helps people consume a high protein snack in a convenient form. These powders often have the suggested minimal 20g of protein that active humans should consume every 3-4 hours3.
  • High protein foods. There is now a MASSIVE selection of higher protein foods for the protein-aware individuals. These foods contain but are not limited to: higher protein yogurts, milks (cow, soy, and almond milks), snack bars, ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, and even grains such as protein-pasta.
  • Eat higher protein foods that you enjoy! People often ask me for the “best” protein powder; although I have my personal preferences, my answer is often “the one you will enjoy/the one you currently drink and it sits well in your mouth and GI tract.” If we cannot tolerate it, we should not be consuming it. This may take experimentation, but finding the higher protein foods that suit your life & lifestyle well is something that can change your life for the better.

Conclusion

Humans NEED protein, without it we slowly wither and become sick & weak. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends folks consume 1.4-2.0 g/kg of protein per day. For a 180 lb person this would be a range of 115g-164g of protein per day, on average. Keep in mind, the current suggested intake of protein is 0.8g/kg, which may help prevent illness, but is not adequate to help individuals thrive. Find various ways to increase protein throughout the day if you are healthy enough for it. Find foods you enjoy and incorporate them on a more regular basis. Do not be afraid of using protein powders, especially if they are convenient, but also know that they are helpful and not necessary. Final point, adequate protein intake is crucial for optimizing recovery for active people. Now go get your recovery on!

References

  1. Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food Funct. 2016;7(3):1251-1265. doi:10.1039/c5fo01530h
  2. Pesta DH, Samuel VT. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014;11(1):53. Published 2014 Nov 19. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-11-53
  3. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8