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Protein 101

From Shelby Moose, Registered Dietitian at Crossing Rivers Health, and Tammy Thompson, Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab Manager, at Crossing Rivers Health

Wouldn't it be great if you could drink a magic formula, swallow a pill or sprinkle fairy dust on your food and watch your muscles grow? That's often what people hope will happen from eating protein.

Here are some suggestions to commonly asked questions to keep in mind before you amp up your protein in search of a new physique.

Q: What are your thoughts on protein supplements?

First off, let's take a look at how these supplements are regulated.

The FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" foods and drug products. Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA's satisfaction before they are marketed.

For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA's satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product (

This should make a consumer a little wary!

There are so many different kinds of protein powder. Whey vs. Casein, Concentrate vs. Isolate vs. Hydrolyzed, Soy vs. Pea Protein. The differences come down to these factors:

  • How they are processed
  • How quickly they are digested/absorbed by the body
  • The source of protein (animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas).

What makes things even more confusing is they all have enthusiastic claims for your health.

Something else to consider is taste. In order for companies to sell their products, they have to taste good! In order to make protein powder palatable, sadly, many manufacturers add LOTS of other ingredients to it.

One last thing to mull over is cost, these protein tubs can get pricey!

Q: Should you put some in your yogurt, for example, or have a protein drink?

Eat it however you'd like. Some people mix it with water; some mix it with milk; some eat it in their oatmeal, others in yogurt. Any way you ingest it - a scoop is still a scoop.

Q: I work out and I know I don't get enough protein.

If I had a nickel for every time I hear that….

Most athletes can get the recommended amount of protein through food alone, without the use of supplements. Protein powders are great for convenience, but are not necessary, even for elite athletic performance.

It's recommended to only rely on protein powders when athletes need immediate protein right after a workout and don't have time for a meal. Whole foods are always best, but with a busy athlete, it is more realistic to provide them with a convenient shake.

Q: Do you have any recommendations and what the right amount of protein?

The recommended daily allowance for protein is:

  • 56 grams a day for adult men
  • 46 grams a day for adult women
  • To be more specific for your body - most normally healthy people are good with 0.8 - 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

While athletes' protein needs are greater than that of non-athletes, they're not as high as commonly perceived.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training (to get your weight in kilograms take your weight divided by 2.2).

"It is hard to eat that much!"

The chart below has some examples of food and protein content.

Please note the serving sizes. For example, 3 oz. of meat is not the portion that is usually consumed. At a restaurant, usually, the smallest portion of steak served is 8 oz.

The point I'm trying to make is that most people are in fact eating enough protein without a supplement.

Other tips:

  • Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts.
  • Try to incorporate a protein in with meals and snacks, most likely you already are!

Q: What factor does age play in this and what can you do to help build muscle as you age?

Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are all necessary nutrients that the body needs for proper muscle and organ function. The amount that each person needs in a day greatly depends on your own body’s Basal Metabolic Rate and what your daily caloric needs are.

Basal Metabolic Rate describes the number of calories your body needs to function at rest and the amount of muscle mass vs. fat mass that we each carry greatly affects the Basal Metabolic Rate.

Use the BMR Calculator on to calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate.

Eating over the recommended amount of protein in your diet to “build” muscle is not necessary. In fact, high consumption of protein beyond your body’s requirement and lack of other required nutrients can be detrimental to your long term health.

Q: So, why is it so hard to build muscle?

The simple answer is that our genetic make-up, the current level of physical activity, and age affect:

  • How much muscle tissue we have
  • The muscle fiber size and number
  • The type of muscle fibers contained within each muscle

Every muscle in the body is made up of large and small muscle fibers and each muscle fiber type is either Type 1 (slow) or Type 2 (fast). Through the life cycle, our muscle makes up changes, meaning from puberty through our 20’s we have the most muscle tissue that we will have in our lifetime and we have the greatest potential for increasing muscle fiber size (bulk).

During this time in our life, we also have a greater make-up of fast-twitch fibers – which is responsible for a faster metabolism (burning more calories at rest) and faster/quicker reaction times which results in a quicker more efficient response to resistance training.

Loss of muscle tissue, called sarcopenia starts at age 30 and progresses throughout the lifecycle. In this process, the amount of muscle tissue and the number, as well as the size of muscle fibers, gradually decrease. The result of decreasing muscle fiber number and size equals a gradual loss of muscle mass (atrophy) and muscle strength (weakness). Fortunately, the loss in muscle mass (atrophy) and strength (weakness) can partially be overcome or at least delayed by a regular exercise program that includes resistance training. But, we cannot prevent the natural progression of muscle tissue loss over time.

Regular exercise and resistance training only help to increase the size and strength of the remaining muscle fibers. It does don’t promote muscle tissue re-growth. Aside from age-related muscle mass loss and weakness, sedentary lifestyles greatly impact the speed at which our muscle mass and strength decline.

Our society has evolved into a more sedentary culture- where the majority of our days are spent sitting at desks, behind computers, and in cars. The gains you try to make in a single daily workout are negated if the majority of your day is spent sitting. Frequent bouts of activity throughout the day along with a dedicated daily workout reap more health benefits than one single daily workout.

A regular exercise program should consist of aerobic exercises, such as:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Biking

Combining these 30 or more minutes of aerobic exercise a day, along with resistance training/muscle-strengthening activity using weights, stretching, and balance exercise 2-3 times weekly. Muscle-strengthening activities should include 8-10 exercises that involve the major muscle groups- arms, back, abdomen, legs, chest, and shoulders. The amount of weight that you lift should be of a moderate amount (something that you can lift 8-10 times).

Fitness Fads

Finally, be wary of the latest fitness fads. The health and fitness industry is full of professionals claiming to be “experts” having the best way to “get healthy quick”. Truthfully, health and fitness take a lifelong dedication to eat properly and maintaining recommended amounts of exercise.

If something sounds too good to be true and is not a regime you can maintain long-term, that is only a fad. Fads are not based on science and clinical expertise, fads are merely opinions based on personal experience.

If you are interested in making an appointment with Shelby, ask your primary care provider for a referral.