Protein Supplementation – Do You Need It?

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Marine drinks a protein shake between workouts.
Sgt. Joshua Tammeus, motor transporter chief, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command, consumes a protein shake between sets during his workout April 28, 2017, at Hopkins Hall Gym aboard Camp Allen, Norfolk, Va. (Cpl. Logan Snyder/Official Marine Corps photo)

When it comes to supplements, I will admit I am not a connoisseur of daily supplements, other than a multivitamin and an occasional whey protein drink when I feel my diet is not supporting my daily protein needs.

Basically, I will add protein supplements to my day when I lack regular food that is high in protein (meats, chicken, fish, eggs). If I cannot make up for it with nuts, vegetables, beans and whole grains, I then will add a protein shake or two in the day. So I treat extra protein the way I would treat consuming a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE). If I do not have any access to good food, I will eat an MRE.

Naturally, since I am no longer in the military, the need for me to eat an MRE is reduced significantly. It is simply an analogy of how and why I add protein to my diet.

During high-mileage, -repetition and -intensity cycles of my workouts, there is a need for more protein. Here is where it gets confusing if you are trying to deduce how much you need:

1. Metric to standard units: Sometimes kilograms to pounds can confuse people. A common formula that takes a more moderate approach to protein intake is:

0.8-1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight

1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds. Therefore, a 200-pound man is approximately 90 kilograms. So a daily amount of protein is roughly 75-90 grams a day. Some will argue this is on the lower end for people who train hard. I would agree, depending upon your goals.

A more common recommendation for protein supplementation for muscle growth and repair is one gram of protein per pound of body weight. This one is pretty simple but borders on the high side, unless you are extremely active (strength/endurance).

Here is some research evidence that this is too much or not needed. Other studies recommend there is no need to go greater than 0.75 grams per one pound. That would be 150 grams of protein for a 200-pound man. This has been my go-to limit during higher-intensity training cycles.

The key is to read carefully; notice that 0.75 grams per pound is not 0.75 grams per kilogram. People easily can miss that and get either half of or twice what they need in a day.

2. Our needs differ: If you search online for recommended daily allowances of protein, you will get many different numbers. You will see:

Set aside the mixture of grams and pounds; the volume of information that is obtained easily on protein is confusing. Here is a simple tool to help with any gray area -- a protein calculator on the webpage of one of the best protein powders I have used: Native Fuel Whey Protein by AscentProtein.com. This is a moderate use of the equation, but it still leans on the active to highly active side and is perfect for tactical athletes.

3. What is good protein? Just because I am not an avid user of supplements does not mean I have not studied and tested them for the past 20 years. I consistently look for what works best for my personal recovery as I age, and I continue to train hard year-round. What I typically look for is more nutrition from protein. That means more food from protein sources. Depending on your protein powder, you could be using a less pure protein with little scrutiny from outside regulatory sources. Think of protein as a food, not a supplement. There are food-grade proteins on the market.

Why I like whey protein nutrition?

The Ascent whey protein blend contains native whey, which is the specific protein that has 17% higher levels of leucine. (See why leucine in important.)

Native whey is the least processed dairy protein available today. It is a very fine powder and does not clump when shaken. This same protein powder is used in baby formula, so it is so pure, it actually is considered a food -- not a supplement. This requires greater scrutiny and regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are two types of protein powders on the market. One will state nutrition facts, and the other will have supplement facts when it explains the amount of protein, carbs, fat calories and other nutrients in the powder. More on Filtering.

Other packaging information: If you see this, you are consuming a supplement that may make unfounded statements: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." (You typically will not see this statement on a label for nutrition facts.)

The following is especially important if you participate in programs that test for performance enhancers: "Free of banned substances." Our products are tested for athletic banned substances in compliance with the NSF International Certified for Sport program, which includes semiannual facility audits, verifying that no NSF 306-Certification Guideline Annex A List banned substances exist in our facility. (Some proteins and other supplements may have banned substances or unneeded fillers.)

When to add more protein

Notice I did not say "supplement" more protein. It is up to you how you add more protein to your diet. You can do it with real food like boiled eggs, more chicken and tuna fish, snacking on nuts (especially almonds) throughout the day and adding more meat to your diet.

If that is not appealing or possible, a good (food-grade) protein supplement will come in handy, especially when needed due to an increased volume of activity. The harder you train, the more protein your muscles will need for recovery. But practice moderation.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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