Category Archives: Sports Nutrition

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Healthy or Hype? Protein Powder

358248The protein powder market is growing. Once primarily the realm of body builders (and sold in big tubs displaying pictures of big muscles), protein powders are now cleverly marketed to various demographics and available at most supermarkets. This wide availability and targeted advertising is prompting many to wonder if they need a protein supplement.

Here’s a look at the evidence.

What Are Protein Powders?

You’ll find quite the variety of protein powders. Generally protein powders are highly processed products: most contain isolated protein from one or more of a variety of sources (e.g., milk, soy, pea, hemp, etc.), and are typically fortified with vitamins and minerals, and often have other ingredients added to help them taste better, mix easily, and keep stable for a long shelf life (thickeners, stabilizers, artificial colors and flavors, fats, sweeteners, carbohydrates). Protein powders can be quite expensive.

The Claims

muscles (640x426)The longstanding and popular claim of protein powders is that they will help you build muscle. But many powders promise other benefits that include losing weight, gaining weight, delivering quick energy, boosting immune system health, fighting aging, helping wound healing, controlling food cravings, and stabilizing blood sugar.

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Because protein powders may be supplementing your diet with additional protein, it’s important to consider how much protein your body needs. The amount of protein that you need depends on your age, weight, and how active you are. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram per day (or 0.36 g per pound) for adults; children need more because they are still growing. This works out to about 45 g/day for a 125-lb (57 kg) adult, 55 g for a 150-lb (68 kg) adult, and 65 g for a 180-lb (82 kg) adult. But research shows this estimate might be on the low side, particularly for athletes and older individuals.

Daily Protein Requirments 28Oct2015The Evidence

Muscle growth and repair is a fascinating and critical area of research. Studies typically use a specific type of protein supplement or powder, which is necessitated by the research design to carefully control the exact substances, dose, and types of amino acids ingested. It is not really as practical or easy to compare with other research if your subjects are eating turkey sandwiches or yogurt to get their protein.

Some of these studies suggest that whey protein, a rapidly digestible protein found in milk and milk products, might have an edge on other protein sources for muscle building and repair. Whey is also a good source of three essential amino acids thought to be important for repairing and building muscle (the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine). But you can find these amino acids in many common foods like milk, tuna, turkey, edamame, or cottage cheese (to name just a few).

Here are some important things to consider when looking at protein intake:

Research has shown that people need about 20 to 30 grams of protein at a time for optimal muscle building and repair processes: ingesting more than that or large amounts of protein at one sitting doesn’t help muscles, as it’s not “saved for later” like carbohydrates or fat are, but is used for energy or stored as fat. So, a protein shake that contains this 20 to 30 g of protein can help this process, but isn’t necessarily better than real food (and isn’t needed in addition to actual food).

Distributing protein intake throughout the day is important. Studies show that most people are getting enough protein in their day, but don’t consume enough in the morning, and eat two to three times the amount they need at dinner. For optimal muscle growth and repair,  three to four meals or snacks a day that contain 20-30 grams of protein is best.  A protein powder might help you increase the protein content of your breakfast (e.g., mix into a smoothie or oatmeal), but again, you can do this with real food.

READ  6 Healthy Morning Meals: The Science Behind Breakfast

No research has shown that protein powders or supplements are better for health than a diet that gets adequate protein from regular foods.


It’s hard to argue against the convenience of protein powders over foods. They are portable, with a long shelf life, and often just need to be mixed with a liquid. Some powders can easily transform a low-protein breakfast into a more balanced meal with adequate protein intake. But with a bit of effort, they aren’t entirely necessary, especially if you aren’t traveling and are in your own kitchen. For example, here are two smoothie recipes (that would work well in the morning or post-workout) that have a few simple ingredients and more than 20 g protein without protein powders.

high protein strawberry banana recovery smoothie High Protein Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake Are Protein Supplements Safe?

Protein powders are considered a supplement, which means that in the U.S. they aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This lack of regulation could mean questionable safety, purity, and strength and unsubstantiated health claims. Although most products are likely safe, independent laboratory reviews do raise questions.

  • A ConsumerLab investigation found that 31% of the products tested failed the quality tests (didn’t contain what was on the label, and/or contained contaminants).
  • A Consumer Reports review of protein powders and drinks found that most contained contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury; although most levels were low and not of concern, 3 out of the 15 products tested showed levels that could be harmful if consumed according to product dosage (3 servings/day).
  • A CBC Marketplace investigation shows evidence of “spiking,” a process where manufacturers add inexpensive fillers (often nitrogen-based compounds) that are only detected by specialized testing (simple tests “count” these compounds as protein).
  • Case reports have described liver injury associated with whey protein and creatine supplement use and soy supplement use.

Besides contaminants that you don’t know about, most protein powders come with extra ingredients you probably don’t need, such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other special added ingredients.

Can’t You Get Your Protein from Real Foods?

Of course you can! In fact, most people exceed the recommended daily intake for protein from foods alone (on average, Americans are eating about 82 grams of protein a day) . Not only is real food more delicious, in many cases it will be less expensive and more nutritious. Engineered and processed foods like protein powders often lack fiber and other protective nutrients found in whole foods. Here’s an example of how an average-sized endurance athlete (70 kg/154 lbs) can get the protein they need in a day. Note that this food intake is on the low side, as an athlete this size would typically be eating more calories than this, leading to a greater protein content (the table excludes several foods including fruits and vegetables, that contain small amounts of protein).

How to Get Protein from Real FoodWhat Are Good Sources of Protein?

It’s easy to get caught up in looking for the foods with the most protein, or for foods containing specific amino acids, the best protein for muscle building, etc. I can hear the protein powder devotees and manufacturers saying “but these foods might not contain the perfect amino acid balance for muscle building” or similar thoughts (and actually, some of these foods are perfect for muscle building!).

But for optimal health, it’s important to look beyond a food’s amino acid composition and total protein content: the entire food package is important:  consider the important nutrients or protective compounds that you’re getting (or not getting!) along with the protein.

  • MILK & MILK PRODUCTS have the added benefit of calcium
  • MEAT provides iron and zinc
  • FISH and SEAFOOD are also a good source of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats
  • LEGUMES are rich in fiber and other protective phytochemicals
  • TOFU and other traditional soy-based foods like tempeh are a healthful source of protein
  • NUTS contain fiber, healthy fats, and other protective compounds

How Much Protein?

This infographic gives you an idea of how much protein various foods contain. I’ve expanded on non-meat sources since they vary so much, but you can expect about 22 g – 30 g for cooked beef, fish, or poultry.

How Much Protein in Foods Infographic

Bottom Line

  • Your first option for protein should be real foods like beans, legumes, meats, and dairy, because these foods offer other important nutrients that your body needs.
  • Most people are already eating more than the recommended amount of protein through their diet and don’t need protein powders or protein supplements. Even body builders can meet their protein needs with real foods.
  • If you’re after strength, the most potent stimulus for muscle growth is effective strength training, and not ingesting extra protein. Eating more protein than your body needs doesn’t lead to bigger strength gains.
  • Protein powders are not a magic potion for building muscle or recovering quickly from a workout. They are best viewed as a convenient substitute for protein from real foods, not a mainstay of your diet. If you are buying a powder, look for one with a short ingredient list without added vitamins, minerals, and few other additives.

Other Foods in the Healthy or Hype Series . . .

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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about how wind resistance affects performance in cycling and running, Herbalife, Shakeology, new research on muscle cramps, nutritious foods you should stop throwing away, beet juice for high altitude, eating to heal sports injuries, dietary supplement regulation, and more.

Shakeology: Nutrition Scam & Waste of Money.  A look at the nutrition in the shake, and the multi-level marketing scheme. (Fooducate)

Herbalife. Dietitian Diana Chard provides a nice review of Herbalife, summing it up with “Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.” (Diana Chard, Bite My Words)

Find more News and Reviews of Popular Diets here.

Can reducing wind resistance improve your performance? Drag is a big deal in some sports. This week Alex Hutchinson looks at how professional cyclists are working on reducing drag without sacrificing power by making small adjustments that lead to considerable gains in performance. (Globe and Mail).  He also goes further in his Runners’ World column wondering how much drag can influence running performance. While not as pronounced as cycling because of reduced speeds, drafting behind other runners has significant benefits, and swift runners (faster than 4:00/km) may see benefits with small adjustments, though this hasn’t been studied.  Other sports with faster speeds (i.e., cross country skiing) would likely see benefits from drag reductions (better tucks on downhills, maybe even hats instead of headbands with ponytails . . .).

Peeled ApplesNutritious foods you should stop throwing away. A lot of food waste happens at home. Beyond better purchasing and food storage, you can reduce your food waste by changing some eating habits.  This article offers good tips for celery leaves, apple peels, broccoli stalks, citrus rind, beet greens, and squash seeds.  (Washington Post)

Social media content may hold keys to important health information.  A new study shows that the language individuals use in their social media posts may have a strong connection to their health. (BMJ Quality & Safety, 2015).

Muscle Cramps and side stitches. . .

Two articles this week looked at muscle cramping – a frustrating experience for many athletes.

Is there a way to prevent muscle cramps during exercise?  Although many believe dehydration and sweating is at the root of most muscle cramps, the most recent studies don’t support this. Most new evidence points to fatigue and overexcited nerve endings as causing muscles to spasm. Strengthening and stretching the affected muscles are the current recommended treatments. (New York Times)

Can some foods prevent muscle cramps? Here is a list of 5 foods showing some evidence at reducing cramping, but the research isn’t solid, and it seems that the fatigue issue noted above in the New York Times article has more support. (Fooducate)

Some people call side stitches cramps, but this is likely a different phenomenon than a cramping calf or hamstring muscle. Clinically known as “exercise related transient abdominal pain,” this condition can be persistent and difficult to treat. Here’s a very thorough and recent review of the research,  and a popular press article based on this research on side stitches here. Side stitches are likely caused by irritation of the parietal peritoneum, a membrane that wraps around the center of your body and abdomen.

Though at this point the research isn’t clear, some recommendations include improving core stability and posture (especially in the thoracic region), integrating core strength into a warmup routine, and running tall for good posture.  (Some evidence suggests that side stitches are worse in cold-weather running races). Also avoiding large volumes of food/drink before might help – sports drinks might be best tolerated since athletes need the calories and carbs for their workout and they are well generally absorbed. If a stitch strikes during an event, deep belly breathing or pushing the affected area might help.


Supplements cause more than 23,000 ER visits a year. Although many consider supplements “natural” and “safe,” they are unregulated and many adverse side effects likely go unreported. A study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an estimated 23,000 emergency department visits in the US yearly are attributed to adverse events related to dietary supplements. (New England Journal of Medicine).

Why aren’t dietary supplements regulated? Here’s a great explanation.

Enter the rockstar scientist, exit trust in science.  This article comments on two scientists whose personal beliefs have led them to disregard evidence-based science (or any study that doesn’t support their view). Sarah Wild provides the example of Tim Noakes, a popular exercise physiologist, who endorses a very low carbohydrate diet (limiting daily carb intake to the equivalent of 1 apple) as the best diet for health, and supporting his views on social media with anecdotes that lack good science. Previously Noakes has been criticized for disregarding science (that doesn’t support his opinions), promoting his high-fat low-carb diet as evidence-based, and stating that a proven link between vaccines and autism have been covered up.

Can what you eat help heal sports injuries? Muscle and tendon injuries are common in athletes, and new studies are uncovering new rehabilitation and diet strategies that can help muscle and tendon heal faster.  Exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup summarizes evidence presented at a recent conference for muscle injury and tendon injury. (Asker Jeukendrup,

tomato_public domain_nci-vol-2642-72Increasing lycopene absorption.  Lycopene is an antioxicant compound belonging to carotenoid family that gives tomatoes, papayas, and watermelon a red hue. A large body of research has investigated lycopene for its health-promoting properties. Tomatoes are especially recognized for their lycopene content, and some research  suggests that eating tomato products can decrease inflammation, an important underlying contributor to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.   This article offers tips on increasing your body’s absorption of lycopene. Although many people believe “fresh is always best,” processing and heating actually improve lycopene absorption (think canned tomatoes/tomato sauces). So does eating tomatoes with fat – which makes olive oil and tomatoes a winning combination for more than taste! (American Institute for Cancer Research).

A placebo can make you run faster.  Another study reveals the power of the mind on athletic performance (Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times).

New study helps explain why eating disorders are so difficult to treat.  Although many people make poor food choices, anorexia nervosa is a serious illness where maladaptive food choices can lead to starvation. In a new study, researchers from UC San Diego look at the neural mechanisms underlying anorexia nervosa with brain scanning techniques, and show that brain circuits involved in habitual behavior might help explain the destructive choices. When presented with images of food, brain areas of women with anorexia were more involved than in women without anorexia, suggesting that anorexics weren’t weighing the pros and cons of the food, but choosing based on past experience.  The findings emphasize the importance of seeking treatment early. (Nature Neuroscience, October 2015).

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This Week in Food, Health, & Fitness

This week, read about sports nutrition for stress fractures, 5 great Fall foods, the accuracy of running apps, healthy eating habits for lazy college students, new research into intervals and periodization, Vegan glam, Isagenix, and more.

Prone to stress fractures? Consider your sports nutrition.
Weight bearing exercise is generally good for bone health, because bone responds to the stress of exercise by becoming stronger.  But some athletes are more prone to stress fractures than others, for example active women who are underweight and amenorrheic often have decreased bone mineral density.  Although a variety of factors contribute to fractures, recent research suggests that what an athlete eats before, during, and after exercise can influence bone turnover. Making the right choices could potentially offset bone loss and prevent stress fractures.

Carbohydrates during exercise might benefit bones.  It is already firmly established that eating carbohydrates helps endurance performance; this week a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at how carbohydrates (8% glucose solution, similar to most sports drinks) during exercise influence bone metabolism during a strenuous 2-hour treadmill run. Researchers found that compared to placebo, runners who ingested carbohydrates during their run had reduced markers of bone resorption (breakdown). The effect was small and requires further study, but if you’re someone who goes without food/carbs during long workouts (and are prone to stress fractures), it seems this would be an good strategy to adopt, especially since carbohydrates will help other performance measures as well.   (Journal of Applied Physiology, October 2015)

As I’ve reported before, another strategy for bone health is a calcium-rich meal before exercise. Athletes lose calcium through sweat during exercise, which puts them at risk for bone loss, especially if their activity is non impact since it doesn’t benefit bones. A study in female cyclists found that eating a dairy-rich meal 90 minutes before riding can counter bone loss.  The pre-ride calcium-rich meal keeps blood calcium levels stable, so your body doesn’t borrow calcium from your bones to replace what’s lost in sweat. (PLOS ONE, May 2015)

 red apples5 Foods That Taste Better in October Than They Will All Year. Hard to limit it to 5, but it’s a great time to enjoy apples, pears, pumpkins, persimmons, & grapes. (Time)

Physics of falling says professional athletes are running wrong. A Norwegian physicist theorizes that runners could be much faster if they ran in a way that used gravity (Proceedings of the Royal Society, Sept 2015). His study was quickly shot down by Alex Hutchinson (Runner’s World) here.

How accurately do running apps track your distance? A good explanation of the measurement error you can expect to find with GPS apps. (Beth Skwarecki, Lifehacker).

Walking quieter routes to work can avoid peaks in air pollution. Commuting to work by walking on quieter side streets rather than main roads can help people avoid exposure to peaks in harmful air pollution. (European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, 2015.)

33 Healthy Eating Habits Lazy College Students Will Appreciate.  A lot of these tips are actually pretty good! (Buzzfeed)

What’s better – a long walk or a short stair climb? Both are good, but stairs are more intense physical activity and you will have more health benefits for a shorter activity time. (Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times).

21 “easy” food swaps you can make now without missing out. This is a great takedown of an article full of nutrition misinformation. Before you go swapping coconut oil for the fat in your recipe, sea salt for regular salt, or rice malt syrup for sugar, read this article. (Diane Chard, Bite My Words).

For coaches & athletes – best interval formats and periodization. Alex Hutchinson reports on a talk by exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler from the Norwegian Olympic federation (he often studies xc skiers) looking at two questions that most coaches and athletes ponder:  (1) how do the intensity and duration of intervals interact? and (2) does periodization matter? The article provides a nice summary of complex questions. You can view Seiler’s talk here.  (Alex Hutchinson, Runners World).

‘Vegan Glam’! Where Is the Vegan Julia Child? New York Times readers respond to article about trendy vegans. (New York Times)

Volkswagen emissions cheating caused $100 million in health costs. The far-reaching impact of a company’s horrible action. (Grist)

Choose healthy high carb foods
Choose healthy high carb foods

Unsaturated fats, high-quality carbs lower risk of heart disease. Although “butter is back” was a popular headline, the study that prompted this has been called into question.  In a new study, Harvard researchers debunked a controversial paper suggesting that saturated fat intake did not affect heart health, and note that the quality of both the fat and carbohydrate consumed are important. When they compared saturated fat intake with intake of other types of fats and different types of carbohydrates, they found that replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates didn’t benefit heart health, but replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and vegetable oils) and/or nutritious carbohydrates did benefit heart health.  In practical terms, your entire diet is important. . .  it doesn’t help if you limit butter, bacon, and burgers if you replace those foods with white bread, cookies and processed carbs, but replacing those foods with nuts, fatty fish, and healthy carbs will benefit your heart. (Sept 28, 2015, Journal of the American College of Cardiology).

Often carbohydrates are lumped into one category, which leads to much misunderstanding, because the health impacts of various types of carbs can be dramatically different (soda is not the same as oats). It’s critical to distinguish healthy carbohydrates (vegetables, legumes, whole grains), and generally unhealthy ones (refined/processed).

Calcium supplements do not prevent fractures. Two new studies looked at calcium intake and fracture risk in people over 50 years of age. One study compared supplementary dietary calcium to calcium supplements and found only a small but non-clinical increase in bone-mineral density. Another study conducted a systematic review of the research and found that the evidence for preventing fractures from increased dietary calcium or dietary supplements was weak.  The editorial calls for revisiting guidelines for calcium supplementation (BMJ).

Why taller people are at greater risk of cancer. While it is well known that being overweight contributes to cancer risk, the relationship between height and cancer risk is not as well known or understood. This is a good explanation of a complex topic. (World Cancer Research Fund).

Lose weight, create wealth, join Isagenix!? Ah huh… A nutrition scientist’s view of the weight loss scam. (Cocoa & Bliss).

Previous articles on Isagenix  . . .

New Recipe: Beets & Arugula in a Curry Vinaigrette

Beets Arugula Tall SmSweet and colourful, beets will certainly brighten up any meal! Their brilliant red hue comes from pigments called anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants studied for their disease-prevention potential. Beets, arugula, and celery are also good sources of dietary nitrates, which have been linked to improved athletic performance and blood pressure regulation.

This beet and arugula salad is great anytime, but terrific when fresh beets and apples are in season. It takes a little longer to prepare than my typical salads, but if you cook the beets in advance it is pretty quick to put together.











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