Sniffer dogs at Customs aren't trained to detect it, and ASADA doesn't bat an eyelid if our athletes have kilos of it mailed to their homes. Protein has become the preferred performance enhancer of the masses. But why protein supplements? And do we really need them?
From the chunky to the chiselled, we're conditioned to believe protein supplements are a requirement. If you want to get huge, it's a badge of honour to be seen banging down protein shakes and bars, sprinkled with a little bit of creatine.
But before you go out buying that five-kilo tub of protein powder, there are four important questions you should consider:
1. Why does your body need protein?
Protein is required to build new cells. Every cell and organ in your body needs protein. Muscle, skin, hair, bone, and connective tissue contains protein. To live and function properly, your body needs protein.
2. How much protein do you need in a day?
It's been reported by American and Australian health bodies, along with the World Health Organisation, that men and women require approximately 0.8g of protein per 1kg in body weight. Therefore, an 80kg man requires approximately 64g of protein per day, and a 60kg woman requires 48g per day.
3. Do you know how much protein is in the food you eat?
Recently, I saw a guy in his gym clothes and gym-branded backpack, holding a double burger in one hand and a protein drink in the other hand. I didn't have the nerve to ask him why he needed to wash down that protein with more protein. If you are going to supplement your diet, you should first understand how much protein is in the food on your plate.
A 250g portion of salmon, steak, chicken or pork loin all contain between 50g to 60g of protein. Three eggs contain 20g of protein, and a cup each of milk and quinoa (a gluten-free plant-based protein) contain 9g and 8g respectively.
Like your food a bit faster? A Bacon & Egg McMuffin contains 16g. A Double Whopper with Cheese (55g), three KFC Original Recipe Thighs (62g), and a Domino's BBQ Meat Lover's Pizza (77g) all contain a lot of protein.
Fresh, fast, or a combination of both … if you live in a Western country, you're most likely hitting your required protein intake every day, week, and year.
4. How much protein do you consume in a day?
I wonder how many people out of 100 could answer this question. And if you can't, then your need for a protein supplement is an unknown. If your car's petrol tank is full, would you add even more?
There is a risk in consuming too much protein in a day. The body can only use 50g of protein at once, and it will store the other grams of protein as fat (four calories per gram of protein) … so for the village idiot with the burger and juice box mentioned above, too much protein can lead to weight gain. Too much of anything can be a bad thing, and that includes protein.
If your answer was "I don't know" to any of the four questions above, then why would you take a supplement? Most would reply: "Because somebody at the gym said I should." Gym peer pressure is BS, and my sentiments on protein supplements are obvious.
Opinions vary, so I threw a question out there to others in the industry to see what was their take on protein supplements. My request was for a Twitter-esque reply to the question: From the overweight to the average to the ultra fit, what is your stance on protein supplements?
Shannan Ponton - The Biggest Loser star, Nature's Way brand ambassador
"Protein is essential to maintain lean muscle mass, desirable for both weight loss and optimum sports performance. Whey protein is the easiest and most effective way to supplement."
Zoe Bingley-Pullin - nutritionist, IsoWhey brand nutritionist, co-host of Good Chef, Bad Chef)
"The market has some poor quality protein. Provided it's incredibly good quality with vitamins and minerals, in a form that can be absorbed properly by the body, I'm a fan of protein in helping to build muscle, lose weight, or to supplement the lack of protein in one's diet."
Kara Landau - Dietician, author, corporate nutritionist
"Natural varieties (without all the hidden nasties) can complement a wholefoods nutrient-dense diet; assisting people to feel full, shed fat mass, or gain lean muscle."
Brie Warnock - aka bodybuilding blogger TankGirlTuff
"I wouldn't be without Vital Strength supplements. Essential to my training and diet, trusted by top athletes and me."
Jennifer Dodge - physiotherapist, The Office Athlete
"Protein supplements are generally overused. The recommended dietary intake of protein for an average Joe is easily achieved through diet alone. For the ultra-fit I see a place for protein supplements as their needs and total energy requirements are slightly higher."
Jethro Watts - Founder of vegetarianbody.com
"Whey protein will get results, but you're sacrificing good health. Go for plant-based proteins and your body will thank you."
For it? Against? Or walking the Switzerland line? Even professionals have varied opinions on protein supplements.
Unfortunately, most people don't stop to investigate that protein drinks, such as the strawberry-flavoured one I bought at the gym for the purposes of this column, can contain almost seven teaspoons of sugar … yet somehow, contains no artificial flavours or colours. When the overweight statistics in Australia are reaching 70 per cent, and we are spending millions on protein supplements, I have to wonder: "Why not choose salmon, and eat real strawberries?"
The supplement industry is big, big business … so the next time you reflexively stick your hand into the gym fridge for that $4.95 dutch chocolate protein box, ask yourself: "Does my body really need this?"