Powder Power

With dozens of different kinds on the market, and an ongoing debate about their potential benefits, protein powders present a consumer conundrum. Which, if any, protein supplement is best for you?

The summer before his freshman year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Jared Prichard decided to muscle up. He wanted to play tight end on the school’s Division III football team, but at 6 feet 3 inches and 190 pounds, Prichard knew he was too light for the position. “I was skin and bones,” says the now-22-year-old college senior.

Prichard and a friend from his hometown of Barnstable, Mass., embarked on a summer training program, which included four days of 90-minute weightlifting sessions and three days of speed and endurance running workouts each week. The young men also started drinking protein-powder shakes twice a day. “We didn’t use these supplements to replace other food,” Prichard emphasizes. “We still ate three meals a day.”

By the end of the summer, Prichard had put on 20 pounds of muscle and saw his bench press increase by 40 pounds. He made the football team as a tight end in the fall – and the track team (in javelin, shot put and high jump) the following spring.

Prichard continued to use protein supplements throughout his college athletic career, but only sporadically. “Once I hit the all-you-can-eat dining hall at Bowdoin,” he recalls with a laugh, “I didn’t have any problems with my weight.”

Powder Primer

Protein powders are widely promoted as muscle-building nutritional supplements, and surveys show that they have become increasingly popular in recent years with amateur, college and professional athletes alike. Proponents of protein powders claim that they improve athletic performance, decrease workout fatigue and help build muscle mass.

“Protein powders are just another form of food – with a greater convenience factor,” says Jose Antonio, PhD, chief executive officer of the International Society of Sports Nutrition and author of several sports nutrition books, including Supplements for Strength-Power Athletes (Human Kinetics, 2002). The powders are safe, he says, and can help build and maintain muscle mass, especially when taken right after a workout.

Other fitness experts say the powders may be convenient, but they’re not particularly necessary for getting and staying physically fit. “I tell my athletes that protein is free in our dining hall,” says Allen Hedrick, head strength-and-conditioning coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “All they have to do is drink another glass of milk or eat another piece of meat. There’s no benefit to taking protein in pill or powder form.”

So what’s best for you? The answer depends on your specific training goals, your body composition, your dining preferences, and your health and nutrition habits.

How Much Protein?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most widely recommended daily intake of protein for adults is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. That’s about 43 grams if you weigh 120 pounds, 61 grams if you weigh 170 pounds, and 72 grams if you weigh 200 pounds.

But here’s the catch: The daily recommendation is for sedentary people, and scientists have been squabbling about the protein needs of physically active people for decades. A few years ago, the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine jointly recommended that highly active people increase their protein intake – but only slightly. They suggested that runners and other endurance athletes set their daily protein-per-pound-of-body-weight target at 0.5 to 0.6 grams; weightlifters and other strength-training athletes should aim for 0.7 to 0.8 grams. So, a 150-pound marathoner should consume 75 to 90 grams of protein; a 200-pound weightlifter needs 140 to 160 grams daily.

The organizations also agree that most people should be able to meet the higher protein recommendations through diet alone. In fact, many experts believe athletes worry too much about protein. The standard American diet tends to dish up plenty of it.

Research has shown that even hardcore athletes tend to get the protein they need without supplements. One egg contains about 6 grams; a cup of skim milk, 8 grams; and 6 ounces of extra-lean hamburger, 49 grams. Complete proteins can also be produced by combining plant sources (corn and beans, for example).

What happens if you eat more protein than your body needs? Most studies suggest excess protein is used as energy or stored as body fat – not as muscle. Heavy overloading on protein can also cause some nasty side effects: diarrhea, bloating, frequent urination (which can lead to dehydration), even kidney stones and gout.

All in the Timing

What protein powders do have going for them (as long as you don’t overuse them) is convenience. Studies have suggested that protein is most beneficial to athletes when consumed during the postworkout “glycogen window,” the 15- to 45-minute period after exercising when exhausted muscles are most receptive to replacing nutrients. Preparing a protein-powder drink in that time frame is generally a lot less hassle than broiling a steak, and the liquid protein is digested and made available to your system much faster, too.

“You’ll gain muscle mass much more easily if you consume a protein mix immediately postworkout,” Antonio says. “I always tell people not to wait. I don’t care if you’re not hungry. You should consume something that contains a combination of both protein and carbs.”

In 2004, researchers from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., found that when male cyclists were given a postworkout beverage that contained carbohydrates as well as protein, their muscles experienced less damage than when they drank only carbs. A few years earlier, Danish researchers reported that taking a protein supplement immediately after resistance training increased muscle size in men in their 70s.

Before You Buy

If you decide to use a commercial protein powder, be sure you know what you’re buying. The powders fall into four main categories: whey and casein (both milk-derived sources), soy and egg. Each has its strengths and weaknesses (see “Pick Your Protein Powder” sidebar). Here are some additional variables to consider when choosing a protein powder:

  • Mixability. If you’re going to take your powder to the gym – and away from your blender – avoid protein powders that clump or sink. You may want to try an “instantized” powder, which can be more easily mixed with a spoon. These products do tend to be more expensive, however, and the heating process that makes a powder more mixable may reduce the quality of the protein
  • Protein-to-calorie ratio. This ratio should be high. Multiply the grams of protein per serving listed on the label by 10. The resulting number should be at least as large as the total calories per serving. If not, choose another powder
  • Amino acid content. The body synthesizes essential amino acids (the “building blocks” of protein) only when they’re delivered through food, but two non-essential amino acids (available in powders) may have significant value for athletes. Glutamine is known to decrease muscle breakdown. Creatine, a combination of the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine, may help increase the kind of muscle strength needed to perform quick, explosive movements (such as those involved in sprinting or certain types of weightlifting).
  • Undesirable ingredients. Check the nutrition label carefully. Many protein powders contain less-than-healthy ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats). Weigh the pros and cons of your chosen mix carefully. If you’d rather avoid both sugar and artificial sweeteners, consider a stevia-sweetened mix.
  • Taste.If you dislike the taste of a particular powder, you’ll be less likely to use it. So before investing in a large container, buy an individual packet of a powder and give it a test run.The Final Weigh-in
    Chances are, you’re getting enough protein through your diet. Eggs, lean beef, milk, fish, chicken and turkey are among the best sources of this nutrient. Skim milk powder is a great source of the milk proteins casein and whey and can be easily mixed into a wide variety of foods. The powder sells for a fraction of the cost of most commercial protein supplements.Still, many athletes, fitness enthusiasts and vegetarians swear by their protein powders and assert that the supplements have helped them achieve specific training goals, consistent energy levels and personal bests. Jared Prichard, for example, believes he wouldn’t have achieved the same muscle gains that summer before college without the supplements. “I was probably at my strongest then,” he says. “I believe that adding the powders to my routine was an effective approach.”

Rating Your Protein

Several different rating systems have been developed to measure protein quality. You may find the ratings, which are usually noted on product labels, useful in differentiating among powders.

Be aware, however, that many scientists question the value of these measurements in rating protein supplements.

  • Biological Value (BV): BV measures how well a protein is absorbed, used and retained by the body. The higher the BV rating, the more nitrogen (essential for muscle growth) from the protein the body retains. A BV score of 100 means all the protein is absorbed.
  • Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER): This measures protein quality by assessing how much weight gain the protein promotes in laboratory animals (namely, rats). A PER score of 2.5, for example, means that 2.5 grams of weight were gained for every gram of protein consumed. The usefulness of PER to rate protein for humans is unclear.
  • Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS): This measures how close the protein comes to the ideal mix of essential amino acids in humans. It factors in how quickly the protein is digested and made available to the body. The highest PDCAAS value is 1; the lowest is 0. Some scientists believe the PDCAAS rating is superior to both the BV and the PER.

Susan Perry is a health and science writer whose latest book is Taking Charge of High Blood Pressure: Start-Today Strategies for Combating the Silent Killer (Reader's Digest, 2003).

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