(The above pictures are not an endorsement of any type or brand of protein)
I often follow different social media sights which are focused on weight loss, nutrition and fitness. A common theme which comes up daily is the consumption of protein supplements and whether they are good for you or not, and are they even necessary if you have healthy dietary habits. To this, I will say it all depends. Your need for, or lack thereof, is all dependent upon what you are trying to accomplish with your own personal health initiative. Everyone requires protein in their diet, how much is all dependent on your level of activity. Are you a couch potato who wants to lose weight? Or, are you an endurance athlete or strength trainer who needs more than the average person who lives a sedentary lifestyle? And then you also need to consider your sources of protein. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you might consider some sort of supplementation if you are not consuming enough protein from your vegetable sources such as you would get from soy, nuts, legumes, and quinoa.
The catalyst for this piece came from something I read the other day on a social media forum where one of the really popular commentators went on a spiel about how he hates that protein bars are touted as being a healthy part of a weight loss diet. He is entitled to his own opinion, even if he is wrong, but literally there a few thousand people who hang on his every word in regards to weight loss. I personally feel that if you are going to put yourself out on a limb as some type of expert guru, then you should know better than to preach a one size fits all message to the masses who are attempting to lose weight and live healthier lives. And if you are going to put yourself up on a pedestal to be followed, then you had better be correct in what you are preaching to people who know less than you.
What is protein?
In a nutshell, protein is one of three macronutrients our body’s require for health. Protein, carbohydrates and fats. For a better understanding of protein;
Proteins are large molecules that our cells need to function properly. They consist of amino acids. The structure and function of our bodies depend on proteins. The regulation of the body’s cells, tissues and organs cannot happen without them. Proteins are long chains of amnio acids that form the basis of all life. They are like machines that make all living things, whether viruses, bacteria, butterflies, jellyfish, pants or human function. The human body consists of around 100 trillion cells. Each cell has thousands of different proteins. Together, these proteins cause each cell to do it’s job. (1)
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. The human body uses amino acids to make proteins to help the body break down food, grow, repair body tissue and to perform many other body functions.
Amino acids can be used as a source of energy for the body, and are classified into three groups:
- Essential amino acids. The nine essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleutine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
- Nonessential amino acids. Nonessential means that our bodies produce an amino acid, even if we do not get it from a food we eat. Nonessential amino acids include: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid.
- Conditional amino acids. Conditional amino acids are usually not essential, except in times of illness and stress. They include: arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and must come from food. Must come from food is a key point in regards to the essential amino acids. Herein lies my problem with a weight loss social media superstar making blanket, one size fits all statements in regards to protein bars and other protein supplements. One size does not fit all. Even if this individual is truly making an attempt at being helpful, he is not accomplishing it. Protein supplements may not all be equal in their utility, but for the most part, they are not some kind of “Frankenfood” as some would have you believe. Protein supplements are indeed a food source and can be comprised of whey, soy, rice, pea and other protein sources. If combining actual protein food ingredients with other flavorings equates a “Frankenfood”, then every other multiple ingredient food source can also be referred to as a “Frankenfood”. This thinking is absolutely absurd.
Protein supplements are just that: they are supplemental to your diet. There are many reasons why one might supplement their protein intake, here are a few:
- If you are a strength and or an endurance athlete, you might want to supplement your protein intake in order to ensure your body is receiving an adequate amount to build, repair, or maintain your lean muscle mass. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes. Older non-athletes need .9 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
- If you are on a weight loss plan, you need to keep your protein levels up in order to maintain your lean muscle mass and as a means to keep your appetite more satiated than it would be from carbohydrates, with an emphasis on simple carbs as they are the biggest culprit in driving those kinds of cravings often referred to as being “hangry”, that type of craving where you can find yourself sitting on the kitchen floor with a can of cake frosting and a spoon, going at it like it is your last supper. Odds are, if you are, or have ever been, an obese individual who stress ate, you secretly know about this kind of binging.
- If you are a vegan or vegetarian who might also be a picky eater, then supplementation might be for you. While soy and quinoa will provide you with a complete protein profile for good health, you have to eat enough to cover your body’s needs If you are not consuming soy, quinoa or any other sources of protein to ensure you receive all of the nine essential amino acids, you are going to wreck your health. If you have your children on a vegan or vegetarian diet, then you really have to be mindful their needs are being fulfilled. A protein bar or shake can fill in the gaps for you, and there are plenty of vegan friendly supplements available to you.
While essential amino acids are not stored in your body for later use, you do not have to eat essential amino acids at every meal. You can provide your body’s needs simply by getting a balance of them over the whole day, every day. Know that diets based on a single plant item will not be adequate, but it is also not necessary to pair proteins such as beans with rice at a single meal. Just ensure you are consuming all that you require in balance through the day. Supplementing is an individual choice to be made on your needs. Some people require no supplementation, some benefit greatly from protein shakes and bars.
In closing, if you are involved in a weight loss/management social media forum, please do not just take the word of a popular superstar as being the Holy Grail. They may tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to hear. These superstars may be correct, but they could be absolutely wrong. Do yourself a favor and investigate what you read from others. Investigate me, you have a duty upon yourself to ensure that I am correct in my advice. Know also that if when you question a so called expert and they get mad at you for not taking their word, they are full of crap and have no good answers for your questions. One who is truly knowledgeable will encourage you to challenge them in a respectful manner. One who takes offense when being questioned cares more about their fragile ego than they do about your health and well being.
(1) Medical News Today
Other reference: Food and Nutrition Board, and Institute of Medicine of The National Academies.