"Should I take a protein supplement?” is a common question I get asked. Here’s my answer: it depends. Protein can be a highly debated topic which I’m not going to dive too deep into, but here are some semi-brief thoughts.
Protein supplementation through protein powders can be a very useful tool when exercising with the intention of getting stronger and building muscle mass. When we exercise, we literally tear apart our muscles (which causes muscle soreness) and they have to rebuild themselves. That’s how we get muscle hypertrophy (growth). If we are not getting sufficient protein intake or overall calorie intake, our bodies cannot repair themselves which can lead to fatigue, poor muscle recovery and feeling depleted overall.
There can be an argument made against protein supplementation. It encourages laziness with food preparation and also leads down the path of more processed foods instead of focusing on getting the majority of your calories from whole food sources. There’s something very methodical about eating and chewing slowly to digest your food. While I wholeheartedly agree with this, this is also real life and we need to find a balance. For me personally, I do supplement with protein after most workouts because I tend to do higher intensity workouts with an emphasis on weightlifting. If I were exercising at a lesser intensity with no emphasis on muscle gain, I wouldn’t care as much and I’d focus on eating whole foods the majority of the time to meet my needs.
It can also be a great way to get additional nutrients by adding in leafy greens and berries to your shakes. If you tolerate dairy, adding in some yogurt can be beneficial for not only additional protein but also probiotics for your gut health. People like to argue that smoothies/shakes should be avoided because eating whole foods should be the priority and for some, it can lead to eating excess food because the smoothie didn’t “register” that they've eaten their meal. If this is you, do what works for you and eat whole foods. If this isn't you, then I say a smoothie everyday is no problem at all. You’re getting protein, carbs, fat (optional) and fruits and veggies so, I’m really not sure how that’s ever a bad thing.
There are some guidelines though. Aim for getting a protein powder with the least amount of ingredients and no artificial sweeteners like aspartame (acesulfame) and splenda (sucralose). Stevia is just fine in my opinion with minimal to no gut reaction for most folks. Sugar alcohols which are xylitol, malitol and erythritol should also be avoided when possible due to the gut reaction many have from them such as bloating, gas and diarrhea.
Bottom line is, if you’re exercising at an intense pace with the goal of getting more fit and adding more muscle mass to your body, I think it’s a good idea to supplement with a protein powder post workout, especially if eating enough protein is a struggle for you. Keep in mind that it’s not an excuse not to cook and eat whole foods, and most importantly, don’t forget to eat your vegetables!