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The Ultimate Guide to Protein Powder: Everything You Need to Know

With new research coming out every year, sometimes it pays to question the conventional wisdom. Slickly produced documentaries like the worldwide diet/fitness phenomenon, The Gamechangers, convincingly put forward the case that animal protein wasn’t a prerequisite for peak athletic performance. This has had elite athletes and weekend warriors alike analysing and experimenting with new diets.

In that same spirit of examining what we put into our bodies, and knowing that many of our fitness-focussed readers include protein powder as part of their regime, we’ve put together here an ultimate guide to protein powder, starting with whether you need it, then breaking down the pros, cons, and trade-offs of each type.

Protein Powder: Do You Need It?

Gym-goers are told from an early age that there is no substitute for protein when they are looking to add lean muscle. It turns out the same is true when you are trying to lose weight. Protein not only helps to add muscle, but it can help shed weight too. While that might seem counterintuitive, the key to the particular goal you are chasing is the ratios in which you eat the protein and the type of exercise you do.

The ‘recommended’ intake of protein is a fairly slim 0.8 grams for each kilogram of body weight, per day. That means for an average 75kg man, 60 grams of protein would satisfy the guidelines. However, that’s not the whole story.

Sports Dietitians Australia recommends that athletes who are in a heavy training phase or those who are trying to gain muscle mass need protein at levels that are higher than the general population. They recommend that to gain muscle mass, 25g – 30g of high-quality protein be added to each meal, with the same amount spread across snacks for the day. That would mean protein amounts of about 90 grams from the three main meals, with another 30 – 60 grams coming from snacks throughout the day for a total daily amount of between 120 grams and 150 grams.

That’s a challenging total for anyone to hit without some serious dedication to preparing high protein, nutritionally balanced meals in advance. It’s this problem that protein shakes can help with.

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Are Protein Shakes Effective?

The literature strongly suggests that protein shakes are no more effective than other sources of protein in helping those who are training with the goal of adding muscle to reach their goals. However, what they are able to do is effectively fill the gaps in the day where someone aiming for between 120 grams and 150 grams of protein has not prepared their food adequately to hit that goal.

For example, a high protein breakfast of an omelette, followed by a salmon-based lunch, and a steak for dinner, will still leave that person short of their protein target for the day. Including a protein shake packed into a shaker and thrown into a work bag is not only a convenient, relatively cheap way to get 30 grams of protein, but it also supplements the rest of the food choices made that day to get to the target total.

So, the takeaway point is that no, protein powder is not essential. But it is a portable, cost-effective way to supplement your protein intake each day. Think of it a little like a multivitamin. If you are consuming a balanced diet, these supplements are totally unnecessary. But for those who live in the real world, eating all of the nutrients our body needs each day is difficult, so some supplementation can be helpful.

The Range of Protein Powder Options

It wasn’t that long ago that getting extra protein into a diet might have meant a person mixing raw egg smoothies to drink. Salmonella aside, there are now many better choices on the market.

The first thing to do is to look for the ingredients that should signal with a big red sign ‘do not purchase’. Protein powders are not all created equal, and since they are not that different, many manufacturers will compete on taste, or with expensive marketing campaigns.

Others will ‘pad out’ the more expensive protein component with cheaper fillers and additives. That achieves two things for that manufacturer. First, it reduces the cost to produce each bag or bucket of protein powder. And second, it means that a larger serving size is needed to get the same amount of protein per serve. That leads to the package being consumed faster, which in turn makes you buy it more often.

So, what should you be on the lookout for? Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients, the better. Artificial sweeteners, colours, and flavours are generally not great either, as they don’t add anything to the nutritional value of the drink, but can cause blood sugar spikes. Be wary of any powder that requires huge serving sizes to get to the magic number of 30 grams of protein. That’s usually a pretty good indicator of a substantial amount of filler in the package. That being said, some ‘mass gainers’ (as opposed to pure protein powders) will contain mixtures of protein and carbohydrates, so larger serving sizes of those are to be expected.

Whey Protein Concentrate and Whey Protein Isolate

The mainstay of protein supplementation has always been whey protein. This product came about by deriving protein from milk sources. Luckily for us, Australia has some of the most abundant and high-quality sources of whey protein in the world. But unluckily for us, it is also the most marked up, meaning we pay more than a lot of other countries when it comes to getting it.

The main difference between the two is that whey protein concentrate will be about 70% pure protein, with the remaining 30% being a combination of carbohydrates and fat. That mixture is actually a good thing, as muscle needs both protein and carbohydrates to grow and sustain itself.

In contrast, whey protein isolate is closer to 95% protein, with very little of any other macronutrient present. In practice, it’s always good to have a snack that includes a protein shake with another source of food such as nuts or some peanut butter to get a good spread of macronutrients, so the minor difference in the profiles shouldn’t matter to most people.

There are other differences between concentrate and isolate. Some people find isolate easier to digest and less likely to cause stomach discomfort, though the effect is fairly subjective. Those with lactose intolerance are often able to consume isolate without problems, as most of the sugars responsible for the intolerance are removed, while they may struggle with concentrate. The other difference is cost: isolate is generally more expensive than concentrate.

Pea Protein

With more and more people, including elite athletes, turning to a vegetarian or plant-based diet, non-dairy protein powders have seen their consumption spike strongly in recent years. Tennis ace Novak Djokovic, F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, and future NBA Hall of Famer Chris Paul are all converts.

One of the more popular whey alternatives is pea protein. This is an option favoured by vegans, as well as those who don’t enjoy the overly creamy taste of some whey-based protein powders.

The manufacturing method is fairly simple as yellow peas that are naturally rich in protein are harvested, dried, and pulverised into powder form before removing the by-products and retaining the protein-rich parts. Pea protein also has a side benefit in that the body metabolises it at a slower rate than whey protein. Academic research has shown that plant-based proteins are just as effective at building muscle mass as animal-based sources.

In terms of other benefits, plant-based proteins can often be found at a cheaper price than animal proteins. The drawbacks for some include the texture, which is less creamy than whey proteins.

Soy Protein

Soy has long been a preferred way for those not eating animal products to get extra protein in their diet, and there are also soy-based protein powders for that purpose. Like pea protein, soy protein powder is derived after soybeans are hulled, dried, and processed.

The benefits of soy protein include the link between soy and increased bone and cardiovascular health. There is some commentary about the link between an element in soy that functions like a plant-based oestrogen, but academic opinion on the subject is divided.

Brown Rice Protein

Brown rice protein is similar to pea protein in its nutrient profile, but with one key difference: it is also missing one of the components that is present in other ‘complete’ proteins. Because of this, it is rare to find brown rice protein on its own, with the more common option on the market being a blend of pea and brown rice protein which allows for the final product to have the same amino acid (protein building block) profile as other ‘complete’ proteins.

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is less common or popular than other types discussed here. Unlike the others, hemp protein powders are a source of omega-3. These beneficial nutrients are commonly found in fish oil capsules. Hemp also benefits from its natural reputation.

That being said, hemp protein may be less effective than other forms of protein because it is missing a key protein building block. Hemp protein that is blended with another protein powder is probably the best option to account for this deficiency. In addition, because of its lack of availability and ‘boutique’ status, it is often more expensive than its peers.

If you are aiming to hit some new fitness goals this year, weighing up different options for your training while trying to get your diet and protein intake right at the same time can seem exhausting. But sign up today to Max’s Challenge, and you’ll start receiving the support you need to succeed with our proven program, goal setting methods, and community.

Sources:

https://www.finder.com.au/when-to-take-protein-powder
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
https://greatist.com/fitness/protein-supplement-nutrition-guide#1
https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders
https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/supplements/protein-supplementation/

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