RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You can find protein supplements everywhere - online, at the pharmacy, at the grocery store. The protein industry is booming and is on track to sell over $12 billion worth of products this year. So many options - powders, bars, pills and more. But do we really need all this supplemental protein? NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Protein's critical for every cell in our body. It helps build nails, hair, bones and muscles. And unlike nutrients that are found only in a few foods, protein is pretty much ubiquitous. Angela Pipitone is a registered dietitian with Johns Hopkins Institute of Genetic Medicine. She says it's in foods many of us are familiar with...
ANGELA PIPITONE: Beef, chicken, other types of meat, dairy.
NEIGHMOND: ...And others that may not come immediately to mind.
PIPITONE: Vegetables and some fruits and beans and grains.
NEIGHMOND: The average adult needs anywhere from 50 to 60 grams of protein a day, which may sound like a lot, says Pipitone, but it adds up quickly. Take, for example, breakfast.
PIPITONE: If you had two eggs, topped it with a little bit of cheese - the eggs are each going to give you 7. So that's 14 grams of protein with the eggs, and then a piece of cheese - probably around 6 grams of protein.
NEIGHMOND: Add an orange, and you've got 22 grams of protein. A lunch of chicken, rice and broccoli and you're already over the recommended 50 grams.
PIPITONE: You can get enough protein or meet the RDA before you even get to dinner.
NEIGHMOND: So if it's so easy to get your protein in food, why add more in the form of powders, snack bars or a boost at your local juice bar? No need to, says Pipitone.
PIPITONE: It could just be wasted money.
NEIGHMOND: Because, she says, most of us get enough protein in our diet. And in fact, there are some people who need to be careful not to get too much protein - people with kidney disease, for example. Extra protein can increase the risk of kidney stones. Now, there are some situations that do warrant extra protein.
PIPITONE: Anytime you're in an anabolic state or you're building. That would be, you know, extreme endurance athletes, bodybuilders and, you know, times like pregnancy.
NEIGHMOND: And as we get older. Kathryn Starr is an aging researcher at Duke University School of Medicine. She says that at around age 60, muscles really start to break down.
KATHRYN STARR: And because of that, in addition to the fact that as we get older, our body's ability to break down protein is reduced, the protein needs of an older adult actually increases.
NEIGHMOND: Starr recently studied whether adding high-protein food to the diet of older individuals made a difference in muscle strength. The answer - yes.
STARR: Participants in the higher protein arm were able to walk faster. They had improved balance, and were also able to get up out of a chair faster than the control arm.
NEIGHMOND: Starr is now looking into whether high-protein diets improve the quality of the muscle itself. She's using CT scans to measure muscle size and fat, comparing those on a high-protein diet to those on regular diets. Her findings should be available in a couple of months. But for 70-year-old Corliss Keith, who was in the high-protein group, it's clearly made a difference.
CORLISS KEITH: I feel excellent. I feel like I have a different body. I have more energy. I'm stronger. I'm able to do an hour of Zumba three times a week, and I do the treadmill. I walk.
NEIGHMOND: An added benefit, she lost over 15 pounds.
KEITH: I'm a fashionable person, and now I'm back into my three-inch heels.
NEIGHMOND: And like many older Americans, Keith says healthy muscles are keeping her strong and independent.
KEITH: I feel very much alive now. I feel like I could stay by myself until I'm 100.
NEIGHMOND: And muscle strength is key, says researcher Starr, for older people like Keith to stay strong and continue living on their own.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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