Are You Getting the Most From Your Protein Supplement?

When you shop for a protein supplement, arm yourself with information to make an informed decision about which product to buy.

Protein supplements are not all the same. Let's see if these products really do anything for athletes and fitness enthusiasts, then learn how to choose a quality protein supplement.

Protein is Essential for Life

Protein supplements are not essential; they only assist with your current diet program. But the macronutrient itself is essential for life, and it should comprise a significant portion of your daily calorie intake. The daily recommended amount for protein is between 15 and 35 percent of calories consumed. Protein is in every cell of your body, repairing cells and allowing new ones to be created. In terms of physical training, your muscle fibers are cells that contain protein.

RELATED: Why Protein Is Important for Athletes

When you exercise at high intensities, your muscle fibers become damaged, and protein is released to help repair them and allow them to grow and strengthen. This is the recovery process you go through after each training session. The recommended timeframe is 24 to 48 hours of rest, because this is how long it takes ingested protein to break down and form new proteins within cells. The importance of protein synthesis is that the new proteins allow muscular growth and reduce soreness.

Potential Benefits of Protein Supplements

Supplements are used as their name implies—to "supplement" a proper diet and exercise program. Relying on a supplement for all your nutritional requirements is not recommended. You need to eat protein-rich foods that contain other nutrients your body needs. However, the amount of protein athletes and fitness enthusiasts require to support muscle growth and maintenance is not always easy to obtain through whole food consumption. That's when a protein supplement can come in handy—to fill the gap of calories needed from protein.

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Do you have to consume protein immediately post-workout to receive the most beneficial anabolic effects? Maybe. This journal shows numerous studies that focus on nutrient timing of post-workout protein. Some show that muscle hypertrophy is increased by post-workout protein consumption, but others show no difference. Considering that protein won't hurt you and that the studies are conflicting, one can assume that using a protein supplement post-workout may be appropriate to gain the benefits of heightened muscular growth and reduced muscle soreness.

Protein Supplement Labels May Be Misleading

The FDA is not perfect, especially in the realm of dietary supplements. There is a big gray area that supplement companies can use to their advantage. The label on each container of a protein supplement shows the total grams of protein per serving, but companies are allowed to get away with showing false dietary protein content. Dietary protein is what you want, because it is the true protein you need to take the place of whole foods you didn't consume. The false labels are legal because the FDA does not truly define protein.

RELATED: What is Whey Protein?

This is where the terms "protein spiking," "amino spiking" and "nitrogen spiking" pop up. These terms can be used interchangeably, because they all refer to increasing the lab results of nitrogen. Nitrogen content in food is what determines the amount of protein. The nitrogen content in a dietary supplement sold as protein determines how much protein can be listed for each serving.

Amino acids and creatine increase the amount of nitrogen during lab tests, which spikes the nitrogen levels to show higher protein content. For example, a label might state 25 grams of protein per serving, but depending on the amount of added fillers, you may actually be getting only 20 grams of dietary protein. The reason companies do this is because whey protein prices are rising. To lower the cost, cheap "fillers" are used to maintain protein content labeling. The prices of whey protein concentrate have steadily dropped, so false protein labels may eventually be discontinued.

Finding the Right Protein Supplement

There are two methods you can use to get a better idea if your supplement is worth the money: deciphering the label and listening to other consumers. The internet lets you research everything, so use it to your advantage. A good protein supplement shows the amount of amino acids it contains. Amino acids occur naturally in whey protein, but some of them (e.g.,taurine) are not significant enough to display. Glycine is another naturally low amino acid found in whey protein that is increased to show higher nitrogen levels. Neither should indicate more than 1 gram on the label.

Creatine is often included in protein supplements, because it tests out to have 1.8 grams of protein per gram of creatine. That means almost 2 grams of protein are "missing." Creatine supplements are cheaper and contain the proper dosage per serving. If  you use creatine to enhance your sports performance, the need for small doses of it in a protein supplement is obviated. Aside from reviewing the label, you can rely on trustworthy and unbiased consumer reviews. Websites such as supplement reviews provide reliable information on supplements that have actually been used.

At the end of the day, the FDA's guidelines for dietary supplements indicate that you must perform your own research. You get the most from a protein supplement when you take the time to properly research it. A 10-minute search can go a long way toward improving your fitness and nutrition program.

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