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Rethinking protein powder

Supplements are touted by their makers, especially for muscle-maxing weightlifters. But who really needs how much -- if any?

September 27, 2010|By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

When it comes to misguided efforts of average people wishing to pack on muscle, protein supplements are way up there. A 2004 study of exercisers at a Long Island commercial gym that was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition revealed that more than 40% of regular exercisers take protein supplements more than five times a week.

For people looking to get as huge as professional bodybuilders, protein powders do make sense. But for us regular folks who merely want to look good for the beach, bar or bed partner, these probably are unnecessary.

This doesn't stop the supplement industry's marketing machine, making protein the most popular supplement by far among the fitness crowd.

Many muscle magazines are owned by supplement companies. Weider Nutrition Group launched "Muscle and Fitness" and "Flex." EAS Supplements grew out of "Muscle Media Magazine," and then really took off with the bestselling "Body for Life" book series, which was largely a glorified brochure for EAS products. Between the books and the magazines, the supplement industry has much of the weightlifting public convinced that they must consume protein powders to gain muscle.

But when you look at the science and run the actual numbers, a different story comes to light.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for the average person is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. But the supplement sellers assert that weightlifters are different. They bombard us with claims that, at the very least, we require almost three times as much protein as the government recommends — 2.2 grams of it per kilogram of body weight.

Dr. Carmen Castanada Sceppa, a nutrition researcher at Northeastern University, says the protein needs of exercisers are considerably more modest. People engaged in endurance training might need to up their protein intake to about 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. But the DRIs for protein "seem to be adequate" for weightlifters, she says.

These statements are supported by a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science. "Habitual performance of moderate physical activity does not in fact increase protein requirements," researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, reported. Instead, they recommended athletes consume a 60% to 65% carbohydrate diet to fuel sport performance — a figure that sends fans of Dr. Atkins into collective apoplexy.

Yet more evidence comes from researchers at the School of Human Kinetics at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. In a 2006 paper published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition, they determined that young people engaged in resistance training who supplemented their diets with whey protein got only "minimal beneficial effects" compared with those who did not take the supplement.

The scientific literature seems convincing that most people don't need protein supplements to achieve their fitness goals. But I decided to go ahead and get the opinion of Alan Aragon, a sought-after nutrition consultant whose clients include not only bodybuilders and physique models, but the Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks, and even the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Protein powder is more of a matter of convenience than anything else," Aragon says. "The big part of this is just making sure you get what you need. There is nothing special about protein powders that makes them any better than getting protein from food."

It's worth noting that Sceppa's assertions about the DRI being sufficient for weightlifters might be influenced by her area of specialization, which is aging and older populations. In addition, in the McMaster study the operative words were "moderate physical activity."

Aragon deals with more ambitious populations. For new weightlifters aiming to both lose fat and build muscle, he recommends 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Those focused merely on adding muscle need only 1.4 grams, he says.

Besides his years of experience, Aragon has some research to back his endorsement of higher protein requirements for a more ambitious athletic population. He sent me a 2006 article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, in which researchers at Cal State Hayward conducted a meta-analysis of studies on protein intake for weightlifting athletes. They found that, when averaged out, the best results were obtained by consuming around 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight. That's double the DRI, but still well below what the supplement manufacturers claim.

So what does this all mean for protein supplements? Aragon calls them a matter of convenience, but renowned sport nutritionist Nancy Clark is less kind. "Protein supplements are not a whole food and fail to offer the complete package of health that protective nutrients found in natural foods do," she says.

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