To steak or shake?

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WRITTEN BY: KARINE BARLOW, RD

Thinking about improving your fitness, building muscle or even losing some body fat? Chances are you’ve heard that getting more protein might help you achieve your goals.

Research over the last couple of decades supports this notion. Athletes engaged in intense training may need to consume up to twice as much protein as non-athletes. And it’s not just athletes for whom protein has benefits. We know that consuming the right amounts of high-quality protein is required for healthy growth in childhood, weight maintenance in adulthood, and maintaining muscle and bone health as we age.

With all this spotlight on the beneficial role of protein in our diets, it’s no wonder protein supplements have exploded onto the market. No longer just the stuff of elite athletes and specialty nutrition stores, protein supplements have gone mainstream.

To supplement or not to supplement?

Protein supplements, like protein shakes and bars, are manufactured from isolated components of whole foods. These are highly processed, refined products. Stated simply, they lack the naturally occurring benefits that come standard with basic whole foods. When you eat protein-dense foods like meat, fish, poultry, you benefit from a high-quality, complete-protein hit as well as the plentiful vitamins and minerals that come along with those foods – a nutritional buy-one-get-one-free scenario of sorts! And all this with a ‘clean’ ingredient label: one single ‘ingredient’ with nothing added.

Why does this matter? We take protein supplements to beef up our energy. But without the nutrients our bodies need to use this protein, we aren’t getting the full benefit. It is a happy coincidence that protein sourced from protein-rich foods also tend to be high in the nutrients we need to utilize energy. Beef for example, is plentiful in B vitamins (which helps metabolize energy), heme iron (which transports oxygen to muscles) and zinc (which bolsters the immune system), among other powerful nutrients.

Also, protein may not be the only nutrient we need more of. For example, most people realize athletes need additional protein to build and repair muscle, but did you know iron requirements for athletes may be increased by anywhere from 30 to 70%, especially among distance runners?

The next time you stop in the supplement aisle to consider buying one of the options, take a look at the ingredient label as well as the protein and nutrient content. By way of reference, just one portion of beef, a conservative 75 g of cooked meat, delivers 26 g of high-quality, complete protein, with a plethora of naturally occurring nutrients to boot. The same can be said of other protein-rich foods such as other meats, fish, dairy, nuts and legumes – these are all whole foods that deliver protein, and so much more.

Before investing in pricy supplements, take stock of your own diet. You can certainly meet your protein needs with a well-balanced diet, so it’s worth questioning why you believe you might need a supplement. For me it will always be a steak over a shake!

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