Man Doth Not Live By Protein Shakes Alone

Eric January 18, 2011

I’ve been coaching a co-worker on better nutrition the last few months. Like many of you who frequent the Hot Bod Squad, he’s looking to pack on muscle and trim fat. We were chatting yesterday, and he half-jokingly said he was considering just doing protein shakes all day as his only food source. Then he paused, got a very serious expression on his face, and asked me, “You think just taking 220g of protein [from powder] and water would work?”

The short answer is a resounding “NO!”

I’m a big fan of protein powders, drinks, and bars. I usually have a shake in the morning and a protein bar in the afternoon as part of my daily eating routine. So we’re talking anywhere from 50-75g or so of protein from supplemental powders and products.

But that’s not all I eat, ladies and gents.

My co-worker (bless his heart) is trying to capitalize on some sound nutritional advice—more specifically, get at least 1g of protein per pound of body weight to put on muscle and limit your caloric intake to reduce fat. Unfortunately, when taken to the extreme, this combination of ideas is counterproductive to reaching your goals, and can actually cause some serious malnourishment and health issues.

I gave my co-worker three main reasons to eat more than just protein shakes.

1.) You need adequate calories to accommodate both normal body function and muscle growth. Your body takes care of your regular cell functions first before going on to muscle development from working out, and it will use the calories you consume for those normal cellular needs first. If you don’t get enough calories, the protein you do ingest might end up being used for those everyday needs instead of muscle growth. Depending on the protein supplement, the simple math might point out that you aren’t getting enough calories to see muscle growth from your gym sessions. For the protein powder I use, for example, taking just that to get 220g of protein would only give me about 1200 Calories total, not nearly enough to sustain my body and allow it to build muscle. (We’ve discussed calorie counting for weight gain and weight loss here.)

2.) Your body needs additional carbs, fat, vitamins and minerals in varying degrees in order to function. Good carbs are a long-lasting source of energy for your body, and certain essential nutrients are fat-soluble, so completely cutting out these two items completely from your diet is not a good idea. In addition, while protein supplements tend to be fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, not everything is covered by a shake (much as we would like it to be so). Natural sources of vitamins and minerals are more easily absorbed into the body anyway, so it’s always better to get those nutrients from natural food sources, rather than a box, can, or pill.

3.) Too much protein supplement can increase levels of metals or toxins to dangerous levels. A recent Consumer Reports study showed that just three daily servings of certain protein supplement products had dangerous levels of certain metals and toxins, including arsenic. Because the manufacturing process and detailed contents of protein products is obscured from the general public, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly what you are putting in your body. Taking too much of that “unknown” can be very risky.

Basically, protein supplements should be used just as that name implies—as a supplement only. There is no good substitute for a diet based on the right amounts of protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Protein shakes and bars can help fill in some gaps or can solve some immediate needs when you are crunched for time, but don’t look at those products as your only, even your main, source of nutrition. Stock your kitchen and your diet with lots of good, natural food sources, and you’ll make the journey to a healthier, hotter body all the easier.

Have any of you had any bad run-ins with “too much of a good thing” when it comes to protein supplements?

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