Protein Supplements vs. Natural Proteins - Who Wins the Battle?
Andreea Macoveiciuc | On 28, Jan 2014
Proteins come in various forms, from the natural nutrients found in lean meat, eggs or beans to the powders we see in nutrition stores and gyms.
While bodybuilders, gym goers and athletes often use protein powders as pre- or post-workout supplements, and opt for protein bars and shakes as recovery snacks, average people often label these products as rubbish and think of them as “steroids”.
This idea is completely wrong, protein supplements are NOT steroids, so let’s see what these products really do and whether they’re better than natural proteins.
Why do we need proteins?
Whether you’re a gym rat or a health-conscious person, you probably know that proteins are the building blocks for muscles.
Still, this isn’t the only role these nutrients have inside the human body. Proteins:
- assist chemical reactions,
- transport other substances throughout the body,
- help the body fight against pathogens,
- are involved in sending signals for coordinating biological processes,
- provide structure and support for tissues.
Proteins are therefore required for all the bodily functions, for the structure and regulation of all tissues inside the human body, as well as for recovery. A diet that’s poor in proteins is very likely to cause nutritional deficiencies soon and to trigger health issues.
How much protein do we need to stay healthy?
- A sedentary person needs 0.4-0.5 grams of proteins per pound of body weight;
- An average adult who practices low to moderate intensity physical activity regularly needs 0.5 to 0.75 gram of protein per pound of body weight;
- Teenagers who are physically active need 0.7-0.8 grams of proteins per pound of body weight; competitive athletes – 0.6 to 0.9 grams per body weight;
- Dieting athletes looking to put on mass need 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Ideally, the amount of proteins eaten during the day should come from different sources and be split into several servings. Where can we take these proteins from?
Natural sources of proteins – pros and cons
Foods containing proteins have the advantage of being all natural, and most of the times they also provide healthy amounts of fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals. Also, they contain no preservatives or artificial sweeteners, so from this point of view, foods are better than protein powders. However, some people don’t get enough proteins from their diet, and for these people, supplements could be a good option.
Meat is usually the main source of protein for non-vegetarian people, but seeds and nuts, quinoa, tempeh, beans, eggs, nut butters, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, cocoa powder, lentils, spirulina, hemp, bee pollen and soy milk also provide important amounts of these nutrients, so they can replace meat if you’re on a vegetarian diet.
Still, keep in mind that meat provides complete protein, while proteins in veggies are incomplete, meaning that they lack one or more amino acids that your body can’t synthesize naturally. Surely, vegetables, nuts and seeds are rich in other important micro- and macronutrients, but the fact that they provide incomplete proteins is still a drawback.
Then, foods take longer to prepare, often require planning and some of them can be more expensive than protein supplements. Another disadvantage of natural proteins is that one has to be more careful when choosing the food combinations, in order to get the proper amount of carbs, proteins and fats.
Please note that eating too much protein (protein toxicity) can be just as harmful as not getting enough of this nutrient, an improper intake of protein being linked with nutritional deficiencies, an altered calcium balance and several health issues resulting from these.
To sum it up: natural proteins are healthier than protein powders, no doubt here, but only if they’re less processed, if they come from healthy foods (not fast food and junk products) and eaten in the proper amounts so as to avoid nutritional deficiencies and protein toxicity.
Advantages and drawbacks of protein supplements
Unlike natural protein-rich foods, which take longer to prepare, protein powders only require a few seconds to turn into ready to drink shakes. In liquid form, proteins are absorbed faster and digested easier, and high quality supplements offer complete proteins, so this is a positive aspect of powders and bars.
Then, protein powders are more convenient in terms of preparation and storage, and can be easily incorporated in pancakes, yogurts, cheese creams and baked goods, for a higher protein intake. Not to mention it’s a lot easier to track your daily protein intake if you use supplements.
Another positive aspect is that high quality protein supplements – be them whey concentrate or isolate, casein or soy, milk isolate or egg albumin – come without unnecessary fats, so if you’re following a strict diet, it’s easier to control the amount of protein, fats and carbs by taking supplements.
Keep in mind that protein powders are not steroids, they’re simply a refined, processed form of protein, just like vitamin supplements or fish oil supplements. They’re extracted from foods and processed in a more convenient form, and for people who want to build muscles fast, supplements might be more efficient than real foods.
However, protein bars and powders have the disadvantage of being less effective when it comes to stimulating the metabolism. So even if foods are digested harder, the body burns more calories while breaking down real food.
Also, a major drawback of protein powders is that lots of them contain artificial colors and ingredients like aspartame, saccharin or fructose. None of these is good for the human body in the long run, if taken in high amounts and with regularity, so this could be a good enough argument for avoiding protein powders.
But then again, for the proper functioning of the human body, it’s recommended to refuel it with a serving of protein every 3 hours. These proteins can come from a healthy snack, such as a hard-boiled egg, or a scoop of protein powder. However, eating every 3 hours may not sound like a good idea for all of us, so this is one of the reasons some people prefer protein powders over real food proteins. It’s easier to mix the powder with water and drink it, even if you’re at the office.
Whether you’re a gym rat or an occasional athlete, an individual with no interest in putting on more muscle mass or one who wants to lose weight and put on muscles, you need proteins in your diet on a daily basis. These nutrients are essential for your body’s proper functioning and recovery, as without enough proteins, the body starts breaking down the muscle tissue, which is not desirable.
Although protein powders are a good source of complete protein, they also include some unnecessary ingredients and chemicals. High quality protein powders provide some amounts of carbs as well, so they may be a good solution for those of you with demanding training schedules, who need a quick post-workout snack. However, this doesn’t mean you need to fill your kitchen cabinet with protein powder containers, or to completely replace natural proteins with supplements.
On the contrary, I advise you to get as much protein as possible from real food, without exceeding your daily needs, and then just supplement the amount with powder, if there are still gaps to be filled.