The ‘pro’ in protein powder: How shaking it can help you enhance your performance

sports dietitians

These days it’s commonplace for a protein shake to be consumed at least once or twice a day most days of the week, because God forbid we might not get enough protein through our diet alone.

Back in the day protein powders were only bought in pharmacies, supplement stores or gyms when recommended by healthcare professionals, but these days you can find a variety of different protein powders in just about any supermarket and maybe even a petrol station.

Protein deficiencies are rarely heard of in our population, with an abundance of protein being consumed in an average individual’s normal day to day diet. This essential macronutrient helps to maintain a variety of bodily functions, however some individuals with an increased activity level, athletes for example, require additional protein in their diets to maximise their performance and most likely their body composition too. A protein shake is often an easy, convenient option to enjoy on the go.

Why a protein shake?

As you may already know, protein is needed for building muscle, tissue repair, synthesising hormones and enzymes as well as so much more. Everyone has a specific requirement for protein which can be estimated using a simple calculation, but it is important to talk to a dietitian for clarification. The general recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein is 0.84 g/kg of body weight for the average adult male and 0.75 g/kg of body weight for the average adult female.

Certain populations such as vegans or the elderly may find protein shakes to be a valuable addition to their diet due to the difficulty in meeting general protein needs through food alone. Others who take shakes for weight loss or as a meal replacement should consult with a dietitian before doing so.

If you’re a first-time buyer of protein powder, being recommended by a friend or Instagram star to give it a go, you will no doubtable be shocked, confused and maybe even a little put off by the whole idea. There will be all sorts of different brands, types of proteins (isolate vs concentrate, whey vs pea), flavours and claims. Leaving the question, which one is best for you?

  • Isolate: A highly processed form of protein having the highest protein content due to the low carbohydrate and fat content. Isolate forms are more rapidly absorbed by the body.
  • Concentrate: Has a slightly higher fat and carbohydrate content making it higher in kilojoules, however, has the same amino acid composition as the isolate. The absorption rate is slightly slower but is often also a slightly cheaper option.

In essence, it really depends what your goals are. An athlete or frequent gym goer will most likely choose an isolate protein to maximise recovery when consumed shortly after resistance training. An isolate form is often chosen for its fast-acting properties, with whey protein isolate (WPI) in particular being the most widely researched form of supplementation in the current scientific literature. Protein should also ideally be consumed within the hour of completing a training session to maximise muscle protein synthesis and recovery, therefore a shake can often be a convenient and portable option that is easily tolerated in a liquid form as opposed to a protein rich meal.

An individual just looking for the additional protein to meet their RDI or to use to fortify meals or snacks (e.g. stirred through yoghurt or added to a breakfast smoothie) may however choose a protein concentrate form as it is cheaper and just as effective for this purpose.

What protein is right for you?

When choosing a protein powder, you want quality protein, so if you can tolerate dairy your best option will be a whey protein powder.  Plant based options can be a little trickier as the amino acid profile will often be sub-optimal when compared to whey protein powders. Labelling claims and cleaver advertising can also make it tricky to find the best one that works for you, so keep it simple. A basic quality whey protein isolate or concentrate can either be combined with water, making an easy shake, or be mixed in with everyday foods such as breakfast smoothies to increase its protein content. These may often be cheaper and last longer, having less kilojoules than a commercial brand with lots of extra ingredients that you don’t need or want to pay extra for.

Some protein powders may also include additional added nutrients such as fibre, iron or digestive enzymes. But it is important to be sure to know what you need, seeking advice from appropriately qualified healthcare professionals to avoid additional costs. Some also can have hidden fillers in them, added starch/sugars, gums and additives with no nutritional value at all.

The harm of misusing protein powders

Although there are many benefits for including protein supplements in our diet, it is important to understand the effects misuse can have on our health. Firstly, adding more protein in the form of a supplement above our recommended daily needs does not increase muscle protein synthesis and our body will simply excrete the excess – expensive urine!  For those will an underlying kidney impairment, the excess protein can also put extra strain on the, leading for further decline in their function. It’s also important to remember that protein supplements will also contribute to your energy intake, which needs to be considered if one of your goals is weight loss or body composition manipulation.

If you can meet your daily protein requirements through food alone, a protein powder is simply not necessary.  Protein rich foods include meat/poultry/seafood, dairy, eggs and soy which contain all the essential amino acids as well as nuts, seeds, wholegrains and legumes which contain smaller amounts of incomplete protein.

It is important to understand that a diet containing all the food groups in appropriate amounts will effectively reach an individual’s general requirements for protein If you feel you may have increased protein requirements or find it difficult to meet your protein needs through food alone, it is important to discuss your diet with  an Accredited Practising Dietitian to devise a meal plan and strategies tailored to your particular needs and goals.

 

https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/supplements/protein-supplementation/

https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/protein

Delimaris, I., 2013. Adverse effects associated with protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance for adults. ISRN nutrition, 2013.