Protein powders: when to use them?

When I walk into my local health food store, there’s one corner that’s always been a bit of a mystery to me — the shelves filled with dozens of white plastic jars filled with protein powder supplements. In the gym locker room, however, there are many who sing their praises, explaining that they simply add a scoop of powder to milk or a smoothie, work out and then build some extra muscle.

With their popularity reaching far beyond bodybuilders and professional athletes, now seems like a good time to look at the evidence behind protein powders.

Some people use a protein shake as a snack between meals or even use it in place of a meal if they don’t have time to eat. People on vegan diets sometimes use supplements to increase their protein intake if they feel they are not getting enough. And there are hundreds of new food products in supermarkets – from cereal bars to ice cream and chocolate – that flag their protein-containing credentials in bold.

There is a range of dosages available, with the higher dosages being aimed at bodybuilders. The powder can come from an animal source like eggs or milk, or from plants. For example, pea, potato, rice, and soy protein can all be extracted and powdered, sometimes with flavorings added to make it taste good.

Protein is big business. But how many of us really need a supplement?

There is no doubt that protein is an essential part of the diet. We need it to build and repair muscles, to help our bones stay strong, to maintain the immune system, and for our brains, hearts, and skin to do what we need them to.

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Foods such as eggs, milk, yogurt, fish, lentils, meat, soy, nuts and seeds are all high in protein and the majority of adults in high-income countries consume at least the amount daily protein recommended by health authorities.

In a meta-analysis of 49 studies, the average protein intake from people’s diets at the start of the research was more than 75% higher than US and Canadian recommendations, for example. Some scientists in the field, such as Stuart Phillips of McMaster University in Canada, argue that the recommended levels might not be high enough for everyone.

One of the challenges is knowing how much you might need as an individual. The answer depends on your age, medical condition, and exercise routine, so the standard recommendation may not apply to you. Some older people, for example, find that they don’t have much of an appetite, which can lead them to eat so little that they don’t get enough protein from their diet. And if you’re a professional endurance athlete, you need more protein than the average adult.

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