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How to Choose Protein Sources and Supplements

By Paul Kriegler, RD

You know how important protein is for health and weight loss. That said, you might be on the fence about whether you want to (or should) try a protein or amino acid supplement of some kind. How do I know a protein supplement is right for me? What benefits would there be? Shouldn’t real food be the way to nourish myself to optimal health? Can supplements be as good as food (or, in some cases, even better)? If I should take a protein supplement, which kind is the best? Let me explain how I sort through the factors around adequate protein for my clients.

The “Minimum Effective Dose” Approach

In the medical field, prescription drugs or other therapies are often assessed in terms of minimum effective dose, which means how low can the dose of “x” be to get a positive, desired response out of at least half the people treated. In nutrition, I consider the minimum effective protein dose to be the amount of protein that can effectively (and safely) be consumed AND meet all of the following criteria:

  • Prevent the catabolic loss of healthy, lean tissue,
  • Support lean tissue growth, maintenance and repair (e.g. red blood cells, organs, bones and muscle),
  • Manage hunger and blood sugar balance,
  • Be realistic for each individual’s lifestyle.

Active, exercising individuals (without pre-existing chronic kidney or liver disease) have higher protein requirements than sedentary people – even as high as 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.[i] Many people can (or at least think they can) meet this dose with food alone day in and day out, and that’s great.

Many others, however, find it difficult to eat adequate protein to meet all of these criteria, meaning they lose muscle as they age, struggle with cravings or hunger, or simply can’t prepare or find enough food protein sources in the midst of their busy lifestyles. For these individuals, there is evidence to suggest that an increase in overall protein intake through supplemental sources may offer an easier compliance strategy, meaning a combination of food and supplements will be more realistic than only food sources in the scope of their lifestyles.

Protein Powder Supplements

For most people I work with on personalizing their nutrition strategy, protein supplements offer a great way to meet overall protein targets (which can be more aggressive than conventional wisdom dictates). There are a few key reasons protein supplements could be justified in your plan as well.

Achieving Protein Adequacy

Using a protein needs calculator I found that my minimum protein needs to improve general fitness (e.g. lose body fat, improve muscle tone) and enhance performance (endurance and/or speed) added up to 131 grams per day. The calculator then suggested I eat all of the following to achieve this target (grams of protein listed in parentheses).

  • 1 cup of milk (8g)
  • ½ cup cottage cheese (12g)
  • 1 oz cheddar cheese (7g)
  • 2 eggs (13g)
  • 4 oz tofu (8g)
  • 9 oz of any combination of poultry/beef/pork/fish (~75g)
  • 1 cup beans (11g)

Many of you may look at this and see a whole lot of food (volume), calories (energy), or expense, and you’re all right. Simply speaking, if you’re active regularly and want to support your adequate protein intake, protein supplements may have a place in your health and weight loss strategy.

If you’re just looking to add protein to a meal or snack that already has fibrous carbohydrates or fats, use a Whey or Vegan protein concentrate. Mix a scoop in your plain yogurt with fresh berries, blend some powder into a morning veggie greens shake, or drink a serving with a low protein salad or raw veggies. If you need a solution for a just-add water meal, use a meal replacement shake like Fast Fuel Complete or the Dairy Free version.

Managing Convenience & Timing

Protein supplements like Life Time’s Grass-Fed Whey, Fast Fuel Complete meal replacement, VeganMax or comparable supplements may simply be more convenient (as I’ve found them to be) as part of your strategy. Many of the food options the protein calculator suggested for me require a fair deal of planning, preparation, refrigeration or anticipation of the next meal – factors that aren’t always conducive to busy schedules or easy timing to maximize the stimulus of your workouts.

Maximal protein synthesis[ii] lasts[iii] between 1.5 and 3 hours after a significant dose of food protein (about 40-50 grams of food protein or 6-8 oz worth of animal protein). This amount of protein isn’t always a convenient snack to have 1.5-3 hours before your workout. A serving of protein powder supplement mixed in 6-10 oz of water, however, is often more convenient and gentler on digestive timing for me and my clients.

Remember, stimulating muscle protein synthesis is NOT just for those trying to get huge. It’s also important for those wanting to maintain the muscle mass they already have.

Flavor and Recipe Preference

Not everyone likes protein foods enough to satisfy their full needs every day. Some people may, in fact, prefer more palatable ways to achieve adequate protein intake. There are few protein supplements I’ve tasted that I actually love the flavor of with just water alone, but those we’ve formulated over the recent years are so good I actually look forward to them. (I must admit I’m more partial to chocolate flavors.)

Protein supplements don’t always need to be used as beverages either. My favorite ways to enjoy them are mixed as a pudding, made into no-bake brownies (VeganMax only), or rolled into on-the-go truffles with some crushed up nuts/seeds, coconut flakes, and cacao nibs. If you like the thought of having pseudo-desserts as part of your daily get-lean strategy, consider using protein powder supplements this way.

Keeping Cost in Check

I know, I know. You’re reading this and thinking “geez, this guy must have no concept of food and supplement budgets,” but I do in fact. Personally, I consider my supplement choices part of my food budget (yes, even my multivitamins and fish oil). If it means I eat out fewer times each month to buy the protein supplements I like (and will actually use without choking them down in disgust), then I make those sacrifices.

I try to only buy foods produced with the highest standards (e.g. pasture-raised, wild-caught, and/or free of genetic modifications, herbicides/pesticides, hormone/antibiotic-free, and otherwise known as organic and sustainable), but this means food proteins are rather costly. Even a high-quality protein supplement can be more affordable than some of the food protein sources. (Have you seen the price of fresh Alaskan salmon lately?)

Essential Amino Acid Supplements (EAAs)

We’ve previously discussed some interesting benefits that are unique to amino acid supplements, and the more I learn about them (and use them myself) the more I think they are an awesome strategy to consider, especially if you’ve already tried to bump up your food protein intake and/or use protein powder supplements in your plan.

Easier Digestion and Assimilation of Building Blocks of Health

Unlike food proteins (which are long chains of amino acids) or protein supplements – EAAs don’t need to be digested into single amino acids in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract before they can be utilized to build new structures in the body. In other words, the amino acids in food proteins and protein supplements are locked up and not readily used unless digestive processes are near ideal.

For this reason, ingesting EAAs may be more effective than food or other protein supplement forms (especially among cancer patients and those with other catabolic conditions). EAAs have also been observed to be effective at maintaining type II muscle fibers in aging adults without adding exercise (even when dietary intake was otherwise classified as adequate by long-term care standards).

More Effective Compliance Strategy than Food or Protein Powders 

I’ve heard some people in the health and fitness blog/podcast industry say supplements provide a false hope of nourishment or even cater to laziness. Still others stand by the belief that supplements, while they don’t make up for flat out crappy choices, sometimes work more effectively than food (see adequacy, convenience, timing, flavor and recipe, and cost considerations above) and–just as important–are also an easier strategy for initiating and maintaining compliance.

In my experience, I’ve seen both sides of the supplement issue but have learned to implement supplement strategy in a way that enhances compliance and results without the false expectation that they will make up for other poor choices.

EAA supplements, I believe, offer an even easier solution than protein powders because the benefits begin at such a small dose (as low as one or two scoops per day) within 20 minutes prior to a moderate to strenuous workout (for the average health-focused exerciser). Consuming 4-8 oz of liquid with EAAs mixed in is easier than mowing down 6-8 oz of food protein or even chugging 8-10 oz of whey protein concentrate.

Whether your appetite is low or you can’t bear to stomach a full protein shake to prepare your body for great muscle maintenance or synthesis, EAAs may be a worthy strategy for you to explore.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Would you like to learn more about how your protein intake adds up? See one of our registered dietitians to receive personalized suggestions for your diet plan.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Campbell, B., Kreider, R.B., Ziegenfuss, T., La Bounty, P., Roberts, M., Burke, D., Landis, J., Lopez, H., Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4:8.

[ii] Atherton, P. J. and Smith, K. (2012), Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of Physiology, 590: 1049–1057.

[iii] Bohe, J., Low, J. F. A., Wolfe, R. R., Rennie, M. J. (2001). Latency and duration of stimulation of human muscle protein synthesis during continuous infusion of amino acids. The Journal of Physiology, 532(Pt.2), 575—579.


The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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