What is protein and should I take protein supplements?
Learn more about the impact that protein supplements can have on your health
Written by spunout
Fact checked by experts and reviewed by young people.
Proteins are considered the building blocks of the body, supporting all of its essential functions. In the right amount, protein promotes growth, aids recovery from injury, and helps to manage metabolism (the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy). Excessive protein in the diet (consumed in food or through supplements), can increase the risk of heart disease, kidney injury, and brittle bone conditions. Excessive protein intake is used for energy or stored as fat – it does not increase the chances of gaining more muscle.
What are protein supplements?
Protein supplements are generally advertised as a source of nutrients and come in many forms, such as vitamins, protein powders and herbal products. Some people who want to change their bodies through fitness choose to use supplements as a way to enhance their muscle growth when combined with exercise, such as weightlifting. There is no evidence that this works and it is not recommended by dietitians.
For more information on how to gain muscle in a healthy way click here.
Protein powders come in the form of shakes, bars, and capsules, and are one of the most popular supplements used to increase muscle mass. They are available to buy over-the-counter and online. Protein supplements may claim to promote muscle growth, help with weight loss, improve physical performance, and boost energy. However, the evidence to support these claims is often insufficient.
Do protein supplements work?
No. A healthy and balanced diet will provide enough protein to support all body functions, including building muscle mass. Weight-bearing exercise is the key to building muscle mass – not increasing protein intakes. Protein supplements are not suitable as meal replacements because they don’t have all the vitamins and nutrients that a balanced meal would have.
Protein supplements don’t have any significant benefits for the average person. The overwhelming majority of people already exceed their protein requirements through their diet, it is not a case of the more protein you eat, the more muscle you have.
To meet your requirements through food, it is recommended to choose a protein source with each meal, which should take up about one quarter of your plate. Sources of foods high in protein include red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, cheese and yoghurt. There are also excellent vegan and vegetarian sources of protein including nuts, beans, lentils and tofu.
Visit our Healthy Eating section on the site to learn about creating a balanced diet.
What risk is involved with taking protein supplements?
If you eat a healthy and balanced diet, you will get enough protein without needing a protein supplement. There is evidence that, in the long term, too much protein through supplementation can lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis and worsen existing kidney problems.
If you choose to use protein supplements, always read the label carefully and only take the recommended serving size. If you are unsure of how much you should take, ask your GP or a registered dietitian for advice. If you are worried or have any side effects from taking a supplement you should visit your GP.
If you are taking medication as well as supplements, the supplements may stop the medicine working properly. Always read the label and check the safety of a supplement with your pharmacist.
What are the differences between supplements and steroids?
Supplements claim to contribute nutrients to your diet and to be beneficial. Anabolic steroids are drugs that raise the level of anabolic hormones in the body. Testosterone is an anabolic steroid. You can buy supplements over the counter and online but steroids can only be prescribed by your doctor and it is illegal and highly dangerous to buy or consume them without a medical prescription. Under the Irish Sports Council Anti-Doping Rules, the use of steroids is banned in sports.
For more information on steroids, their uses, side effects and the risk they bring click here.
Feeling under pressure to make your body conform to a certain shape?
There is a lot of pressure in society to have a certain body type. People of all genders can feel under pressure to have strong, muscled bodies that look like those we see in the media. Sometimes, people take steroids and supplements because they feel it will help them achieve these results, despite the health consequences. However, this is not healthy approach and can do harm to your body.
There are many different body shapes and sizes, and it’s recommended that we eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and embrace the body shape the have naturally. Don’t risk your health in the attempt to achieve a certain body type. For more information on body image, click here.
If you are worried about how much time you spend thinking about your body image, you might want to talk to someone about it. Jigsaw is a youth counselling service for people age 12-25 where you can talk to someone about your body image and how you feel about yourself. You can also call BodyWhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, on their Helpline 01 210 7906.