Protein powder and exercise are inextricably linked and have been so for many years. Championed in fitness and bodybuilding magazines since their inception, protein powders have gone through several transformations as our understanding of nutrition has improved. Early protein powders were digestively unfriendly egg-based powders but most modern protein powders are made from gut-friendly whey – a byproduct of cheese manufacture.
Just because you exercise doesn’t automatically mean you have to make protein powders part of your diet despite what the magazines and their adverts might tell you but they can be useful in certain circumstances…
Why you need protein
To build and repair muscle, your body needs protein or, more specifically, the amino acids contained in protein. If you don’t have enough protein your muscles will lack the necessary building blocks that are required to make them bigger and stronger. Eating plenty of meat, fish and eggs can go a long way to ensuring that you get sufficient protein but how much is enough? The answer to that question is it depends.
Although there is some disagreement, the consensus is that strenuous exercisers need around 1.5 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight so if you weigh 85kg, you need around 127.5 to 170 grams of protein per day. As too little protein can inhibit workout results, it’s a good idea to aim for the higher end of this scale to be on the safe side.
Arguably the best way to get sufficient protein in your diet is to eat “real” food that, in addition to protein, also contains essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients but this is not always possible. That’s when protein powder can be very useful.
Protein powder – the good
Protein powder offers several important benefits and advantages…
Protein powders are portable and easy to use. Most only need to be added to water. If you need to eat more protein but it’s impractical for you to chow down on a chicken leg, a protein shake provides a convenient means for getting plenty of protein in your diet.
Protein powders are engineered to be easily digestible so that the amino acids they contain make it quickly from your stomach to your muscles where they are needed. This will enhance recovery after exercise.
Low in calories
Being virtually fat and carbohydrate-free, protein powders are low in calories. A 30 gram serving of protein powder contains around 25 grams of protein and 120 calories. However, to get the same amount of protein from “real food” would involve eating fat and/or carbs as well which will significantly increase the number of calories you end up eating.
For example, to get the same amount of protein from chicken, you’d need to eat around 100 grams which contains 240 calories.
Protein powder – the not-so good
It’s not all good news though – protein powders offer some disadvantages too…
Most protein powders are derived from dairy and are made of whey. Whey contains lactose, a sugar than many people are intolerant to. Small or occasional servings of protein powder are usually well tolerated but larger, more frequent servings could cause bloating and/or diarrhea.
There are, however protein powders that are certified lactose free, made from non-dairy ingredients such as soya, rice, hemp, and pea, and which are not so likely to cause digestive upset.
Some protein powders can be quite expensive. And while they may be an economical way to get more protein in your diet, being cheaper than the equivalent amount of chicken or tuna, their cost might make you use them too infrequently to be beneficial or mean that you cannot afford “real” food.
Bulk buying can reduce the cost so consider going halves with a friend to make protein powder more affordable.
Not all protein powders are of the same good quality. Some use cheap protein blends, or add unwanted ingredients like artificial sweeteners or flavors. If you are going to become a regular protein powder user, seek out products that are organic, low or free from unwanted additives and, that will enhance your health.
Some people mistakenly believe that extra dietary protein automatically turns into muscle. Sadly, this is not the case! Once your protein requirements have been met, any excess protein will be converted into carbohydrate through a process called gluconeogenesis and then, if not required for energy, converted into and stored as fat. While you would habitually have to eat more protein than you need for this to happen, using a protein powder too frequently or in overly large amounts could cause fat gain.
Do YOU need a protein powder?
Protein powders are not essential but can be useful in certain circumstances:
- You are trying to lose weight but do not want to consume too little protein
- You need a high-protein after training meal but cannot/do not want to eat solids
- You want to eat more protein but cannot eat solids because of restrictions such as lack of time, no cooking facilities etc.
- You want to build muscle and need more protein in your diet
- You want to combine protein powder with other ingredients to make meal replacement shakes for when solid food is not practical e.g. breakfast when time is short
Protein powders can be useful but before using them you should consider the pros and cons. If you decide that protein powders are something you need, seek out the best quality product you can afford and use it as per the manufacturers’ instructions. Remember though, excess protein could end up making you fat