While few, if any, amateur athletes need protein powder to support their exercise regime, it can be a very convenient way of ensuring you have all the fuel required to repair and build muscle after a workout.
Downing a protein shake every day will, of course, have no effect if you aren’t also putting in the work, but using them after your training is certainly a quicker and easier (if less tasty) method of upping your protein intake than eating a rotisserie chicken.
However, picking between the huge range of protein powders available is difficult, especially when each and every one of them makes grand promises about the effect they will have on you.
You might assume that all of them do the same job, but that’s not the case. Coach spoke to Dr Daniel Fenton, clinical director and GP at London Doctors Clinic, about the differences between protein powders, how much price matters and whether they contain any ingredients you should be wary of.
What are the key things people should look out for when choosing protein powder?
How much protein you obtain from each serving, the amino acid profile, the cost, taste and number of additives are a few key factors. I tend to focus on yield – the actual amount of protein you obtain from each serving – and amino acid profile.
I suggest you choose a low-fat, low-carbohydrate, high-protein powder. While you require all three to aid muscle development, balance is key.
The difference in protein content in various powders can be phenomenal. Do not simply pay for a brand name – the proof is in the numbers. Look carefully at the concentration and type of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) included in the protein. Leucine has been shown to be one of the most important BCAAs so it should contain decent quantities.
What are the differences between the two main types of protein – whey and casein?
Muscle growth is determined by simple science: protein (muscle) breakdown vs protein synthesis. If the synthesis of new muscle protein is greater than the breakdown of muscle protein, you will get a net gain of muscle mass.
Whey is typically processed very rapidly into amino acids, which will reach peak levels within an hour of consumption and therefore assist muscle synthesis very quickly. However, the peak levels also fall very quickly.
Whey is considered an anabolic protein because it rapidly accelerates protein synthesis so it’s great for quick muscle regeneration, but has very little effect on naturally occurring muscle breakdown after a workout.
Casein can take several hours to be metabolised and as a result creates a slower release of proteins to help muscles recover and grow. It is often referred to as an anti-catabolic protein, because it also helps to prevent excess protein breakdown.
The downside is that casein will remain in the stomach for a substantial period of time, and one can appreciate that it is difficult to complete a high-intensity workout with a full stomach.
In essence, balance and timing are key for maximum gains. Ignore those who say “casein is the key”, or “only whey works” – scientifically, this is simply untrue. Both work very well if used appropriately, complementing your workout and your own natural metabolism.
What should you get if you pay more money for protein powder?
There is a natural tendency to think that more expensive products are better – but this is a fallacy. Content is more important than cost. All protein powders will contain some additives including thickeners, preservatives, sweeteners and fillers.
I would strongly recommend taking a look at the label before you purchase. While your main focus is gaining muscle, you should aim to avoid putting nutritionally-redundant chemicals into your body. Here are a few of the things to look out for.
Avoid artificial sweeteners, which includes sucralose, aspartame and saccharin. The presumption is that these are better for you than sugar but this is not quite true. There is no good evidence that they reduce weight gain, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome and some studies actually show an increased risk of adverse health outcomes.
Milk powders are a cheap bulking agent widely used in protein powders. They are high in lactose sugars which is terrible if you are lactose intolerant. This can contribute to gastrointestinal upset including bloating and loose stools.
Oils and fats are added to protein supplements to increase richness; they are non-essential ingredients which can contribute to hypercholesterolemia [high cholesterol]. It is fairly common to see high cholesterol levels in bodybuilders and athletes despite their immense fitness levels and generally healthy eating – taking protein powder with added oils is thought to be a contributing factor.
Is it worth looking out for extra benefits from protein powder such as vitamins and minerals, or fibre?
The simple answer is no! While these make for an excellent selling point, if you are eating a balanced diet alongside the protein supplement you should not need additional vitamins.
Is there a limit to how much protein the body can absorb from a serving?
The human body is an impressive machine, which likes to maintain a balanced constant internal environment. We can fill ourselves with protein, but we will only absorb as much as we require for muscle synthesis.
The Department of Health recommends approximately 55g of protein a day for male adults and a little less for females. Obviously, if we exercise at high intensity, muscle turnover is higher and protein demand is therefore greater, so we will often require more than this. But if we consume too much protein, the body will simply metabolise and excrete it. This means you could literally be flushing money and protein down the pan.