Do Athletes Need Protein Supplements?
In striving to excel at their respective sports, many athletes subscribe to the notion that protein supplements enhance their physical performance. The existence of a multi-billion dollar supplement industry, however, does not prove that such products are necessary. Only a rigorous scientific investigation can do that.
Before delving into the science of protein supplements, let’s take a look at the differences between a supplement and a drug. Legally, dietary supplements cannot claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease, although they can convey how they potentially affect the body. Supplements do not have to go through the same regulatory process as drugs which undergo a thorough assessment for safety and efficacy before going on the market. Protein supplements therefore do not have to be proven effective before being sold. Indeed, their effectiveness continues to be a matter of ongoing debate, and with a lack of concrete evidence, many people continue to invest in this growing market.
An understanding of protein’s role in the body allows us to make an attempt at assessing the role of supplements. A normal adult requires only forty to fifty grams of protein per day in order to supply essential amino acids and replace the nitrogen eliminated in urea as waste. Essential amino acids are the nine out of twenty amino acids that the body requires but cannot produce on its own. When an amino acid is broken down, the nitrogen it contains is converted into urea by the liver which then is excreted via the kidneys. A typical American diet contains approximately seventy to ninety grams of protein per day, meaning that most individuals far surpass their daily protein requirements. Dietary protein is used to replace proteins which were previously broken down and used by the body. Extra protein does not get stored. Instead, excess amino acids get converted to carbohydrate or fat. Thus, it seems that additional protein intake will not directly increase muscle growth, strength or physical performance and could even lead to weight gain and fat deposition, which are surely negative consequences for any athlete.
Endurance or strength exercise does increase the body’s dietary protein requirement. Therefore, athletes, who are generally more physically active than the average person, require more dietary protein. Just how much more is hard to determine but needs can certainly be met without resorting to protein supplements. Furthermore excessive protein intake is not without problems. Potential side effects include dehydration, which is secondary to high urea excretion, gout, liver and kidney damage, calcium loss, bloating and diarrhea.