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Should You Eat High-Protein Products?

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Although popular, high-protein bars, shakes and other products aren't the best way to get your protein, experts say.

In 2012, 19 percent of new food and beverage products launched in the United States were labeled as being "high-protein," according to Mintel, a market research company. That's higher than anywhere else in the world, including India (9 percent), and the United Kingdom (7 percent), Mintel said.

Proteins are essential nutrients, found inside every cell in the body. They are used for growth and maintenance, including tissue and muscle repair (muscle-building), and play a smaller role as an energy source. In general, about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adult women should eat about 46 grams of protein a day, and adult men should eat about 56 grams a day. Most people in the United States actually get more than enough protein. A 2009 to 2010 U.S. food survey found that, on average, women eat about 70 grams of protein per day, and men eat about 100 grams. [See 3 Things You Need to Know about Eating Protein].

A bar or shake might seem like an easy way to get the recommended amount of protein, but you're better off getting the nutrient from real food, some experts say,

"I never recommend protein supplements," said Katherine Tallmadge, the author of "Diet Simple" (LifeLine Press, 2011). "People need to be eating real food."

High-protein bars and shakes are often high in calories (and sugar), too, and don't leave people feeling full in the same way that a well-rounded meal, with a variety of flavors and nutrients, does, Tallmadge said.

"You can feel full or more satisfied with fewer calories" when you eat real food, she added.

Good sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, legumes (such as dry beans and peas), eggs, milk and tofu, according to the CDC.

To fuel exercise and build muscle, Tallmadge recommendsyogurt, which she herself eats before and after a workout. "Yogurt is a major protein source," Tallmadge said. For people who want a nonperishable food to take on hikes or outings, Tallmadge recommends nuts and dried fruit.

Heather Mangieri, a nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agreed that, ideally, people should get protein from food. But some people who have high caloric needs, such as athletes, may find it more convenient to get their protein, along with necessary extra calories, from a high-protein product, Mangieri said.

Mangieri notes that our bodies typically use a maximum of 20 to 30 grams of protein from a single meal.  Beyond that, any additional  protein in a meal or bar won't confer an extra tissue-repair or muscle-building benefit, Mangieri said. So it is important to space out protein consumption throughout the day, consuming about equal portions at each meal. (For instance, if you eat three meals a day, you could consume about a third of your protein at breakfast, a third at lunch and a third at dinner.)

Pass it on:It's best to get protein from real food, rather than from bars, shakes or other supplements.

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Rachael Rettner
Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.