More women are now turning to protein supplements, which are finding their ways into the aisles of health food stores and becoming the dominant ingredients in smoothie creations sold by health and wellness meccas like Juice Press or Juice Generation.
Juliana Rico, a member of Equinox Fitness, is an avid user of protein powder. “It’s great — before I began using protein, I never felt satisfied, was always hungry, and caught myself eating sweets,” Rico said. “Adding extra protein into my diet has been super helpful for shedding some pounds, building lean muscle, and making me feel better overall.”
With 30.5 percent of protein supplement consumers being women, according to a study conducted by Antonino Bianco, a researcher of exercise physiology, Rico is a just one example of many women who have hopped onto the protein bandwagon.
In fact, female customers like Rico are one of the driving forces of the global protein supplement market, which is expected to boost from its current value of $14.0 billion to $21.5 billion by 2025, according to a report released by Grand View Research, an India and US-based market research and consulting company.
But despite the growing enthusiasm over protein supplements among women, most dietitians are not persuaded by the trend. “Protein supplements are subject to chemical alteration and contamination with either pathogens or harmful substances,” said Monica Auslander Moreno,a registered dietitian and founder of Essence Nutrition, a group practice of dietitian services in Miami.
Taylor Penn, a member of Orangetheory Fitness, refuses to supplement with protein. As a mindful eater, she tries to stay away from artificially synthesized products.
Nutritionists generally recommend reading the food labels of all the products you are buying. But this especially applies to dietary supplements, which are neither reviewed nor approved by the Food and Drug Administration for safety and effectiveness before being produced and sold on the market, according to a statement issued by the FDA.
And artificially synthesized protein supplements often contain toxic substances. “Protein powder, shakes, or pills contain additional chemicals, sweeteners, or other additives that could potentially aggravate health issues,” said Dr. Will Cole, a leading functional medicine practitioner based in Philadelphia.
Dr. Cole has found that protein powders cause side effects in his female patients, as the products’ added ingredients can interfere with hormone production and cause hormonal imbalances. He reports cases of acne, digestive problems, rashes, and menstrual irregularities linked to protein supplementation.
Therefore, Moreno limits her encouragement of artificial protein sources. Most practicing dietitians prescribe artificial protein sources only under special circumstances.
“My clinic reserves supplements for patients who have dietary restrictions, will not intake enough protein to meet their needs, are recovering from a severe illness like cancer, or are at risk of protein catabolism,” Moreno said. “It’s uncommon for a regular person to require oral, enteral, or parenteral protein supplementation.”
Experts advocate a food first approach. “Whole foods are always preferable and should be our primary nutrient source,” said Thomas Cracchiolo, a nutritionist and fitness trainer at Soho House New York. “Supplements are nothing more than add-ons to our regular diets.”
But customers can easily get carried away by the vast range of nutritional supplements available on the market. They forget that these are not actually essential to our diets.
“A lot of the time, people see supplements as an excuse to avoid having to eat real food,” said Jo Shaalman, a Colorado-based nutrition coach and the co-founder of a nutrition program. “They fail to recognize that the same things are found in nature.”
Stacy K. Leung, a registered dietician, agrees. “It’s helpful to remember that before supplements existed, humans survived on food and food alone,” Leung said. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be around today.”
And whole foods come with an additional bonus — vital nutrients.
“From eating real food, you are getting other necessary vitamins and mineral, all which are considered beneficial,” said Dr. LesLee Funderburk, an assistant professor of Nutrition Sciences at Baylor University in Texas.
However, Juice Press customers are primarily women who fear they are protein deficient. “Most of the women that come for shakes feel like they are not getting as much protein from their regular food intake,” said Maia Williams, a Juice Press employee. “They take protein supplements to add on the extra amount they are missing.”
But with most Americans consuming about double the amount of protein they actually need, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, dieticians discredit concerns about an insufficient protein intake.
Food alone should be sufficient to meet the Recommended Dietary Intake, which according to the Institute of Medicine, is 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.36 grams per pound, body weight for both men and women.
“Women can increase the protein in their diet by eating more protein-rich foods at every meal and snack,” Full said. “Examples of protein sources include lean meat and poultry, fish, soy, dairy foods, nuts, seeds, and legumes.”
And numbers are only a general guideline. “Protein intake should be examined individually and evaluated in the context of the entirety of one’s diet,” Full said.
Bianca Klotsman, a certified holistic nutritionist and health coach, backs this claim. “You’re not likely to consume the same amount of protein every single day,” Klotsman said. “It’s absolutely fine if you have more on some days than others, as long as you are mindfully consuming some form of protein.”
Ultimately, women should focus on consuming high-quality products. “Make sure your animal products are organic, fish is wild or responsibly farmed, and your products are made with clean ingredients,” Klotsman said. “The key is nourishing your body with the right kind of protein.”