The fitness supplement industry easily rakes in billions of dollars a year, and protein powders bring in their fair share of that income. There's always a great deal of commotion about protein shakes to build lean muscle and/or lose weight, but do you really need a protein supplement in order to make fitness gains?
There are a few things that you really need to consider when you're contemplating whether or not you need a protein shake to get fit.
Do I actually need the extra protein?
You are likely already getting enough protein from your regular diet. The truth is that the majority of Americans actually take in too much protein. Depending on what your diet is, you may already get enough - or even excess amounts - of this macronutrient from your regular meals and snacks throughout the day. Despite what some fanatics will tell you, massive amounts of excess protein doesn't just get passed through the system without repercussion. It can put unnecessary strain on your body, especially your kidneys. Additionally - calories in excess in relation to your daily expenditure, whether from protein or not, still have the capacity to be stored as body fat.
Generally speaking, the recommended daily intake for adults varies anywhere from .5 - 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. The low end of that range is for sedentary individuals, while the top end is meant only for elite level athletes that basically train hard for a living, for hours and hours each day.
If I'm short in protein intake, can I change my eating habits in order to get what I need from real food?
We are huge advocates for eating real foods to give your body what it needs to be healthy, whenever possible. Instead of taking pills, powders and supplements, do the best you can in order to fuel your body with natural, whole foods that don't have a tone of nasty additives and the potential for long term side effects.
What's in my protein powder?
If you've taken a hard look at the way you eat and have found that you're consistently deficient, and that there's no way that you can make up that difference via a whole foods diet, you're going to want to be incredibly careful about the supplement that you choose. Look for mystery ingredients (don't assume that your product is being regulated by the FDA because it probably isn't!) and make sure that there are no fake sweeteners in the one you choose.
Sources of Protein
It's important to realize that meat isn't the only source of protein; vegetables, quinoa, beans, tofu and nuts are a few examples of good sources. We'll save the vegan/vegetarian versus meat eating discussion for another day, but we will say that it's important to experiment to find out what works for you personally, and what makes you feel most strong and healthy. When it comes to animal products, it's ideal to get it from non commercial farms who don't feed their animals foods contradictory to their natural diets, and who aren't pumped full of antibiotics to counteract the reprecussions of less than ideal living conditions. It's more expensive, but it's also much healthier.
Examples of protein sources
100 Grams of Chicken: 21 grams protein
100 Grams of Broccoli: 2.8 grams of protein; for example, you would need to eat 682g (7.5 cups) of broccoli to get the the same amount of protein from 100 g of chicken
185 Grams of Cooked Quinoa: 8g of protein
100 Grams of Avocado: 2 grams
100 Grams of Eggs (roughly 2 large eggs): 13g
100 Grams of Tofu: 8g
100 Grams of Salmon: 20 grams
Long story short
Don't assume that protein "builds muscle" - lifting builds muscle - HIIT builds muscle - hard work builds muscle - protein, while part of the equation, does not magically build muscle without your full blown effort behind it. You may already be getting enough protein from your regular diet, and if you aren't you should try to. Protein powders are not necessarily bad, but it can be very tricky to find good ones, making whole foods a more ideal choice whenever possible.