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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).