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Protein Supplement vs. Food

By Jan Annigan

Both protein supplements and whole foods can meet your daily requirement for protein to supply the amino acids that your body cannot manufacture. Your body uses amino acids to synthesize new proteins that support immune function, blood-cell formation, muscle building, tissue repair and hormone production. Both supplements and food sources of protein have advantages and disadvantages. But consult with a dietitian or your health-care provider before including protein supplements in your diet.

Protein Supplement Pros

Because they're derived from quality food proteins, supplements contain complete proteins with all the essential amino acids you need for good health. These supplements offer convenience for on-the-go consumption as meal replacements and snacks. They are easy to prepare as smoothies and shakes, and you can mix them with foods such as cottage cheese and baked goods to bolster their protein content. Supplements are an easy way to track your daily protein intake without calculating the protein content of various foods.

Protein Supplement Cons

Protein supplements may be more expensive than a similar amount of whole-food proteins. As isolated protein products, they lack other nutrients that naturally accompany proteins found in meat, fish, dairy products or whole grains. For example, lean beef has iron. Salmon offers healthy fats. Yogurt provides calcium, and whole wheat supplies B vitamins. Protein supplements have none of these nutrients. Further, protein supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and therefore, their labels may not accurately reflect the contents of the package or reveal impurities in the product.

Food Pros

As with protein supplements, food proteins supply amino acids. Meat, as a complete protein, has all the amino acids your body cannot make. Vegetable sources, which are incomplete, lack one more or more amino acid but can be combined to provide all the amino acids. In addition, they offer vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats unavailable in protein supplements. Constructing an eating plan with whole foods, rather than supplements helps you learn how to make good food choices to sustain your health throughout your life.

Food Cons

Despite being cheaper than protein supplements, many protein-rich foods require more extensive planning and preparation than simply mixing a powder into a shake. For example, many plant-based proteins must be eaten in the correct combination to supply you with the full range of essential amino acids, such as beans with a corn tortilla or peanut butter on a whole-wheat bagel. If your diet is severely lacking in protein, you may develop a nutritional deficiency over time.

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