Monday, December 20, 2010

Protein Supplements

I got in a discussion today with a couple friends over the uses, benefits, and downsides of using protein powder mixes and I thought I'd share our thoughts.  I've had a number of questions myself that I haven't fully researched or sufficiently closed the case on yet, so I'll follow this up in the future, but feel free to add your own thoughts or comments in a post or message.

As always, I'll start off with my own personal history.  Currently, I do not use any protein supplement, but I recently (few months ago) finished my first and only protein powder jug (GNC AMP 100% Whey Protein), so I have used it in the past.  I always had the position that nutrition from real food was much better for you than supplements.  Supplements are either synthetic or isolated nutrients that are combined in a way that you don't find in normal food; either more concentrated or simply in a combination you don't normally find.  However, when I got into the gym this past fall after my triathlon season ended, I started doing some nutrition research and discovered that it is quite widely agreed that your body is most poised to absorb nutrients (aka, protein) within 30-60 minutes after a workout.  Therefore, in order to maximize your ability to build muscle, you need to provide your body with absorbable nutrients quite soon after a workout.  One option is obviously to eat after a workout, but the food will take some time for your body to break it down to a usable form.  So liquids are the best option.  Therefore, I finally was convinced to give the protein powders a try.  My main rules were 1. It has to be a form of protein that is as natural as possible and 2. Stay away from Creatine.  The first rule was tied to my position that actual food is still better, just one step further.  The second rule is because while Creatine causes very good results, it mainly is water absorption and I wanted to gain actual usable muscle mass, not water stores.  When I finished that pack of protein powder, many people noticed a difference (whether it be simply because I was working out or whether I was using the powder you can go ahead and argue amongst yourselves), but I began feeling like there must be better ways to go about supplementing my workout diet.  Therefore, I am still out of a feesible reason to go back to the powders.

So now onto the arguments.

1.  Protein supplements are unnatural

I agree to a point.  It is much more natural to eat a steak, nuts, a chicken breast, beans, or fish fillet than it is to drink a powder you mix with water or milk.  You don't find protein concentrate in nature, so it is questionable how well our body is designed to deal with it.  However, I have to argue that some forms of protein supplement are simply isolated protein from milk (whey) or soy that we could naturally eat ourselves.  It is still a more concentrated form, but as far as being unnatural, there is nothing synthetic that science may find in 20 years to be cancer causing.  Therefore, as far as being unnatural, if you do your homework and read labels carefully, you can find certain brands that are much less synthetic than others. 

2.  Most people don't need it.

I agree.  This is the second main reason I have not gone back to using protein supplements myself.  The more I read about the details of when you need it, how much you need, and who benefits from it, I began doubting much of what the companies advertise.  First, some basic science.  The protein supplement is meant to help your body rebuild muscle that you've broken down during a workout.  This assumes that A) you have a workout that is causing you to break down your muscle, B) you do not have enough protein in your system already to supply the necessary amount of protein needed, and C) that you need to rebuild.  I would venture to guess that 80% or more of people who workout do so in a way that will not actually cause the breakdown of muscle; that is simply based on my observations of people at the gym.  Breaking a sweat is not required or sufficient and muscle soreness is not sufficient.  You don't need to be a body builder, but think "heavy exertion" and non-endurance types of workouts; running on a treadmill and doing mild weight lifting is not going to build muscle.  Second, most readings suggest that in general workouts any less than an hour do not need protein supplements.  If you know how to do the right workout to break down muscle, this guideline does not apply to you, but this guideline does cut out most people from using supplements (most gym-goers are there for an hour or less total in my experience).  Third, there is a misconception that I cannot stand: Building muscle builds strength.  Technically, yes, but it is not the only way.  I personally spent YEARS increasing my strength but could never increase my muscle mass.  It frustrated me at the time, but it serves as an example of how strength is elementally increased in your existing muscle; extra muscle simply enhances the strength you can build.  This also serves to people who do not want to build muscle, but would like some more strength; it certainly is possible.

3.  Supplements can mess up your body.

Some supplements are very dangerous.  Some won't do anything for you.  Some supplements give you results you want, but in a way you don't want.  Then obviously there are some that do what you want in the way you want.  It is up to you to research the different kinds and the ingredients.  There are always the stories of the body builders who mess themselves up by taking too much of certain things; those are extreme cases.  For the normal person though, I've still heard of plenty of cases where people end up in the ER because they have odd heart beats, they can't sleep, they get reactions to something (eg. allergic), they become severely dehydrated, etc.  My rule for most things is "If there are two options, the one with the more 'In Your Face' label is worse."  Products with simple, informative labels allow the product to sell itself; protein powders are the same.  From what I've heard (and read), the GNC brand is one of the best options.  That is what I used and the label is very simple, no pictures of huge muscles or ripped bodies; just the information you need to know and product descriptions so you can make an informed decision.  Then there are obviously powders out there that will do nothing for you.  These are usually either badly formulated powders that you need to research on your own, or due to a mismatch of your workout with the product (some are designed for certain types of workouts and/or results).  Then there are ingredients that are very misleading.  Creatine is my favorite example.  Creatine builds up your muscles and does so at a very rapid rate which makes it an obvious favorite.  The downside, from what I've read and heard of personal friends, is that it does so by increasing the water absorbed into your muscles.  Therefore, you end up with bigger, stronger muscles, but A) you have to do some pushups to "pump" them up (fill them with water), B) you have to continue working out or your body loses the results, and C) you're gaining water mass, not muscle mass.  Great results, but bad means.

4.  Product "quality" is measured by the absorption of Amino Acids

This is more of a technical and scientific point of my own.  From what I've seen, it seems that most of the protein supplement industry is bent on the idea of making their products more absorbable by the body.  I agree that a main point of taking the supplement is so you have a very fast way of providing immediately absorbable (and therefore usable) amino acids for your body to use in re-building your muscle.  However, how much of the absorbed amino acids get into your muscle?  I don't like that I have not seen a product with information on where that protein goes.  It's great to have a product that is the most absorbable protein powder on the market, but if only 30% of it gets to the muscle, then it becomes a bit ridiculous.  Absorption is the first step, but not the end means in my line of thought. 

Those are some of the thoughts that we had come up with.  I'm sure there are plenty of other arguments to be made as well as other perspectives by which to view these points above.  If you have either, I would be more than happy to hear about it. 

Why I have ceased using protein supplements
1.  I have no immediate desire to build muscle
2.  I feel my workouts are not currently breaking down muscle beyond a point where natural foods are insufficient to supply protein to my body
3.  I've never been 100% ok with the idea of unnatural supplements
4.  I have a nagging gut feeling that there are more natural ways (ie. real food) that are on par with protein supplements (this is my focus for protein research at this point)

 Please leave a comment below or message me with any thoughts you might have.


Chris Bell said...

In college, when I was biking 60-80 miles a week, I used supplements. Then again I was newbie vegetarian that didn't know how to eat well and was worried that I wasn't getting enough. I quit soon thereafter.

Since then, I will eat protein bars during long excursions, but more because they provide some vitamins, a fair amount of calories, have some protein and are easy access food. By that I mean they can be eaten while biking/canoeing very easily.

For everything else, there are nuts and cold canned chili.

john said...
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