Protein powders aren’t just for Arnie-esq bodybuilders and gym junkies. They have benefits for anyone trying to lose weight, build muscle or just simply meet their protein requirements. However, with all nutrition, it’s important to take a food-first approach and to find the right protein supplements to suit your needs. Here’s what to look for in protein powder and the best protein powders for the results you’re after.
What are protein powders?
Protein is a macronutrient that plays an essential role in many of the body’s physiological processes, helping to build bones, muscles, cartilage and skin. Current protein recommendations per kilogram are 0.84 g per day for men (19-70 years) and 0.75 g per day for women (19-70 years) for healthy, normal-weight individuals. This daily protein requirement can usually be met through a healthy diet.
While general population requirements are less than 1g/kg, it is now well established that active individuals should be consuming between 1.5 – 2.5g/kg of body weight. The amount depends on the type of training and also the phase of training. There is also good evidence to suggest that aging populations should have higher intakes of protein, in addition to undertaking resistance training, as a strategy to manage sarcopenia (the natural decline of muscle as we age).
Protein powders are concentrated forms of protein made from sources such as milk, eggs and plants. Protein powders are often derived from whey (milk protein), soy or pea protein, and can provide a single source of protein or a protein blend. These protein supplements may also include other ingredients such as sugars and sweeteners, thickeners, flavouring, vitamins and minerals.
What are the benefits of protein powders?
Protein powders can help build muscle mass, increase performance, improve recovery and reduce fatigue and muscle soreness. They can also assist in weight loss, due to individuals substituting processed, higher energy food with protein shakes.
Protein powders can be useful in your overall nutrition plan but they’re not essential for everyone. Elite athletes who participate in heavy training and athletes who are trying to gain muscle mass and strength have increased protein needs and thus protein powders may be beneficial. It is imperative that any athlete only uses batch-tested protein powders, and any supplements for that matter – some of the common logos to look out for include HASTA and Informed Sport. Individuals who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet may also benefit from the use of protein powders in order to meet their protein requirements.
The inclusion of protein powders should depend on an individuals training load, goals, energy requirements and general dietary intake. An accredited sports dietitian can help determine if protein supplementation is necessary.
Are there downsides to using protein powders?
Although protein powders have considerable health benefits, excess consumption of protein via protein powders can have downsides. High blood levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have been associated with the development of type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Extremely high consumption of protein may also have a negative effect on kidneys, as the kidneys need to work harder to clear the excess protein from your body, resulting in strain on the kidneys. It should be noted that this is not of concern in healthy populations consuming up to 2.5g/kg day.
What to look for in a protein powder
The first thing you should look at is the source of protein. Whey protein, which is derived from cow’s milk, is the most common protein used in protein powders. Whey protein contains all the essential amino acids and is rich in BCAAs, especially leucine, which helps to build muscle. Whey protein is rapidly digested, helping with protein and muscle synthesis.
There are two main forms of whey protein: whey protein concentrate (WPC), which is 70-80% protein, and whey protein isolate (WPI), which is 90% protein. WPI such as True Protein, is an ideal whey protein powder due to its high amount of protein (26 grams per serve) and natural ingredients, so it can help in both muscle growth and weight loss.
Looking at the source of protein is especially important for vegans or those on a plant-based diet. The best protein powder for vegans are those derived from soy or a blend of pea and rice protein. Research shows vegan proteins promote similar strength, performance, body composition and muscle growth to that of whey protein when amino acid profiles are matched. It is important to look at the amount of leucine per serve and ensure that is between 2-3g per serve. While you will achieve that with 20-25g of whey protein, it is common to need to increase the grams per serving with vegan or plant-based proteins to achieve the same amount of leucine. Research shows vegan proteins promote similar strength, performance, body composition and muscle growth to that of whey protein. Soy protein also has positive health benefits for women’s health, due to its ability to maintain bone mineral content and reduce the severity of menopausal symptoms.
When choosing a protein powder, it is important to choose one with 20-25+ grams of protein per serve. Some individuals may need serves closes to 40g/ per serve but it is always good to work with an Accredited or Advanced Sports Dietitian.
2. Added sugar and sweeteners
Many protein shakes and powders include artificial sweeteners and sugars to improve the taste. The most common sweeteners used include sucralose, Splenda, aspartame, equal, saccharine, and xylitol. Such sugar and sweeteners can cause negative side effects such as headaches, migraines and gastrointestinal distress.
When choosing a protein powder you should choose one with little to no sugar or sweetener (<1g per serve), in order to avoid any negative side effects. Additionally, choosing a protein powder with little to no sugar or sweetener will help with weight loss. True WPI has 0.3g of sugar per serve, whilst Raw protein has 0.9g of sugar per serve, thus these protein powders are an excellent option.
3. Other additives
When choosing a protein powder it is important to choose one of high quality, which possesses all of the essential amino acids and contains sufficient amounts of BCAAs, in particular, leucine to augment muscle protein synthesis.
It is also important to choose a protein that has little to no additives such as thickeners and gums, milk powder and sugars and sweeteners, rather choosing a protein powder that is natural and has only the most important ingredients (protein/BCAAs, vitamins and minerals, natural flavours).
4. HASTA approval
It’s critical that athletes choose protein supplements approved by Human and Supplement Testing Australia (HASTA). HASTA tests sports supplements (including protein powders) for World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substances. All approved supplements have a HASTA certified seal on the pack to signify that there are no banned substances in the supplement. Athletes should choose protein powders that are HASTA approved, to minimise the risk of banned substance consumption and thus drug prosecutions.