To supplement or not to supplement?

That is the question facing many adolescents

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Protein supplements have become quite popular in recent years, especially among adolescents who are looking for added help to get bigger and stronger.

It's easy to see why. One of the roles of protein in the body is to help build and repair muscle tissue. A common misconception is that taking a supplement will help build bigger and stronger muscles.

While protein supplements may have benefits in certain circumstances, the truth is they are not always as beneficial as they are cracked up to be. In fact, there are times when protein supplements will provide no added nutritional benefit whatsoever.

To understand why, let's take an example of a 16-year-old male student who likes to play soccer recreationally and lift weights regularly. Typically, this teenager would need about 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) a day, to achieve his goal of building more muscle.

It's worth noting that daily requirements for protein are based on age, gender and the activity level of the individual in question. Our 16-year-old, for example, needs 1.4 g/kg of protein a day. However, the average person needs 0.8 g/kg per day, and an elite strength/power athlete up to 1.7 g/kg per day.

The key question, then, is can this teen get his daily requirement of protein from his typical diet, or does he need a boost? The answer, of course, depends on the choices that he makes.

As it turns out, protein is readily available in lots of foods. It can be found in the milk and alternatives food group (milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.) and also in the meat and alternatives food group (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, tofu, beans, peas, lentils, nut butters, nuts, etc.). 

Given that this teenage boy is keen on building muscle mass, let's assume that he is choosing protein-rich choices at all meals and snacks, as outlined in the meal plan box on page 45.

If our teen follows a plan like this one, he would be consuming approximately 112 g of protein, or the exact amount his body can process in a given day, based on his activity level. Consuming a protein supplement would give no added benefits because his body would not be able to use the extra protein.  In other words, consuming any additional protein would be a waste of money.

It's also important to remember that the body can only use 20 to 25 g of protein at once, or every three hours. Consuming any additional protein through food or a supplement would not serve any useful purpose. 

Even after a workout at the gym, our teen would still be better off eating a nutritious snack containing both carbohydrates and protein, than gulping down a protein supplement. A tuna sandwich, for example, will provide our teen with carbohydrates and protein, for a great recovery snack, especially if he adds a leaf of lettuce, a tomato wedge and a slice of cheese. Protein supplements mixed with water, by contrast, would only provide a source of protein.

This is not to say that protein supplements would never be beneficial. They could, for example, be useful for vegetarians, for those who find it hard to meet their protein requirements through food alone, or for those who are unable to pack a healthy snack to have after their workouts that contains enough protein. But more often than not, adolescents can meet their requirements for protein through eating a healthy diet, and will generally get bang for the nutritional buck by doing so.

Janelle Vincent is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.


The meal plan:



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