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Once upon a time ago, you could only get protein drinks in specialty health stores. They were marketed to barbell-lifting gym rats and scrawny guys looking to bulk up. Fast-forward to present time and you can find nutrition shakes at drugstores, health clubs and even your local supermarket. And loads of people—not just serious bodybuilders—are buying them. That includes kids. According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, protein drinks are the most frequently used supplement among teenagers. When they promise to build strong muscles and sculpted bodies, why not?
Consumer Reports has plenty of reasons why not. For their July issue, the magazine tested several protein drinks, conducted research into their claims and interviewed a series of fitness experts about their benefits. What they found: for most people, the drinks are unnecessary at best and potentially dangerous at worst. According to Consumer Reports, the amount of protein in nutrition shakes goes above and beyond what most people (read: not Lance Armstrong or Serena Williams) need. In addition, at least one sample of every product they tested contained some amount of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.
Before you do a spit take with your Myoplex, you should know that many foods, most notably fish, but also rice, leafy greens and potatoes to name a few, contain trace amounts of these elements. That’s why the FDA recommends limiting your intake of certain types of fish (the most toxin-heavy food). Most of the protein shakes that Consumer Reports tested had low to moderate levels of contaminants, when they were detectable at all. But with three of the products—ready-to-drink liquid EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate Shake, Muscle Milk Chocolate powder and Muscle Milk Vanilla Crème—you could end up swallowing more than the maximum daily limit of heavy metals if you drink more than two protein shakes a day. And, according to Consumer Reports, eight of the 15 products tested contained enough lead in a single serving to require a label warning in California. The reason they don’t: The FDA does not regulate supplements or require them to submit to testing to ensure that they are safe, effective or free from toxic chemicals. Muscle Milk also contained the most cadmium, which poses particular risk because it builds up in and can damage the kidneys.
Another thing that may tax the kidneys is too much protein. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that people in good health can handle higher-protein diets, but those with diabetes, liver disease or kidney disease should never exceed the recommended daily allowance. According to iVillage’s nutrition expert Madelyn Fernstrom, the average person should aim for one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. For example, a 130-pound woman weighs 59 kilograms, and thus needs 59 grams of protein per day. If you’re an elite athlete, says Consumer Reports, the amount of protein you need every day jumps to one gram per pound of body weight or, in this example, 130 grams. For comparison’s sake, a cup of milk has eight grams of protein; four ounces of chicken breast has 36; four ounces of salmon has 22; and a serving of Myoplex has 42.
Americans—except for maybe vegetarians and vegans—have no problem getting enough protein. We have a kind of love affair with meat, and eat way more than we need already, without the addition of protein shakes. (A quarter pound of chicken and quarter pound of fish meets our protein needs.) While protein is an essential building block for muscles, too much of a good thing doesn’t equal better. A post-workout glass of milk is plenty. If you eat more protein than your body can use, you might bulk up, but it won’t be from muscle. All those extra grams of protein will be stored as fat. Definitely not the kind of bodybuilding any of us had in mind.
Did you know that most Americans don’t need protein supplements? Chime in below!