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I’m just starting with an exercise program. Do I need to supplement?

6 min read

Supplement with what??? Protein? Carbohydrates? Fats? Amino Acids? Vitamins/Minerals? This question is so simplistic, but yet so important. I could do an entire series on all aspects of this question, so for now we’ll focus on protein. Being an individual who has spent the better part of my adult life studying exercise and nutrition, my answer to this has evolved. When I was in my early college days, I would have unequivocally said “YES”. No questions asked, everyone needs to be supplementing. As I’ve learned more and experienced how widely varied the knowledge or understanding, motivation and preparedness of people interested in this answer can be so drastically different, I would now say, “Most Likely”. Before you tune me out because I’m touting supplements in an article that will be posted on a website controlled by a company that sells nutritional supplements, hear me out. To tackle this question at first let’s talk about protein, the most widely supplemented macronutrient. For the record the other macronutrients are carbohydrates and fats. As I first became interested, I was and still am a big proponent of protein supplementation, especially when individuals are exercising and when their health may be compromised for one reason or the other. In fact, this recommendation is now widely accepted even though you’ll still meet registered dietitians, nurses, or some other health care practitioner who express concern over increased protein intakes. Current recommendations suggest that exercising individuals should consume around 1.2 – 1.6 grams of protein for every kilogram of body mass or 0.6 – 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body mass every day (LEMON, TARNOPOLSKY REF).

Thus, if you currently weigh 200 pounds, you’re talking about 120 to 160 grams of protein. Additionally, dietitians or nutritionists will recommend that you eat three distinct meals and two snacks each day. If you eat a little protein (20 – 30 grams) with each meal and snack, you will easily reach this amount. When you consider 12 fluid ounces (one medium sized glass in a U.S. kitchen or an amount equivalent to one can of soda pop) of milk contains around 12 grams of protein and a 3 oz. chicken breast is 30 grams, it is easy to see where you can get the protein. What’s the problem with these examples? For many resistance training guys with ‘eat to grow’ appetites, these numbers are small. Morning milk comes in large glasses, like a 20 fl oz. serving (20 grams of protein) and oftentimes more than one glass. Chicken comes in 5 – 6 oz. sizes (45 – 50 grams of protein) and that doesn’t even count protein from cheese and other dairy and meat sources (think cottage cheese, yogurt, boiled eggs, etc.). So as you can see, it is easy to understand why reports reveal that most individuals in Western society naturally consume higher amounts of protein without supplementation, so many folks will conclude that individuals don’t need to take in anymore protein. From a purely numbers standpoint I would agree, however, there is more than meets the eye on this ordeal.

First a subscriber to this line of thinking could do the math on their daily needs and again using a 200 pound person would conclude that their body needs 150 grams of protein each day (that’s even on the higher end of the range). So if this person ate a large (6 or 8 egg) omelet made with cheese and ham and a large glass of milk, a big bowl of cereal and some yogurt, they will easily consume over 100 grams of protein with that meal. Throw in a meat-laden sandwich for lunch and they are at 150 grams by lunch and thus don’t need to eat anymore protein. If the body has a set amount that it needs on a daily basis, then once you consume this amount your body requires no more protein. Even crazier, what if a person eats their entire dietary protein requirement for breakfast, do they need any more protein for the entire day? When you consider the body cannot store protein like carbohydrate or fat, the obvious answer is that their body will need more protein. This is where proper planning and appropriate timing of nutrients becomes so important.

The other major line of thinking for why I support protein supplementation relates to the diet quality of most people. I still believe that if a person eats a diet every day which contains an appropriate balance of nutrients while also providing adequate calories to support that person’s daily calorie needs they don’t need to supplement. This is what you’ll hear dietitians preaching about over and over again. The problem, however, is that people aren’t doing this! People are busy and many times will skip breakfast, miss a snack or skip a meal. When they do eat, because of their hectic days, they may grab some fast-food or pre-packed item so they can eat on the go. Almost all combinations of this type of scenario results in a less than optimal diet and in my opinion are perfect scenarios where some form of supplementation can be very useful. The key, however, for this scenario is that people are reasonable with what they supplement and how much they supplement and this is where some dietitians (certainly not all of them), nurses and other ‘anti-dietary supplements’ people will express concern…and rightfully so.

I’m a big proponent of a ‘food first’ mentality. As a matter of fact, the word ‘supplement’ by nature means, “in addition to something”. So a dietary supplement or nutritional supplement by definition means in addition to your diet or to your nutrition. So the first thing that any individual who would like to gain some muscle or lose some fat or both needs to do is evaluate your own diet and take immediate steps to clean it up. It is the best way to go, no doubt about it, because there are many additional important nutrients besides protein that are important. If you would spend half the money you do on supplements and more money on healthy food to first clean up your diet, then the money you do spend on supplements will be given a chance to work and operate. Keep in mind with your aspirations to gain muscle, increase muscle tone, lose body fat, etc. you are in my opinion asking your body to do something extra. I say this because your body every day is going to burn calories and maintain homeostasis because well that’s what it does. With a crappy diet you are then asking your body to do more with less. That’s like your boss asking you to work two more hours each day for no more pay or to work on twice as many projects as usual without giving you longer deadlines or more support staff.
So in closing, YES, people who exercise regularly need more protein and may benefit from supplementation. It is possible to get your daily protein needs even with an increased daily requirement because of your exercise habits, but you can’t do it eating from convenience stores, boxed foods and at restaurants. Sure you can get your protein requirement, but you will also likely be high on calories, high on fat, low on fiber and low on nutrients. In short, clean up your diet! Spend more time worrying about this at first. Develop good habits like eating breakfast, eating more fruits, vegetables, dietary fiber, whole grains, healthy fats, etc. This will help to plug the holes in your old diet. As you start to fix these areas, then you should consider adding a protein or meal replacement supplement to your diet. This creates a good foundation at which adding a high quality whey protein supplement or meal-replacement can provide a nice base upon which to build. For a word of support, building healthy dietary habits takes time and consistent effort. Good luck as greater health and happiness are likely going to be the outcome from such efforts.

The post I’m just starting with an exercise program. Do I need to supplement? appeared first on 1st Phorm.

Chad Kerksick PhD
Chad Kerksick PhD

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