Protein supplements. What exactly are they 'adding'?
You know those really ANNOYING people who just blurt out their (often inappropriate and un-edited) opinion whether it’s asked for or not? Well, I’m one of them.
Hi. My name’s Mel, and I’m a Person With No Filter.
Don’t hate me, please just try to have a little bit of sympathy, it’s tough being made like this. I’ve had many a moment where I hear words tumbling out of my mouth uncontrollably, and there’s nothing (literally nothing) I (or anyone else) can do to stop them.
But thankfully, when you’re writing, you can edit your words. The “delete” button has become my greatest ally, my BFF. My first draft of this blog was one of my classic word/opinion vomits. But, I have worked my little (OK, large) botty off to try and present a more rounded perspective on the subject of…protein supplements.
NB: Health warning…this is LOOOOOOOONG. I’ve used sub-headers so you can pick and choose the bits (if any) of interest.
If you're sitting comfortably, let's begin...
What does protein do?
Protein is a crucial element in our diets and is key to building and maintaining all types of body tissue, including muscle. Protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, beans and tofu all supply amino acids, the building blocks used for muscle growth.
How much protein do we need?
In the UK, the recommended daily amount of protein for adults aged 19 to 50 is 55.5g for men, and 45g for women (excluding pregnant and breastfeeding women). Most of us eat more than this, and the actual average adult daily intake has been estimated to be 88g for men and 64g for women.
In the UK, enough protein is easily available from our diet. A chicken sandwich with about 65g of meat (about 2.3oz) contains about 20g of protein. If you also have a 150ml glass of milk (5g of protein) you have nearly half the amount needed for the average-weight man, and more than half of that required for a woman.
Athletes require slightly more protein than the rest of the population. According to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), endurance athletes require between 1.2 and 1.4g per kg of body weight daily, while those competing in strength and speed events need between 1.2 and 1.7g per kg of body weight. These intakes can easily be achieved by eating a normal balanced diet, and indeed most of us get all the protein we need from our diets.
Source: British Nutrition Foundation, nhs.co.uk
So the elephant in the room…most of us are already eating more protein than we need. So why supplement?
1. Nicely summarized by Scott Laidler, a PT writing for The Telegraph:
“Personally, I use protein shakes following a workout simply because of the convenience. I always try to remember that I could completely replace protein powders with whole foods and suffer no negative side effects other than having to rethink my post workout logistics. Protein shakes are a helpful, convenient solution to modern workout life; they're not a magic wand that will turn your body into a temple overnight”.
2. Another popular reason is that some individuals have a harder time taking in whole food directly after a workout. In those cases, a shake can be used as a substitution to get in a quick dose of protein.
So, if I am going to go for a protein supplement, which one should I choose?
Whey is a by-product of cheese making, and the most common base for protein powders, as it is said to contain all of the nine essential amino acids which are the compounds that form protein, and that facilitate the healing of damaged muscles.
There are three main types of whey protein: isolate, hydrolysate, and concentrate. Isolate yields a high level of protein and is low on allergenics, making it popular amongst the lactose intolerant. Hydrolysate is produced in a way that effectively means it has been predigested, so its rate of absorption is meant to be fast (although recent research says this is thought not to be the case). Concentrate, meanwhile, is the cheapest option, as the effects of its protein content are offset by its significant fat and cholesterol levels.
Serious athletes tend to use hydrolysate – so it will come as no surprise that hydrolysate is also the most expensive of the three options.
Scott Laidler, The Telegraph
As well as whey protein there are many others, including:
casein protein; soy or pea protein (an alternative for vegans);
egg protein (a lactose and dairy-free protein powder); hemp protein (also used by vegans, or anyone who suffers from dairy allergies like lactose intolerance that may stop them drinking whey or casein).
Once I’ve chosen my supplement, how often should I use it?
If these shakes are so nutrient-dense, why shouldn’t you just blend up a shake for each meal and ditch cooking (and dirty dishes) for good? St. Pierre (sports dietician and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition) cautions that although the shakes are great, they still aren’t the same as whole food. “There are more nutrients inherent to whole foods than there ever will be in a powder,” he says. You can also sometimes lose nutritional value drinking your nutrients and vitamins instead of eating them. For that reason, he recommends supplementing with no more than two shakes in one day (even that is pushing it). The key is to use shakes in a pinch and rely on whole food sources for the rest of your meals.
Dailyburn.com, Jeremy DuVall
Are protein supplements only for gym bros?
Workout supplements are often viewed as a male-dominated industry, but protein powders can also be effective for women. St. Pierre (see above) points out, however, that women have different nutritional needs than men. In general, they need less protein per pound of bodyweight (primarily due to differences in body composition).
Dailyburn.com, Jeremy DuVall
Are there any risks associated with taking protein supplements?
There is evidence that, in the long-term, excessive protein intake may contribute to bone demineralisation and an increased risk of osteoporosis, while for anyone with kidney problems, too much protein can lead to further complications. Instructions on packages should be clear about maximum daily amounts because of potential risks of harm. Supplements aren’t always suitable for those aged under 18 and other groups such as pregnant women. The Department of Health advises adults to avoid consuming more than twice the recommended daily intake of protein (55.5g for men and 45g for women).
It’s also worth noting that because protein supplements are not categorised as medicines, quality control during their manufacture is perhaps not as rigorous as it might be.
There are still many misconceptions regarding protein shakes. Firstly, people often mistake them for steroids – perhaps understandable, given the big promises that drive the products' marketing campaigns. But protein shakes are meant to be purely nutritional; unlike steroids, they should not have a direct influence on your hormones.
Another source of confusion is the differentiation between a 'mass gainer' and a protein shake. Mass gainers are used as an aid to bulking up. They typically include a large amount of simple carbohydrates that get delivered straight to your muscles. These are often used after a workout when the muscle's energy is depleted, but use them at the wrong time (as many do) and the end result is fat gain. Protein shakes, by contrast, deliver amino acids to muscle cells, with the intention of helping them to recover after strenuous workouts.
Scott Laidler, The Telegraph.
However, having said that…
Some body-building supplements do contain illegal anabolic steroids not declared on the label. One study that looked at the content of 634 nutritional supplements bought in shops from around the world and on the internet found that nearly 15% of them contained illegal anabolic steroids not declared on the label.
The best alternative to a shake?
If you don’t want to splash out on shakes, a large glass of milk and a banana are a fantastic inexpensive alternative. Milk contains a mix of whey and casein protein and will stimulate muscle growth.
Protein supplements do have a place used once a day after muscle-building training, but most people - including regular gym goers - would find that milk contains the right combination of protein and carbohydrates for rehydration and repair.
Azmina Govindji of the British Dietetic Association.
By way of conclusion, if I’m practicing how to ‘sit on the fence’, then I’d go with this one:
Protein powders have seemingly become a necessity for an active lifestyle right alongside high-tech fitness trackers and cutting-edge footwear. Although protein shakes may be a convenient way to take in calories, it doesn’t mean that they’re the best option. Whole food sources are still your best bet for getting vital nutrients. The takeaway is to build your diet with a base of solid food and use protein powder as a — you guessed it — supplement only when it’s healthy and convenient.
Dailyburn.com: Jeremy DuVall
HOWEVER, for me, I’m not going there. Simply not my thang. If you’ll allow me just a quick opinion vomit before I finish, then I’ll tell you that I think protein supplements are, at best, just a bit of a fad, and at worst a big, fat marketing scam (it's estimated that the world will be consuming circa £8billion worth of supplements by 2017...sounds like a profitable business to me). I’m so firmly in the camp of whole foods that I actually wouldn’t consider using a scoop of powder to replace a meal, or even as a compliment to one. It does mean quite a lot of time in the kitchen, and meal planning, but then food and nourishment are so high on my priority list that that works for me. I’d rather spend more time planning and preparing protein rich meals than I would researching the safest options and then forking out for a tub of powder. I’m a busy woman - I have 3 kids and I work - so I wouldn’t say that I have ‘time’ to prioritise food the way I do, but what I have is the inclination and the discipline, I think therein lies the answer.
I’m expecting a few eggs in my face for speaking up, but hey, I can handle the taunts of “you’re only knee high to a grasshopper…you hardly need any protein…it’s easy for you to preach”. And I do get that. But from where I’m standing, which is admittedly pretty low to the ground, you can choose how and where you channel your efforts and I believe ‘nutrition’, in the most wholesome sense of the word, should be valued above almost everything.
Now that I’ve upset the apple cart, I’m going to run and hide for a couple of weeks, but will be back on Friday 21st October. Do comment below if there are any topics you’d like me to look at…alternatively, just slip me a (new plastic) fiver to keep my opinions to myself.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.