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The question

I was wondering if you can provide some expert insight into protein supplements, especially whey? It seems like they are all the rage and I am uncertain if I really "need" them after my workout. Is it just as beneficial if I have some protein in chicken instead? Are they harmful?

The answer

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Let's start with the most popular: whey protein powder. Whey protein, by-product of cheese, generally contains a higher amount of essential amino acids – amino acids the body can't make on its own – than other protein sources. It also contains proteins that may help maintain immune function during intense training periods.

Depending on the processing method, there are different forms of whey protein. Whey protein isolate is the most concentrated form and contains 90 per cent or more protein and little, if any, fat and lactose. Whey protein concentrate is less refined. It has anywhere between 20-89 per cent protein. As the protein content increases, the fat and lactose content decreases.

On the downside, for some people whey protein can cause bloating and stomach upset.

If you decide to supplement your diet with whey, look for one that's free of artificial flavours and sweeteners. Avoid brands that contain excess sugar in the form of fructose, dextrose and maltodextrin. And avoid spending extra money on products with added ingredients touted to maximize performance like creatine, growth peptides and glutamine. Even if they do, the amount added to whey protein is usually too small to provide a benefit.

Do you need to take whey protein? That depends on your diet and your exercise level. Athletes do have higher protein requirements than sedentary people in order to repair muscle damage that occurs during exercise and to support muscle building.

Sedentary individuals require 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight per day. For a 190-pound (86 kg) male, this translates into roughly 69 grams of protein, an amount equivalent to 7 ounces (210 grams) of chicken and 2.5 cups (625 ml) of milk or soy beverage.

Studies suggest that endurance athletes need to consume 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Resistance exercise like weight lifting is thought to increase protein needs even more. It's recommended that strength athletes consume 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day.

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However, more is not better. Studies have consistently shown that consuming more than the recommended amount does not lead to further increases in muscle size or strength since there's a limit to the rate at which protein can be synthesized into muscle. Unlike carbohydrate and fat, the body can't store protein. The excess will either be burned for energy or, if you're getting the calories you need, it will be stored as fat.

Studies show that most athletes can easily meet their daily protein requirements from diet alone.

Some people do need protein shakes to help them meet their daily requirements. Low calorie dieters, vegetarians, haphazard eaters and those who train very heavily may benefit from a protein supplement.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at dietitian@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Leslie Beck.

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