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What Are Protein Powders? continued...

“All of those are valid reasons for trying to get more protein into your diet, and protein powders are one way to do that,” says Lewin.

But there’s a big caveat, Lewin adds: it doesn’t take that much protein to achieve those goals. Most Americans already get about 15% of their daily calories in protein. To build a pound of muscle, Lewin explains, the body needs between 10 and 14 additional grams of protein per day.

“That’s not really that much. Some of these powders have 80 grams of protein per serving. You don’t need that. All your body is going to do is break it down for energy. And too much protein can be hard on your kidneys and your liver.”

Protein Math

So how can you tell if you’re already getting enough protein? Do the math.

  • Recreational athletes need 0.5-0.75 grams of protein daily for every per pound of body weight
  • Competitive athletes need 0.6-0.9 grams per pound
  • Teenage athletes need 0.8-0.9 grams per pound
  • Athletes building muscle mass need 0.7-0.9 grams per pound

The maximum amount of protein that most adults can use per day is 0.9 grams per pound of body weight.

So if you’re an adult athlete who wants to build muscle mass, and you weigh about 175 pounds, the most protein you would need per day is 157.5 grams. That sounds like a lot, but one 4-ounce hamburger contains 30 grams of protein, 6 ounces of tuna has 40 grams, and a single ounce of cheddar cheese has 7 grams.

How to Use Protein Powders

If you calculate your protein intake and determine that you’re notgetting enough for your athletic needs (some signs of too-low protein intake: you’re unusually fatigued, feel weak when lifting weights or doing other strenuous activity, or are recovering from injuries slowly) how can you best use protein powders to help you improve your performance?

First, ignore the conventional wisdom, which says to take protein powders immediately after a workout. “Before, during, and after a workout, carbs are what your body needs. They’re what your body uses for fuel, and what your muscles run on,” says Lewin. “Yes, protein is also important for recovery after a workout, but research shows that at that point, the body needs fuel with a 4-1 or 5-1 ratio of carbs to protein.” Since most protein powders have at least 20 grams of protein per scoop, you’d need about 80 grams of carbs to go with that scoop to get the proper proportion of nutrients!

For a better “recovery drink” after a workout, Lewin recommends a fruit smoothie with yogurt or milk, or, surprisingly, chocolate milk. “A glass of chocolate milk is one of the best things for recovery,” she says. 

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