Daily wisdom: protein powder vs food

Does the average athlete really need to supplement?

Every athlete knows that education is a crucial part of performance. Sport and exercise research, insight from top trainers, science, and technology help you to better understand your body so you can craft a healthier lifestyle, workouts, and recovery plan.

In our daily news series, Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, addresses some of the latest fitness research and news stories.

Today’s Topic: When to supplement with protein powder

The Science: For people looking to cut weight—either for aesthetic reasons or to fit in a certain weight class for a sport like boxing—it’s a delicate balance between losing fat and losing muscle. A study in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Researchhighlights a key strategy to tip the scales towards the former: Supplement with whey protein.

EQX Expert Insight: The participants in this study were on a calorie-restricted diet. So, a whey protein supplement was smart because it offered a low-calorie protein option,” says Berenc. But, if weight-loss is not a concern for you, you’d be better off getting your protein from food instead of a supplement. “Not only will you get the protein needed but also other nutrients that can be vital for optimal performance,” says Berenc. “Still, sometimes eating enough protein is either not possible or convenient, in which case a supplement can be a huge help to both athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike.” (For a quick primer on how much protein you actually need, read The Athletes Guide to Protein.) It’s true that whey protein is generally the best option when it comes to protein powders since it is more easily-utilized by the body. But, there are great plant protein supplements that will deliver the same benefit for vegans, per Berenc. “The plant proteins are normally a blend of various sources (like pea, brown rice, and hemp) to create a complete amino acid profile,” he adds.

The Bottom Line: “Focus on protein from real food (like fish, lean meat, eggs, and tofu). If that is not convenient or appropriate for your goals (i.e. your calorie targets for weight loss), whey or vegan protein powder can be a smart addition to your eating plan,” says Berenc.