The truth about protein shakes
There are 11 different types of protein shake available in my local grocery store. They range from enormous tubs promising ‘ripped’ muscle to small sachets that say they will ‘blast’ fat. Some are ‘natural’, some ‘celebrity’ endorsed.
Take to the Internet and the range is wider still – there seems to be a product to suit everyone. But, with so many protein shakes available how do you know which one is right for you?
Tim McMaster is an accredited practising dietitian, and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. He says that the marketing of protein supplements can baffle consumers.
“Protein gets plenty of attention from athletic and health conscious people alike, as it’s a very important nutrient for our muscle growth and repair, but the range of protein and amino acid supplements available can be quite confusing,” says McMaster.
The benefits of protein
When you work out (particularly if you are using weights) you put your muscles under pressure. In a nutshell, protein helps our muscles to recover from that pressure.
McMaster says that protein is most effective if you consume it within half an hour of your work out.
“This is when the muscles are at their most sensitive for protein synthesis. So consuming 20 to 25 grams of protein within this time frame will help with recovery and muscle soreness,” he says.
Proteins are made up of various combinations of about 20 different amino acids, which McMaster describes as the “building blocks” of proteins. “Eight of these amino acids are classified as essential because the human body cannot manufacture these – they must come from the diet,” he says.
If you’re meeting your daily protein goal (which for adults falls between 37g and 81g a day) there is no evidence that protein powder is better for muscle recovery than a protein-rich food.
In fact, McMaster says that there are plenty of scientific studies showing that the body is able to absorb the nutrients in whole foods more efficiently then if a nutrient is consumed in one large single amount.
However, the sheer convenience of protein powder (which can be mixed with water or milk to create a shake) makes it a great option for people on the go.
What is the best type of protein powder
While there is a place for protein powder, there are some big differences between the different types available in your local supermarket.
According to McMaster, whey protein isolate (WPI) is the only protein supplement that contains the full compliment of essential amino acids (the amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own).
“Whey protein isolate has significant scientific evidence supporting its use in repair and recovery when consumed at a correct dose, at the right time post training and in small doses over the day,” he says.
“Steer clear from any of the ‘concentrate’ blends, as these often have added components which do nothing.”
McMaster also notes that plant-based protein supplements are not as effective because they only contain four or five essential amino acids and are therefore considered to be a lower biological value.
Of course, for vegans and vegetarians, plant-based protein is the only option.
The downside of protein powder
Opting for a protein powder might give you the protein hit that you need, but you could be missing out on carbohydrates, McMaster notes.
“Low carb shakes can compromise your recovery if you don’t get enough carbs in from other fuel sources, as the body also needs carbs to help with recovery and refuelling the muscles for your next workout,” he explains.
McMaster also notes that if you start to rely on protein powder too much then you can miss out on all the little micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that come from eating whole foods.
Another down side is the cost. “Protein shakes can be quite expensive, so it’s worth asking yourself if you can get your protein and other macronutrient requirements through actual food sources,” says McMaster.
The risk factor
A common misconception is that the more protein you consume the bigger and stronger your muscles will get. But this isn’t in the case, in fact, overdoing protein powder can cause serious health problems.
McMaster says that many protein powders contain trace elements of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. In small doses they pose no threat at all. But when consumers start doubling the dosage, problems can arise.
“All of a sudden these elements, which get metabolised in the liver, start to exceed the recommended daily intake levels which can result in liver damage,” he warns.
Likewise, excessive protein intake can also lead to kidney damage.
If you’re looking for high protein snacks or meals that you could use for post workout recovery, McMaster suggests foods that are rich in carbohydrates (to replenish muscle stores), contain some lean protein (to assist in muscle repair), and include fluid/electrolytes (to rehydrate effectively).
“There is no ‘best’ option, but some examples are: dairy foods – smoothie, yoghurt and fruit, chicken and salad sandwich, tuna crackers and a banana, muesli with yoghurt and berries,” says McMaster.
Do you really need a protein shake?
McMaster notes that it’s important to ensure that you get the basics of your diet right before you add a protein shake.
This means eating a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups. If you’re unsure, McMaster suggests taking to an Accredited Sports Dietitian.
“Do not allow protein supplements to replace the basics of your diet, as there are no short cuts when it comes to performance. Think of your base whole food nutrition as the cake and the icing,” he says.
“The use of supplements is just the sprinkles on top of the cake.”
How easy is it to meet your daily protein goal?
- One large egg contains about 6 grams of protein
- One serve (or about 12) of almonds contains about 6 grams of protein
- Half a cup of oats contains about 13 grams of protein
- A 170g tub of Greek yoghurt contains about 17 grams of protein
- One skinless chicken breast has about 53 grams of protein
- One cup of quinoa has about 8 grams of protein
- One cup of lentils has about 18 grams of protein
- Half a cup of Brussels sprouts has about 2 grams of protein
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