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Alexia Severson/MEDILL

Some protein bars contain more sugar than protein. Check the labels, experts advise. .

Protein supplements boost strength but watch for sugar and carbs

by Alexia Severson
Oct 18, 2011

protein shake

Alexia Severson/MEDILL

Nutritionists say it is better to make protein shakes at home to keep track of calories, added sugars and the amount of protein.

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Graph produced by Alexia Severson/MEDILL

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at

bar graph

Graphic produced by Alexia Severson/MEDILL


Data taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at

Wendy Vestevich also calls herself Minerva Damage, her Roller Derby name. She works out six days a week for hours at a time and relies on drinking whey protein shakes as the best way to recover after coming home from a late night practice.

“If I eat a meal at 11:30 p.m., I'll have heartburn,” she said, “so I need something that is really easy to digest and that my body can use immediately.”

Vestevich, who lives in Chicago and works as a manager at Sears Holdings, said she started taking protein supplements when she realized she wasn’t getting enough protein and started feeling sick after a couple of weeks of hard training. Now she drinks the shakes two to three times a week, but tries to get as much protein as she can from whole foods rather than engineered products.

“I am concerned about eating enough calories and making sure that I am not gaining weight that isn't muscle,” she said. “I've definitely seen results in my strength, I am feeling a lot better when I recover, and I am also noticing muscle mass in parts of my body that I did not see any growth before I upped my protein intake.”

Vestevich said she makes her shakes at home to avoid added carbohydrates found in pre-made drinks.

“I don't go to a Jamba Juice or anything like that because the calorie count is really high” in some drinks, she said.

She also tailors her protein intake to her activity level.

“On days that I don't work-out, I'll have around 80 grams of protein, and on really active days, I'll try to get 120 grams in,” she said. “I will do one hour of a martial arts class, then two hours of roller derby practice, along with weight training and boot camps on days I don't skate. I rarely have a workout that's less than 90 minutes in duration.”


Protein shakes, powders and bars claim to help you bulk up, slim down or both, but many protein supplements contain lots of sugar, fat and salt and can limit absorption of other nutrients.

“Ideally, [shakes and bars] should be accompaniments, not the main meal,” said Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Many popular protein bars and pre-made shakes also contain more carbohydrates than fiber, which naturally helps to control hunger. And if consumed too often or as a meal replacement, the extra sugar added to some of these products can contribute to body fat and weight gain.

The Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch CLIF Bar contains 5 grams of dietary fiber, but 41 grams total carbohydrates. This Clif Bar contains 21 grams of sugar and 10 grams of protein.

“First and foremost, sports nutrition is so much more than smoothies and protein bars,” Van Horn said. “A nutrient-dense diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dietary fiber and complete protein from vegetables and potentially, animal sources, is the fundamental component that, next to a well-conducted fitness program, is key to excellence in athletic performance.”

In fact, the overall nutrient quality of protein, iron, niacin, B12 and other vitamins are best absorbed from whole foods, rather than supplements, she said.

“Active individuals require more dietary protein due to an increase in intramuscular protein oxidation and protein breakdown that occurs during exercise," according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. "A strategically planned protein intake regimen timed around physical activity is integral in preserving muscle mass or eliciting muscular hypertrophy, ensuring a proper recovery from exercise.”

Studies also show that consuming protein post-exercise can boost the immune system and reduce muscle soreness.

But Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, said that consuming protein before a workout can also be beneficial and that the timing of protein consumption depends greatly on the individual, the intensity of his/her workout and the results he/she seeks.

Not only does protein consumption depend on a person’s regular diet and exercise routine, but that the kind of protein and how much one chooses to consume plays a big role in staying fit and healthy, said Judy Fulop, a naturopathic practitioner at Northwestern Integrative Medicine, part of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Many athletes find that consuming some carbs before working out and 20 grams of protein an hour after working out, with some fats after two hours, works for them, she said.


Protein bars, like protein shakes, are not created equal, said Van Horn and Fulop. The key is to read the label and make sure you are getting more protein than sugar.

“The shakes may offer more nutrient density per calorie, but there are some protein bars that are low in sugar and fat but still higher in protein and other vitamins that make them fairly decent,” she said.

The Cashew Almond Boomi Bar, for example, has 3 grams of sugar and 8 grams of protein and the Fruit and Nuts Power Bar has 9 grams of sugar and 10 grams of protein. The Banana Nut Odwalla Bar includes 17 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein.

Fulop said another thing to avoid is the addition of high fructose corn syrup, which research has linked to weight gain and the obesity epidemic, according to the journal, “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity,” found on the National Center of Biotechnology Information website.

“You don’t want large amounts of fructose corn syrup because it doesn’t allow insulin, [a hormone that works by lowering levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood] to get into the cells,” she said. “It can turn into fat. It’s a cheap ingredient—that’s why they put it in.”


Protein shakes are usually easier to digest than bars. When made at home, rather than bought pre-made at a store, it is easy to keep track of exactly how much protein and sugar they contain.

The Apple 'n Greens fruit and veggie smoothie from Jamba juice has 59 grams of sugar and 8 grams of protein, while the The Protein Bar’s The Red Line - made of vanilla protein, choice of milk, strawberries, and banana - has 22 grams of sugar and 31 grams of protein.

Protein powder bought at a health store gives users a way to manage the amount of protein they use. One scoop - ¼ cup - of Protein Powder Gold Standard Natural Whey has only 1 gram of sugar and 24 grams of protein. Calorie count and added sugar then depends on what type of milk and other ingredients are combined with the mix.

If protein shakes are included in your daily exercise regimen and diet, Fulop said either egg protein or whey protein is one of the healthier options because it is a complete protein. Although, most people pair other proteins with the shake, she said it is important to make sure they include complete proteins into their regular diet, such as beans and rice in order to get a full serving of protein.


The amount of protein that should be consumed daily depends greatly on a person’s diet and how active he/she is, Van Horn said. 

“Average people need about 0.8 grams [per kilogram of body weight] of dietary protein if they are mostly sedentary,” she said. “Endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram, or about double the sedentary person’s needs, and serious weight lifters need about 1.5 to 1.7 grams per kilogram in the early phases of training - a little less as they become more established.”

With regular exercise, individuals need about 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Women need about 15 percent less protein than men, and tend to consume less protein than men overall, Van Horn said, and people on a vegan /vegetarian diet need to be more attentive to meeting their protein needs, since much of what they consume is incomplete proteins.

“Not everyone works best with the same recommendations for sports nutrition,” said Fulop. “An individual needs to see what works the best for them and their nutritional needs.”