Protein supplements in the Air Force

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- We've all seen them: Airmen dripping with sweat as they lift weights in the Malmstrom Air Force Base Fitness Center at 5 a.m., day after day. Simultaneously to this habitual practice, many of these dedicated Airmen can be seen shaking a bottle immediately post workout.

Whether to lean out, gain muscle or build strength and endurance, protein supplements are used by 20 percent of active-duty personnel of the U.S. Armed Forces.

While these powders, liquids, bars or gummies may promise a quick and easy source of protein, food should be the first choice of protein - not artificial supplements.

"Many Airmen take them to gain muscle mass faster," said Lt. Col. Arias Yambo, 341st Medical Operations Squadron aeromedical services chief. "This may be true, but only for Airmen not already taking enough natural and less expensive protein in their diet, and it is not difficult to get enough natural protein in a diet."

According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the Federal Drug Administration does not regulate protein supplements before or after products are marketed.
And, according to Consumer Reports Magazine, in 2010, 15 protein drinks that were tested contained contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, lead and/or mercury - each of which is toxic to the body, Yambo said.

"A chicken breast, three 8-ounce glasses of milk and three eggs are inexpensive sources of high quality protein, whereas protein powders are expensive sources of uncertain quality with potentially contaminated protein," Yambo said.

Although most people can get everything protein supplements offer by eating lean protein such as fish, meat, chicken and dairy products, some athletes are encouraged to consume additional protein, as well as those who are significantly increasing the intensity or duration of their workouts, growing teenagers, those recovering from an injury or are vegan.

"The average person who's training moderately hard and eating moderately well - they're getting more than enough protein and carbohydrates in their diet," said Kirk Clark, 341st MDOS Health and Wellness Center exercise physiologist. "Something as simple as a bagel with peanut butter provides plenty of protein and carbohydrate recovery after an hour and a half workout."

HAWC personnel recommend .7 to .9 grams of protein per pound of body weight for someone who exercises on a regular basis. For athletes and bodybuilders, they recommend .9 to 1 gram per pound.

"If an adult athlete who wants to build muscle mass and you weigh about 175 pounds, the most protein they would need is 157.5 grams," Yambo said. "That sounds like a lot, but one four-ounce hamburger contains 30 grams of protein; six ounces of tuna contains 40 grams and a single ounce of cheddar cheese has seven grams."

But for Airmen who insist on using their whey, soy or casein protein, it is imperative they research products before use.

"The best website for any Airman to use as a resource for supplements is http://hprc-online.org," Yambo said. "This is a great resource for all Airmen especially since it's a DoD-initiative website. But the best thing to take for an active lifestyle is a balanced diet with enough calories to sustain your level of activity. Protein supplements can be beneficial if your diet does not contain enough protein. Natural sources of protein are still the preferred source and are not difficult to obtain. For weight loss, I would not recommend supplements; instead increase physical activity."

Airmen are reminded that current Air Force Instruction and policy letters do not prohibit the use of dietary supplements, except for anabolic steroids and hemp oil, according to AFI 44-120, Drug Abuse Testing Program. Flying, special operational personnel and members on Personnel Reliability Program are required to report the use of nutritional supplements to their medical provider.

For more information on protein supplements, visit http://hprc-online.org.