Protein Supplements: Do We Really Need Them?

One of the most popular topics I hear around the CrossFit and fitness community is “Protein Supplementation”. 

What do you take for a protein supplement? 
Do you use whey or vegan protein powders? What brand of whey protein do you use? 

This is one of the most loaded subject matters and one that I could write a book about now-a-days.

So for this reason (and several others): today’s focus will be on educating ourselves on protein and skimming the surface on protein powders so that you all feel empowered to make more informed decisions on your nutrition! And so that you don’t fall victim to marketing scams.  

Let’s start by talking about protein: 
Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients from which we get energy (aka calories). Protein is made up of building blocks we call amino acids. Some of protein’s functions include enzyme and hormone production as well as building and repairing tissues. When we strength train and eat protein, it builds, strengthens and repair muscle recovery. Dietary protein helps to keep us full for longer, acting on satiety cues in our digestive tract and helps maintain your blood sugar level stable. 

How much protein do I need daily?
The previous RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances) for protein is 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day for the average adult. There is significant debate over this amount as it is not enough to promote optimal health or support physical activity. Protein is especially important in those who weight-train and are physically active for muscle mass maintenance. Not enough protein will cause the body to break down protein in the muscle and use it for energy. 

Protein requirements will vary greatly depending on many things; what type of athlete you are, your weight, age, exercise intensity, duration, body composition, health status, and diet quality/ overall energy intake. Endurance athletes require 0.7-1g/lb of body weight per day where as strength and power athletes require 0.9-1.2g/lb of body weight. Generally those in more of a caloric deficit will require more protein to preserve lean muscle mass. 

Is protein supplementation necessary? 
The International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests high-quality protein from food is enough to repair muscle tissue and improve performance (Campbell, 2007). High quality proteins come from dairy, eggs, meat, fish, soy products & hemp. These sources contain all the essential amino acids. Some evidence also suggests that 20-30 g of high quality protein in the early recovery period can stimulate protein synthesis (PEN, 2014). Whey and soy protein for example are high quality complete proteins. Rice and pea protein however are not complete proteins by themselves, but combined together have all the amino acids. Sprouted versions of pea and rice protein are also new to the market, which are more readily digested and have higher bioavailability than the non-sprouted counterparts.

Protein supplements including protein powder AND protein bars are seen as effective as food for building muscle mass when dietary energy intake is adequate (PEN, 2014). It can often be difficult to eat enough protein-rich foods to meet your requirements, and therefore protein powder/ bars can be a nice add-in.

There are benefits in consuming powders for some people:

For starters it’s extremely convenient. Here’s a scenario; you finish your workout, socialize with your pals for 10 minutes, commute home, answer some emails, make your meal, and finally start eating 2 hours post exercise. You have already missed the most critical time for refueling. Drinking a quick protein shake or mowing down on a protein bars either before you leave the gym or on your commute home would be of benefit to your recovery. 

Appetite & Time
I might also recommend a supplement for those who don’t have much of an appetite following a workout. By simply not eating any protein you risk protein catabolism; where your body may utilize muscle protein as an energy source, losing your hard earned muscle mass. Powders might offer an easier and faster way of consuming protein. Making a smoothie with some yogurt, nut butter and fruit, or munching on a protein bar is clearly a much better alternative to not eating. 

Choosing Protein Supplements

  • If you’re looking for a protein to add to a shake or smoothies, or to have as part of snacks throughout the day, there are many options. Things to consider are tolerance, taste, macronutrient profile, additive and how quickly it is digested. Some proteins are digested more quickly than others like whey (milk), beef, egg white and soy proteins. Whereas casein (milk) and other plant based proteins are slower, more gradually digested.  
  • Protein bars can be even more confusing than protein powder to purchase. Many have extra sugar, fat and additives that might leave your stomach feeling less than satisfied. My personal favourite is Nagi which can help rejuvenate protein in a plant-based, gut-friendly, gluten-free fashion. Nagi has a range of raw, organic protein bars that are an excellent and delicious example of what is available on the market today. Check out Nagi’s healthy selection of vegan protein bars HERE.

**BONUS: Use the code “Crossfit6s” at checkout to get FREE shipping on your order over $37 (limited time only)!**

In Defense of Food
This all being said, I still say protein supplements should only be used in combination with a proper diet to increase dietary protein intake, not as a sole protein substitute. As an isolated product, protein powders lack other nutrients that naturally accompany vitamins and minerals found in food. Eggs have vitamin B and A. Beef has iron. Salmon contains healthy fats. Yogurt has calcium. Tofu has antioxidants. Protein supplements do NOT contain these nutrients. When we eat food sources of protein, we often eat them in conjunction with other whole foods that offer vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fats that are not found in protein supplements. It is generally advised for vegans and vegetarians to consider protein supplementation due to the chance that their diet may be subpar.

At the end of the day, taking a protein supplement comes down to lifestyle habits and really what’s most convenient for you. Is it a good source of protein for recovery? Sure. Should you substitute it for a meal? No. If protein powder is what works for you, try to accompany it with food sources that are rich in carbohydrates, electrolytes and fluid for recovery. 

Looking for healthy & convenient sources of protein that won’t make your stomach upset?
Click HERE for some fun and innovative ways to integrate protein powder and protein bars into your diet without leaving you feeling icky, guilty or off in any way! They’re sooo good you’ll trick your body into thinking it is having a cheat meal 😉

(1) Institute of Medicine. (2006).
Dietary reference intakes: the essential guide to nutrient requirements. Washington: National Academies Press. (2) 
Examine. (2015). Protein Supplements. Retrieved 7 May 2015 from (3) Eat Right Ontario. (2015). Sports nutrition: Facts on sports supplements. Retrieved 7 May 2015 from—Facts-on-sports-supplements.aspx#.VUrIcovF8wp. (4) University of Toronto Mississauga. (n.d.). Are protein powders right for you? Retrieved 7 May 2015 from 

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