Women and Protein Supplements: Fact vs. Fiction

Many women shy away from supplementing with protein due to the amount of misinformation found on the internet or heard in the gym.  It is not uncommon to come across articles claiming that women who supplement with protein will become bulky, accumulate more body fat, develop osteoporosis, and damage their kidneys. As back-up, poorly conducted studies or popular news stories are used to support these fictional statements as opposed to legitimate research and facts. This article will separate fact from fiction and take a close look at how women can benefit from adding protein supplements to their diet and exercise regimens.

Fiction: A woman will get too bulky from taking protein supplements
Fact: Protein supplements can increase lean mass and strength without creating a bulky physique.

Physiological differences exist between men and women that affect their ability to put on significant amounts of muscle mass.  Primarily, women synthesize much smaller amounts of testosterone compared to men.  Testosterone, as we know, is one of the most anabolic hormones in the body that is a primary driver of muscle growth. Even with the addition of a protein supplement, it is very unlikely for a female to be able to bulk up like a man. However, women who decide to increase protein consumption through the use of supplements may recover faster from workouts and see increases in lean muscle and strength when combined with a well-designed exercise program.

Fiction: Protein supplementation can increase body fat and weight
Fact: Improvements is body composition and weight may occur with protein supplementation

By itself, consuming protein supplements will not make you fat. Eating more calories, regardless of what macronutrient, than you burn off on a daily basis does. Over time, a positive calorie balance (consuming calories beyond daily energy needs) will have a compounding effect which will make itself known in the form of weight/fat gain. Interestingly, multiple studies have shown that subjects who over consume protein beyond the RDA, whether through a typical diet or supplementation, lose weight while simultaneously losing body fat.  This is most likely due to proteins satiating (feeling of fullness) and thermic effects. Since protein is harder to digest the body burns more calories from the time it enters your mouth to complete digestion and absorption.

Fiction: Bone health can be compromised by high protein diets
Fact: Bone health can be compromised by diets low in protein

At one point in time scientists believed that high protein diets increased calcium excretion and thus negatively affected bone health. More recent research suggests otherwise. Net stores of bone calcium are not affected by high protein diets and can actually increase calcium absorption. Furthermore, lack of protein may even have detrimental consequences to bone health. A 2013 study discovered subjects with chronic low protein intake were at greater risk for more bone loss and lower bone density.

Fiction: High protein diets can impair kidney function
Fact: No study has ever demonstrated high protein diets can impair kidney function.

This is the most common protein myth of them all.  The theory states when a high protein diet is consumed the kidneys are forced to work harder to expel the additional nitrogen which then leads to kidney damage.  While this myth may be true for individuals with a pre-existing kidney issue; it is entirely untrue for the majority of people. In fact, no piece of scientific literature written in the past 100 years has demonstrated that a diet high in protein has any adverse effects on kidney health. To further discredit this myth, a 2015 study conducted at Nova Southeastern University found no harmful effects on kidney function when researchers had subjects consume three times the suggested RDA for protein on a daily basis for four months.


Why else should women supplement with protein?

Besides the benefits of lean mass growth and recovery, protein supplements also provide many other health-related benefits.  Research has shown that adequate protein consumption on a daily basis can enhance cognitive performance, sleep quality, and immune system responses. Furthermore, certain bioactive peptides found in whey protein have been demonstrated to have antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral properties while also increasing the absorption and retention of iron.


What are the protein requirements for women?

Protein requirements will vary based on the type, duration, and intensity of the activities participated in on a daily basis. The current RDA recommendation of 0.36 grams per pound bodyweight or 10-15% of total daily calories is much too low for a female who follows a structured exercise program.  This amount would more than likely not be enough to optimize skeletal muscle repair, recovery, and rebuilding. A general recommendation is to consume 0.63 – 0.90 grams of protein per pound bodyweight daily.  If you participate in endurance sports shoot for the lower range of this recommendation.  If you weight train or are a vegan or on a low-calorie diet, aim for the middle or upper end of this recommendation.


The bottom line on protein supplementation and women

Women should not be afraid of taking protein supplements due to all the myths that exist.  The majority of them are pure fiction. Protein supplements provide a practical and safe way for women to meet their daily requirements and may be of benefit when combined with a well-designed exercise program.

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