It’s hard to ignore the buzz around protein powders lately as they are quite popular in body building circles and with athletes. It is clear that protein is a key macronutrient that can helps us obtain our performance, weight loss or muscle-building goals. However, you may be skeptical because these powders can be costly and may contain additional additives such as sugars and artificial sweeteners. This may cause you to ask “Is protein powder really necessary for the average person?”
The answer to that depends on many factors. Let me break it down for you.
Q: What exactly are amino acids and why does it matter which ones are in my protein powder?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our body uses them for many processes including building and repairing muscle tissue. Essential amino acids can be found in most foods, and many amino acids can be produced in the body, but some cannot; these are called essential amino acids. These essential amino acids include a group called branched chain amino acids (BCAA).
BCAAs are branched chain amino acids; a group of amino acids that cannot be made by the body, so they must be obtained from the diet. They are absorbed and utilized quickly, and they are used by the body for a variety of processes including building new muscle. The jury is still out on whether BCAAs are necessary in a protein powder, but if your goal is to build more muscle then it is worth looking for one with a leucine content of approximately 8 to 10% of the total protein content.
Q: But how much protein do I really need? I don’t want to overdo it!
The average healthy person, who isn’t physically active on a regular basis needs approximately 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. That means a woman who is 140lbs would need to consume 64- 76 grams of protein per day to meet her daily intake requirements. This is further individualized depending on her physical activity level, goals, etc. For example if her goal is weight loss, she would likely require a higher amount of protein.
Recent research also indicates that it is not only the total about of protein in a day that is important, but in addition, the timing at which protein is consumed plays a large role in protein utilization. For most people, their body can’t synthesize more than 40 g of protein at a time – aka their body can’t use all of that protein for muscle building. Guess what happens to the extra protein that isn’t used for muscle synthesis? It is stored as fat.
For most people, you want to be aiming to consume 20-30 grams of protein at each meal, for optimal protein utilization.
Q: What can protein powders be used for?
- an alternative protein source for those on the go, athletes, vegans, or anyone who is having a hard time meeting their daily protein requirements
- protein powders with high leucine content, when combined with resistance training, can help with building muscle mass
What they are NOT:
- meal replacements: they do not contain all of the required macronutrients (such as fat and carbohydrates), vitamins and minerals to be considered a meal replacement. Most protein powders recommend using only one serving per day, on top of your normal meals.
- steroids: contrary to the advertisements, they will not make you gain obscene amounts of muscle, especially if you are not working out
With so many protein powders on the market how do you choose the one that is right for you? Well there are many factors to consider. Let’s break down the options:
Whey is the most popular and commonly used type of protein. It is often described as having the best flavours, texture and mixability for those who drink it. The fast digesting nature of this protein is great for post-workout, but also, when in combination with a fat and/or fiber source to slow absorption, it can be a tasty way to keep you satisfied for hours.
Casein is another dairy based option, but is naturally much slower to digest. As a result, it can keep you full for a longer duration. It’s thick texture lends itself well to making thick smoothies and shakes, while also working wonderfully in baked treats.
When you compare whey and casein from an athletic perspective, research has often portrayed greater benefits of whey for protein muscle synthesis than casein, so if performance enhancement is a goal, whey may be a good option. However, from the perspective of the majority of the population, both options provide a great source for protein to reach your intake goals.
Aside from the benefits of dairy-based supplements, there are some downsides, with the biggest issue surrounding the lactose/dairy component. Those who are lactose intolerant may still be able to have specific brands that are formulated with added enzymes and are lactose free. Another issue is that the more cost effective varieties often contain fillers, including artificial sweeteners that can cause digestive upset. So, if you are willing to spend a little bit more for a better quality supplement, choose whey proteins that source from grass-fed cows and have a minimal ingredients list.
Top Dairy-Based Protein Pick:
Perfect Sports Diesel
- great brand for those who suffer from lactose intolerance
- short ingredients list contains only grass-fed whey protein
- some natural flavouring and stevia
- no fillers, no sugars and no chemicals to worry about
These qualities are not unique to just Diesel as most are also found in many brands using pure New Zealand whey protein, including Ergogenics New Zealand Whey, Progressive Harmonized Protein and ATP Labs. The reason for this is that New Zealand has heightened standards on how cows are raised including banning all forms of antibiotics and growth hormones in addition to allowing the cows to remain free range.
Some examples of proteins to avoid could include MuscleTech, BSNSyntha-6 and EAS Myoplex due to their use of many chemicals, stabilizers, sugars and artificial sweeteners.
Egg White Options
If you do not restrict eggs in your diet, this is a newer option for those with dairy allergies. Egg white protein hasn’t received as much attention as other protein options but it is actually considered to be highly beneficial because it has an amino acid make-up that is very similar to the body’s proteins. This is important as it means that the protein will be best utilized for making body tissues. Other benefits include its high branched chain amino acid content, particularly leucine, which has profound effects on protein synthesis, it stimulates nitric oxide production, which dilates the blood vessels to get nutrients and oxygen to the muscles faster, and it’s digests at a moderate pace, which is a nice middle grounds between whey and casein.
Along with the benefits, there are some drawbacks of egg protein including a higher price tag, small choice of flavour options and poor availability.
Top Egg White Protein Pick
NOW Sports Egg White Protein
- does not contain any corn, milk or gluten
- sugar free and is certified GMO free
It is important to know that there are some not so great brands that place stabilizers and artificial sweeteners in their products to enhance the flavour or texture. An example of this is Top Secret Nutrition. Taking a peak at the ingredients you will find things like guar gum, which can cause digestive issues in many people, and sucralose, which has mixed conclusions with respect to whether it is safe for human consumption.
Plant Based Options
There are a variety of plant proteins available today as more people are choosing to refrain from consuming animal products. These types of supplements tend to have a blend of high protein plant materials such as rice, pea, quinoa, soy and hemp, which results in a high protein product that is free of most allergens and can therefore meet the needs of those with dietary restrictions.
The effectiveness of plants protein is often debated because many perceive them as not being complete proteins. This shouldn’t be a concern though because of a few reasons:
- There are actually quite a few plants that contain complete proteins including quinoa, soy, buckwheat, hemp, chia and spirulina. Some of these types of proteins can be purchased on their own, for example Manitoba Harvest Organic HempPro Fiber for hemp protein and Universal Nutrition Advanced Soy Protein for soy, but most often they are combined into blends. A great brand for a mixed plant protein is MRM Veggie Protein as it contains pea, chia, flax, brown rice and hemp proteins in addition to a number of enzymes and antioxidants that can help with recovery.
- That brings us to our second reason regarding the completeness which is that most blends today are formulated to provide the full spectrum of amino acids through combining a variety of plant proteins in appropriate proportions. When the combinations provide an adequate amino acid profile, many studies have shown that plant proteins stimulate protein synthesis to a similar degree as whey and perhaps more than casein. One blend in particular, specifically a combination of brown rice and pea, are often recommended because together they provide all of the amino acids that you require.
Therefore, despite some misleading and incorrect perceptions about plant proteins, they are still found to be effective and great choices.Additional benefits of plant-based proteins are that they tend to be less processed, may contain other superfoods and are more environmentally friendly.
For the downsides, most of the complaints are often regarding taste and texture as many feel plant protein has a gritty texture and suboptimal taste when compared to whey. This can usually be masked, however, if mixed in a smoothie or used in baking.
In conclusion, there are many protein supplement options available today to help you reach your needs that can work for many different lifestyles from carnivores to vegans. The most important point to keep in mind is that these supplements are not needed for a healthy lifestyle. Instead, these are an option for those who are busy, on-the-go or simply enjoy the taste of protein powder. Otherwise, a balanced daily diet is really all you need to maintain your health. As a final point, keep in mind that when it comes to supplements less is often best. In other words, avoid unnecessary ingredients and go for natural as much as possible as those fillers and artificial ingredients often leave you feeling unwell and are therefore benefiting your well being.
Research conducted by Chelsea Cross, BASc (c) and Holly Bradich, B.A Psych, BASc (C).