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  • Writer's pictureJen Curtis

Q&A: Protein Powders - what's the deal?

Q: This may be a stupid question, but I’ll shoot anyway. Can we talk about protein powders/shakes/bars/etc? A couple of friends have mentioned I should try them but I don’t really know where to start.

I’ve always been slightly skeptical about how useful/necessary/effective they are, any comments?

Seems expensive, are there advantages over standard dietary sources of protein?

Also what can I look out for that makes a good/bad protein source?

Finally how much/how often is appropriate?

For context, in general I train 3 times a week, doing 30 mins high intensity kettlebell work plus warm up/cool down. I mostly do it for generic physical/mental health upkeep, and although I don’t have any specific strength/weight loss goals, i do love getting stronger and looking leaner and would like to keep that trend going!

A: Hey Jenny - that's not a stupid question AT ALL - it's actually a really good one. There is a lot of confusion and debate around protein powders.

Short answer - overall daily/weekly protein intake is what is important. There is no advantage to protein powders, nothing magic in them that makes them a better source of protein, and often they are actually made from low-quality ingredients and have a lot of junk in them. If you're eating a well-balanced diet that includes high-quality protein sources, that is more than enough.

However, they are quick, convenient, easy and cheap and CAN be a decent way to get (more) protein into your diet. (But you first of all have to determine if you really need it).

(Personally, I don't use protein powders at all anymore, even though I train quite intensely several times a week... Not to say that you should do what I do! You need to find what works for you!)

Now for the long answer... (buckle up, get yourself a cup of tea, I went to town on this one). HOW MUCH protein you need is a very hotly debated topic. Here's a quick overview of that debate:

- The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight (BW) - however, it has been suggested that this figure is suitable for SEDENTARY individuals (that don't work out) and that it is the MINIMUM that you need to starve off malnutrition, but is not what you need for optimum health.

- On one side of that figure, you have the "meat-head" fitness community that are all about building and maintaining muscle mass. The widely accepted figure from that community is 1.8g of protein per kg of body weight. Some sources even quote 2g per kg of BW (but that's just getting silly). (As an experiment, just try to consume 1.8g of protein/kg BW in a day - that's 117g for a 65kg female - that's technically known as a fuck-ton and it's bloody hard to consume!!)

- On the other side of that figure are vegans, who argue that 0.8g of protein is actually too high and we don't need that much, and that they have found health and vitality with far less.

- And then there is everything else in between!

It's an inconvenient truth that protein needs (like almost everything else to do with fitness and nutrition) is likely to be quite individual. HOWEVER, there is probably a bell curve that well describes most people's needs. In the middle, most people will need a moderate amount to thrive. Some individuals may function better on a little less or a little more, and a few individuals will function best at the extremes of the spectrum.

If you work out and are pretty active, and in particular if you are concerned with being strong and maintaining a healthy amount of muscle mass (hint: you should be) a good starting point might be 1g protein per kg of BW... Try it, use an app like myfitnesspal to track your macros for a while and see if you are way over or under that figure. See how it feels. You may want to (and I encourage you to) experiment - try that number, see how it feels and then try a bit more for a while (many people argue that a high-protein diet also helps keep blood-sugar levels constant and keep you feeling fuller for longer), and then try a bit less (some people feel very full and heavy and sluggish with too much protein and feel better with less).

Although this may sound a little fluffy, it's really all we actually know. You can go down one of many rabbit-holes on the topic and feel like you've found the holy-grail, they are all very convincing, but the bigger picture is likely to be far more complicated than that!

(Also, this may all seem like a little TMI and not really answering your question, but how can we have a reasonable conversation about protein powders if we don't know how much protein we need in the first place?!)

The major advantage of protein powders (FINALLY she mentions protein powders - stay with me, I am getting to the point) is that they are quick, easy and pack a high-protein punch for relatively few calories. I always used to use "My Protein Whey" which had only 95 kcal per scoop, but 25g of protein.... this may be significant for someone who is also trying to watch their weight and so limiting calories and struggling to get a decent amount of protein in (and has established that they get better results with more protein).

If, for example, you are busy and struggle to find time to eat "real" food - maybe you snack a lot during the day, and only get a proper meal at night (because of a busy work schedule, or because, say, you are a mum to three small children!), protein powders can be an easy, convenient way to make sure you get some more protein in.

BUT, if you can boil a dozen eggs at the beginning of the week and get a couple of them into whatever meal or snack you have after your workout, this may actually be a more wholesome, natural (dare I say "healthy"?!) way to get protein... And if you are managing to eat proper meals with plenty of protein and whole food a lot of the time despite your busy schedule (because, say, you have a personal chef or you are super-woman) protein powders are probably pretty pointless.

Hopefully you can see what I'm getting at here: getting adequate protein from a healthy, balanced diet is probably the best way to ingest protein, BUT it isn't always that simple, life gets in the way, and we don't make choices around food in a vacuum, and protein powders can be a great compromise. It's a convenient way to add protein to your diet, much easier than grilling an organic, free-range chicken breast, but it's probably not as good for you. But it's probably better than not having it. Probably.

Ultimately, it's about whatever fits into your lifestyle. If having a protein powder works for you, go for it, it probably won't do you any harm... but make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. You're right to be skeptical about the issue because many people do it without really understanding why. They think that there is something intrinsic to protein powders and post-workout shakes that will help them lose weight, and there isn't. Especially in the UK I see how every fucker who goes to the gym to spend 2 hours at a snail's pace on the treadmill leaves chugging a massive protein shake - this is probably futile as doing low-intensity cardio for ages isn't really the kind of muscle-building exercise that requires huge amounts of protein.

However, if you are doing some form of weight or resistance training (again, you should be!), a higher protein intake may help with recovery and maintaining/building muscle mass (although, all the talk of a 45-minute post-workout nutrient-window is also mainly just hype - just include protein in your next meal, whenever you are hungry.)

If you do decide to try protein powders (why not?) some are better quality than others. I'm not an expert on this, but my understanding is that casein is a better protein source than whey (it's also more expensive). They are both derived from milk, but as long as you don't have a lactose (or casein) intolerance (most people don't, though many people have a "phantom" intolerance because there is so much drama around dairy these days) you'll be able to digest it.

If you don't consume dairy for whatever reason, there are some that are made from egg protein I think, and if you are vegan/vegetarian/want to get it from plant sources, there are some good-quality vegan protein powders. These are often less easily absorbed by the body (and often taste icky) but as long as it's just a supplement to a varied diet they might be a good choice. Get one that has a variety of plant sources as they are mostly incomplete proteins (hemp and soy are complete proteins (containing all the ESSENTIAL amino acids) and I think pea is as well, but I'd have to check that)

Another point to make is that for some people they can be a great positive "trigger" - it can keep you on track with health and fitness goals because they have conditioned themselves to believe it is helping them reach their goals, and so keeps them on track in other ways. It serves as a reminder to keep on the wagon.

Just to really hone in on a couple of specifics that you asked about:

- the same applies to protein bars... HOWEVER on the one hand, these tend to have a lot more junk in them, BUT on the other, they can be really tasty! It might be a good way to get a "treat" in... I sometimes have one after a workout - it has sugar in it and tastes like a brownie, but I'll also be getting lots of protein for the 250 kcal (rather than JUST sugar). Some of them upset my tummy though.

- gram for gram of protein, they are actually VERY cheap. Getting a big portion (20-30g) of protein in from a scoop of protein powder is cheaper in both money AND calories than other protein sources... It may actually be a cost-effective way of getting protein into your diet.

- the debate of what is a "good" and "bad" protein is complex - I've touched on it above, but in general animal proteins are complete proteins and contain all the essential amino acids. Proteins from plant sources are not usually complete proteins (they are missing at least one essential amino acid), soy and hemp being the exception. It is argued, though, that plant proteins are less easily absorbed by the body.

- How much/often is appropriate - have I answered this? Or does it need more elaboration? For your specific goals of well-being and general health and fitness, I would say that as long as you are getting a good diet that is 80% nutrient-dense, quality foods (and 20% whatever you want), and with the weekly volume you are doing, you probably won't get any added benefits from drinking a protein shake, or eating a protein bar - but may decide to on days that you struggle to eat proper meals and otherwise get protein in. It probably will make very little difference if I'm honest!

I hope that answers your questions! As with almost everything to do with fitness and nutrition, the answer is not black and white, starts with "it' depends" has a lot of "probablies" and at the end of the day, we don't actually KNOW for certain. Let me know what you think of my answer, I hope it has given you some clarity and not just confused you even more!

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