“If you want to look solid and feel solid, your diet should consist of solid foods.”
In today’s go-go-go world, however, lifestyle sometimes dictates different choices throughout the day. It is tough to prepare an entire steak dinner when you barely had enough time to squeeze in a workout. In fact, most days it’s tough to fit it all in. That said, there are pros and cons to using protein powders and to using whole foods.
The Pros of the Powder
Believe it or not, even though I firmly believe in whole foods, there are several pros to using protein powder.
- Convenience. We are all busy. Once we factor in work, a social life and working out, there is little time left in the day. Taking the time to prepare protein rich foods several times a day is not always possible. In fact, body-builders require up to 7 meals a day. Quality, protein-dense foods like fish, lean meats and eggs just are not available via vending machine or offered at the local drive-thru (pink slime, anyone?). Having the option to use a few scoops of protein powder in an on-the-go shake is a great time-saving trick for anyone when time is tight.
- Dieter’s Compliance. When losing weight, calories need to be cut. Unfortunately, cutting calories sometimes leads to cutting down grams of protein when, in fact, protein is needed to maintain muscle mass, manage appetite, control blood sugars and provide a feeling of fullness. Protein powders can accomplish all these duties while keeping the overall caloric intake lower.
- Absorption Rate. Whereas whole foods are great for nutrition, it takes time for our bodies to break them down and be able to absorb them. Protein powder, on the other hand, is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and put to work. This is especially helpful post-workout, when protein synthesis and glycogen re-synthesis have increased rates.
- Drinkable. That may seem like an obvious statement, but, when adding calories to your diet in order to bulk up, sometimes physically eating that much whole food is not possible. Skinny guys with smaller appetites have difficulty consuming the necessary calories when they are still full from the last meal. In fact, even body-builders know that it can be easier to drink the extra calories than to chew them. Plus, you can add a variety of foods to your shake to change the flavor and up the caloric content.
The Real Deal
Whole foods like red meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish are crammed full of Mother Nature’s goodness. They are filled with awesome nutrients like vitamins, amino acids, essential fatty acids and saturated fat. There are so many reasons why whole foods are superior to man-made powders. The two most important ones are:
- Processed. We have all seen enough in-depth reports, nightly news stories and YouTube videos to know to be wary of processed foods. The truth is that no man-made product can come close to reproducing the high quality nutrients that come from whole foods. The nutrients are either damaged during processing, unnaturally fortified or just plain synthetic. Your body simply cannot optimize the nutrients available in a powder the way it can in whole foods.
- Variety. I am a huge proponent of food rotation. Not only does it help with boredom, but it is essential in avoiding food allergies. Many athletes develop allergies, from mild to severe, due to their constant consumption of the same protein sources. In fact, rotating protein sources is key to promoting optimal heath and building lean muscle. It is difficult to rotate your protein sources when they are in powder form. With whole foods, however, it is much easier to change from fish to chicken to beef and back again.
Not all food is created equal. Our primary goal is usually to eat healthy, to consume enough calories to gain lean muscle and to optimize the calories that we do eat. Stop. Back up. We need to recognize that where our food came from is becoming increasingly important. Food that appears to be whole, to be healthy, to be nutritious can be less nutritionally dense and sometimes even toxic. If your budget allows it, find sources for whole foods that are free of exposure to pollution, chemicals, pesticides, growth hormones and other harmful toxins. You are working so hard to grow a solid body; it does not need to become needlessly polluted.
See For Yourself
If you still don’t believe that you need to limit your reliance on protein powders and consume the majority of your calories from whole foods, test it out for yourself. For one month, try consuming 1 protein shake and five whole food meals. Drink the shake immediately after your workout. Do not change anything else about your routine or your day. At the end of that month, take your measurements. For the next month, eat just three whole food meals a day and drink three protein shakes. Do not change anything else about your routine or diet.
Take your measurements again. Measure your calves, legs, waist, shoulders, chest and arms with a tape measure and measure your body fat with calipers. You may be surprised at the results, but you will know the importance of relying on whole foods for the majority of your calories first-hand. In addition, pay close attention to the other signals your body gives you over the month. Sleep quality, performance at the gym, speed of recovery after your workout and overall energy levels are all important. Pay attention to how your body reacts with more whole food meals as well as with the additional powder substitutes.
The key take away from this is that the more whole foods you can eat, the better. Protein powder is convenient. There is no denying that. A shake can be made on the go, with little effort and can fit into just about everyone’s busy schedule. The calories are easy to control, whether you need to bulk up or slim down and the protein itself is easily absorbed post-workout. Whole foods, however, are nutrient-rich and good for you. Processing not only destroys many of these nutrients, but may also add unnecessary chemicals and toxins. The human body has survived for thousands of years on whole foods. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind.