The consumption of protein supplements is increasingly popular in Brazil. Case of whey protein, protein bars and high protein milk drinks, among others. Data from ABIAD (Brazilian Association of Food Industry for Special Purposes and Similar) shows that sales of these supplements have increased by as much as 75% over the past five years. Products previously reserved for gyms are increasingly consumed by the general population.
But is protein supplementation really necessary or is it just another fad? Experts say that, in general, young and healthy people with good nutrition consume the necessary daily amount of protein. However, supplementation may be important for vegans, vegetarians, menopausal women, seniors over 65, and people with chronic illnesses. Not to mention, of course, those who practice intense physical activity and seek to increase their muscle mass.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fat) that provide us with energy and, therefore, an important part of the daily diet. Protein is needed to build muscle and to make certain hormones and enzymes. The body is unable to store protein; it is necessary to consume it daily, according to our age, gender, health conditions and level of physical activity.
WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines recommend that healthy young adults consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. However, this is the minimum needed to not be considered malnourished. For many experts, the daily goal should be a little higher.
As we age, especially after the age of 65, we may need to consume even more to ensure muscle preservation, something between 1 and 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight, preferably accompanied by exercise. For a person weighing 80 pounds, for example, this means incorporating 16 to 32 grams of protein per day into the diet.
“Muscles are an asset; it is important to build muscle mass throughout life. It has already been proven that those with less muscle mass have a worse prognosis in case of illness,” explained Márcia Soares, coordinator of the UFRJ nutritional supplementation course. “As we get older, we have a natural loss of muscle mass. We have more degradation than synthesis.”
Studies have shown that, on average, people begin to gradually lose muscle mass between the ages of 30 and 40. Many menopausal women, regardless of age, often report muscle weakness and lack of energy.
After age 60, muscle loss accelerates even more, for both women and men. When it gets too severe, it’s called sarcopenia and can cause health problems.
Project leader Juliana Gongora had a pituitary tumor in 2017, which ended up causing an early menopause, at the age of 33.
“I’ve lost a lot of lean mass, muscle and bone mass, my body has completely changed,” she said, now 39. “I got a recommendation from an endocrinologist to have a higher protein diet, do weight training, and take whey protein,” she recalls.
Vegans and vegetarians may have a harder time reaching their daily protein goal. In such cases, supplementation is also recommended.
Radical changes must be accompanied by specialists
Experts caution, however, that each individual’s daily protein requirement can vary greatly depending on their circumstances and health conditions. Sick people may need a little more protein, as do people who exercise a lot. Therefore, everyone recommends consulting a specialist before making radical changes in diet.
“The adult who has no health problems and eats a healthy diet doesn’t need protein supplements,” said geriatrician and nutrition expert Katie Dodd, in an interview with the New York Times. “But if for some reason they can’t get the ideal amount of protein through their diet, supplements can be used.”
Whey protein is an excellent source of protein because it is rich in amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and is well absorbed by the body. The effect is particularly positive when consumption is combined with physical exercise. The same goes for creatine, protein-enriched yogurts and bars.
“A protein bar, for example, can have more protein than the common bar. But even so, they are very few. The quantities must be adequate,” explained endocrinologist Eduardo Portugal, of UFScar (Federal University of São Carlos ). . “In the case of whey protein, I usually point to the isolate or hydrolysed type; the concentrated type has a lot of fat, lactose, and can be harmful for those with intolerances, for example.”
Portugal, however, reminds that exercise is essential. “People are always looking for what’s easier, they want to take a magic pill and have a flat stomach,” she said.
“That’s not going to happen. Without effort, there are no results. Exercise makes a huge difference. For those just looking for aesthetic results, it may be better to pay a personal trainer than spend money on supplements.”
In any case, the ideal is that the consumption of the required amount of protein is distributed throughout the day, so that the body is able to absorb it more efficiently, without wasting it.
Long-term consumption of excess protein can cause kidney and liver problems, especially for those who already have a condition.
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