The Lowdown on Protein Powders

03 October

Think that protein shakes are just for body builders? Think again – these handy powders can be just what your body needs to get a quick protein fix.

Protein is essential to our diet. It plays a key role in muscle mass, metabolism, digestion, energy and blood sugar control and every cell in our body needs it to function. So, if you want optimum performance, you need to feed your body right down to the cellular level.  This is especially important before and after exercise, either to give it a performance boost (before) or to help you recover more quickly (after).  

In short, protein is a wonder macro-nutrient made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids in all – eight of which we have to obtain through our diet. These are called essential amino acids. Get enough of these and we can make the remaining 12 ourselves. The trouble is, there aren’t many foods that contain all eight, which is why we need to eat a varied diet.  They’re also often found in foods that are traditionally considered ‘fattening’, such as meat and cheese.

But, if you really want to start the day well – whether you’re doing exercise or not – an ideal start is protein based, which many traditional breakfast foods, for instance cereal and toast, do not contain.

This is where protein powders can be very useful. They’re often manufactured to combine all eight essential amino acids and offer a lighter option for people who don’t feel like eating before or after exercise. So what exactly is a protein powder? In simple terms, whey-, milk- and casein-based products only use the protein part of milk, with all the fat and carbohydrates (and some vitamins and minerals) removed.

Nutritionally-speaking a proper meal is always better since different food groups offer different benefits, but who has time to cook a poached egg with avocado on some toasted rye bread, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds first thing in the morning? Not to mention the 20-minute wait while you digest, followed by a run, shower, getting ready for work and a ‘recovery smoothie’ with probiotic yoghurt, soaked linseeds and fruit.  Perhaps at the weekends?  

While protein shakes should not be used as meal replacements – it’s important to follow a balanced, healthy diet – they can give your body an intense protein hit pre- and post-exercise.

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Take a look at our handy protein guide below to learn more about the different types and to help you decide which powder might suit you best:

Whey protein
This is the most common type of protein powder and as mentioned above, it is a milk-based product, having had the fat and carbohydrates removed from milk. It is easily and quickly absorbed by the body and readily available in health food stores, large chemists and some supermarkets. It can be used pre- or post-exercise. As it is so quickly absorbed, many use it as a recovery tool immediately after exercise.

Casein powders
Like whey, casein is a milk-based product, used in cheese making. We don’t digest casein powders as quickly as whey, however they are ideal if you exercise in the afternoon or evening, as they can gradually help muscle recovery overnight while the body (and hopefully the mind!) rests.

It is also possible to buy powders that have a combination of whey and casein, ideal for those who want to focus on muscle building and protein usage within the body – the casein might not have as much of an effect as whey in terms of its immediacy, but it can extend its anabolic effect for many hours after exercise and ensures that the body, when at rest, does not start breaking down muscle for fuel (if there are little or no fat stores). The whey induces a rapid response, so combination powders can be very useful for high performance athletes.  

Alternative protein powders:

Egg protein
This is a dairy- and lactose-free protein powder that we digest at a moderate rate. It contains all eight essential amino acids, with particularly high levels of lysine.  Obviously avoid if you have any allergies to eggs.  Egg is one of the few foods (in its whole form) that is considered a ‘quality protein’, as it contains all the essential amino acids.

Pea protein
Pea protein is an excellent alternative for those wanting to avoid animal foods; the protein quality in pea protein is similar to egg and soy, with particularly high levels of arginine, the amino acid that your body requires to build muscle.

Soya protein
Soya protein contains all the essential amino acids in ratios required by the body to support development, growth and repair. It is particularly high in arginine which stimulates muscle formation and glutamine, which helps with recovery. It is a good alternative for vegans. However, the impact soya has on oestrogen (female hormone) and its effect on testosterone (male hormone) levels has long been debated, so it is still advisable not to have too much soya in the diet – if you are concerned about this speak to a health professional for advice.

Hemp protein
Hemp is also very good for those avoiding certain foods, such as dairy, lactose and animal products. It not only contains all the essential amino acids, it also provides you with vitamins, minerals, beneficial live enzymes, essential fatty acids and other co-factors that help absorption and digestion.  

Where to buy:
Whey and casein powders are the most readily available to buy and can be found in health food shops, chemists and some supermarkets. Alternative protein powders are available in most of the good larger health food shops.  It would be advisable to seek advice either from the health food shop or a health professional before buying for the first time.

How to take protein powders:
Some powders come ready prepared although often these are more expensive. The powders are best combined in a fruit smoothie or milkshake; some are more palatable than others to have mixed with just milk, water or juice.

Sports nutritionists recommend following a balanced, healthy diet that doesn’t omit any of the major food groups – unless, of course, you have an allergy or intolerance and have been advised by a professional. Always follow all guidelines with supplements, including protein powders.

For more information on the role that protein plays in supporting the healthy functioning of your body, visit the British Nutrition Foundation