Protein Supplements: Who Needs Them?

Protein supplement products are one of the mainstays of health food stores. Many amateur and professional athletes take protein supplements based on advice from coaches, other athletes, family, and friends. And one survey found that protein supplements were used by nearly half of the men who regularly worked out at a gymnasium. But is this necessary?

How much protein do we need?

In fact, almost all Americans, athletes included, get ample proteins from following a well balanced diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily intake of 0.36 grams of protein per pound or 12 to 15 percent of total calories. So, the 72 grams of protein required daily by a 200-pound man are readily obtained from the average diet. To put this into context, a quarter-pounder hamburger has about 24 grams of protein, or a little more than half of the daily needs for a man at this weight.  

The American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetic Association, and the Dieticians of Canada jointly stated, “Data are not presently available to suggest that athletes need a diet substantially different from that recommended in the above dietary guidelines.”  In addition there is no evidence that protein supplements are more effective than the consumption of high-quality protein from regular dietary sources.

Body builders and some athletes may be the exception

While there are no official protein requirements for athletes, it is generally recognized that body builders and those engaged in strength training or high intensity exercise may need as much as two times the amount of protein recommended in the Dietary Guidelines. These individuals will probably need to add protein supplements to their diet. One Internet website stated that the optimal protein intake for body builders is 200 to 320 grams per day, which even for extreme athletes is likely way too much. As always, let the buyer beware. Another website advertised a supplement containing 2 pounds of protein for $17. So, taking 200 grams of this supplement daily would use up the $17 product in less than 5 days.

The bottom line: Few Americans should take protein supplements. They are unnecessary and costly. More importantly, these supplements can raise the risk of osteoporosis. This is because the increased acid load from excessive amounts of protein intake can lead to loss of calcium in the urine.

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