The Truth Behind Protein Shakes

By: Kristian Kuhnke, University of Maryland Health Center, Dietetic Intern

With slick marketing campaigns that promise more bulk, tone, and strength, protein shakes and powders can seem like that extra boost we need in enhancing our physiques.

Source: flickr user chadswaney, used and adapted under Creative Commons license (click for original)

Source: flickr user chadswaney, used and adapted under Creative Commons license (click for original)

There is no denying they can be a convenient way to get the protein a body needs to repair and grow muscle tissues.

But are such concentrated doses of protein necessary?  Do protein shakes provide benefits above and beyond whole foods?  Are protein shakes safe?

We all know that the foundation of staying healthy is a balanced diet along with a consistent, challenging exercise regimen.

With such regular wear and tear on our bodies, we must have adequate sources of protein to provide the essential amino acids necessary to rebuild and repair our tissues.  

You’re Likely Getting Enough Already

Shakes can be useful for some people because they provide quick delivery of a complete blend of essential amino acids. However, the fact remains that most Americans consume more than enough protein from their diets.

Think about it; say you had two scrambled eggs with breakfast, two ounces of chicken in a sandwich for lunch, a yogurt as a snack, and half a cup of black beans in your tacos for dinner.  You have easily hit the 46-56 grams of protein most of us need to meet our daily requirements – plus you’re getting lots of other nutrients your body needs from these foods. And you don’t need to go to a special shop to get them – these options and many more are easily found on campus in dining halls, the Stamp’s Food Court and convenience shops.

Consuming more protein than you need is simply wasting your money; and when taken in great excess, can lead to nasty health problems such as bloating, diarrhea, and dehydration.  

Keep in mind, most protein shakes and powders do not specify a maximum recommendation, so one can easily consume more of a product than its manufacturers intend.  And since protein shakes can be high in calories,  just like carbohydrates and fats, protein excesses can also be stored as body fat.

The Safety Debate

The safety of these products has also been a subject of some debate in recent years.

In July 2010, Consumer Reports released a piece which noted that among the protein shakes and powders they tested, some were contaminated with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.

Some athletes have also sued protein shake and powder manufacturers, claiming their products caused them to test positively for banned substances due to unlabeled ingredients.

How could this happen?  

Well, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees nutritional supplements differently than traditional foods.  Dietary supplements do not require approval from the FDA before they are marketed to consumers.

Manufacturers also do not have to include detailed information regarding serving sizes, nutrient content, or proof of safety/benefits for their products.

As with any supplement, it is a good idea to speak with a doctor or a dietician before using protein shakes or powders.  There are some cases where individuals can benefit from protein supplementation (e.g., athletes, vegans, or seniors). A licensed healthcare professional can help you make smart choices regarding your protein needs.

For more information on getting the protein you need to stay fit, sign up for a FREE Diet Analysis with the University Health Center.

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