Like many other active men in their 20s, I am no stranger to the gym. For years, I lifted weights without having any real idea about how to train, but I did it anyway because my health was — and still is — very important to me. I was a typical gym-goer; one of those guys you’d see drinking a murky brown liquid before and after my workout. That murky brown stuff was protein powder and I was convinced I absolutely needed it to get the most out of my workouts.
Protein powder is one of the most popular supplements sold in the United States. According to a 2004 study by the International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 40% of regular exercisers take protein supplements more than five times a week. So why is protein so popular? At the time, I thought it was because I wouldn’t experience any muscle growth unless I consumed a lot of protein, an idea that may have been planted in my head because many protein supplement manufacturers say their products help increase muscle size and efficiency and suggest consumers take 50 to 300 grams of protein a day.
But is protein really as effective or necessary as what’s being advertised? To understand that, we need to know what role protein plays in our bodies and what food sources we can get it from.
What Is the Function of Protein?
Protein is the building block of life and can be found in every cell in the human body. Its function is to repair cells and create new ones, or in terms of sports medicine, it means it helps rebuild muscle tissue after it has been broken down. Protein is one of three macronutrients, a group of chemical compounds that people eat in large quantities and which provides the most energy. It can be found in meat products, seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, lean meats, such as extra lean ground beef, pork, or skinless chicken, are better protein sources than other types of meat because they have much less fat.
Knowing what a protein is and where to find it isn’t a problem for most Americans. However, opinions vary quite widely in regards to how much protein someone should consume on a daily basis. Some of the confusion occurs because a person’s dietary needs change based on their sex, age, body weight, and level of physical activity. For example, a 200-pound bodybuilder needs to consume more protein than a 120-pound accountant who jogs four days a week.
Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said that the average person should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily, or about 68 grams of protein per day if you weigh 150 pounds. Meanwhile, a person who is trying to bulk up should consume a maximum of 0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, or about 112.5 grams per day. But regardless of a person’s activity level, Sheth said the protein-heavy American diet makes it easy for everyone to meet their needs. For example, four ounces of chicken breast has 25 grams, one cup of oatmeal has 10 grams, and one cup of black beans has 15 grams of protein. By themselves, those three foods provide 74 grams of protein, which is more than adequate for some individuals.
“It’s been found that most Americans actually meet all their protein needs just by eating a well-balanced diet,” she said. “(Many people don’t) realize how much protein they get from food. It’s really simple to get your protein from food, and it’s more satisfying.”
Is Protein the Most Important Thing to Eat?
Examine the nutritional label of many protein supplements and you’ll see that in addition to protein, they contain amino acids and very small amounts of carbohydrates and fiber. This is a great formula if you want isolated protein only, but that may not actually offer the most effective way to refuel and replenish your muscles, said Warren Martin, a performance enhancement specialist from Conway, Ark. In fact, it is carbohydrates, not protein, that holds the key to increasing performance, Martin said.
“The very first thing your body looks for (after a workout) is carbohydrates. It cares less about repairing muscle and more about replenishing energy,” he explained. “Just having a protein drink is a huge no-no. You’re not giving your body what it needs to perform. It will just convert the protein into energy.” In other words, your body probably won’t use the protein drink to build and repair muscle like you intended.
This means that although people should consume calories before and after a workout, those calories don’t need to be from expensive nutritional supplements. Instead, athletes should consider any food or drink, such as chocolate milk or fruit, that provides a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein. This balance maximizes energy replacement and the rebuilding of muscle tissue, Martin said.
Dr. Douglas Graham, a chiropractor and performance coach who has worked with professional athletes, echoed Martin’s statement about the importance of carbohydrates.
“Personally, I think protein is the biggest joke being played on us. There is no medical condition known as protein deficiency. Everyone’s selling protein, everyone’s talking about protein, and protein deficiency doesn’t even exist,” Graham said. “My athletes perform far better in all cases if we ensure that they gain sufficient carbohydrates while limiting fats.”
Overall, Graham advises that people should think less about what they eat before and after working out and more about the kind training they do while working out if they want to make progress in the gym.
“If they’re trying to gain size or strength, the training varies. But in both cases, it’s not about food and certainly not about protein; it’s about training. If it was food that allowed strength athletes to get stronger, then instead of taking gym memberships, they’d take restaurant memberships. It’s always about the training, not the eating. Food supports the athlete, but it doesn’t make them grow.”