I’m often asked for my thoughts and advice on protein shakes and other supplements, particularly in relation to losing weight and building muscle.

Adequate protein consumption is definitely critical for muscle preservation and, ultimately, metabolic balance during weight loss. This holds especially true when cardiovascular (cardio) exercise is regularly performed, as cardio has a tendency to break down muscle when performed at high intensities. In addition, intake of protein in conjunction with resistance training is crucial for muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength development.

Related Article: The Role of Protein During Dieting

The food and drug administration recommends that 10-15% of daily calories come from protein but athletes or extremely active individuals typically require higher protein intakes.

This is where protein supplements might fit the bill.

But, it’s important to understand that high-quality protein can very well be obtained from nutrient-dense whole foods like fish, poultry, lean meat, eggs, dairy, soy foods or a combination of nuts and seeds, grains, cereals, and legumes (beans and peas). Although supplementation is strongly endorsed by many, little evidence substantiates whether (or not) it offers any added benefits outside of those offered by whole foods.

That isn’t to say that there’s no evidence.

Related Article: Nutrition Basics: Your Daily Protein Intake

Potential Benefits of Protein Supplements

When consumed in a timely manner, supplements containing whey, casein, soy, and egg white protein have been shown to enhance muscle hypertrophy and improve physical performance during resistance training. Due to their quick rates of digestion and absorption, whey protein isolates and egg white protein can be particularly effective when consumed after a workout, as they help to rapidly deliver essential amino acids to muscle. Amino acids are basically the building blocks of protein.

How Protein Supplements Can Be Added to the Diet

Many protein supplements come in the form of powders, which can conveniently be mixed with water, milk or juice for shakes. They can also be combined with whole vegetables fruit or yogurt for delicious smoothies. Those fortified with essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) offer additional nutrition.

Related Article: Micronutrients: The Nutritional Building Blocks for Good Health

Protein bars are another option for supplementation. However, it’s important to choose these wisely, as many contain large amounts of sugar. A true protein bar is one that contains at least 15 grams of high-quality protein with less than 5% of total calories comprised of sugar.

The Net-Net

Again, it’s important to understand that most people can meet their daily protein requirement by consuming a wide variety of whole foods. For those who have an increased need for protein, supplements are a great alternative. A good rule of thumb for determining your individual protein needs is as follows:

  • General Health/Fitness: 0.45 grams per 1 pound of body weight
  • Endurance Athletes: 0.55-0.64 grams per 1 pound of body weight
  • Strength Athletes: 0.64-0.82 grams per 1 pound of body weight