Get the scoop on the protein shake conundrum
You love a protein shake. No? Then your best mate has a scoop’s worth sitting in her shaker, and the woman in the gym shower next to you is about to mix hers postworkout. How can we be so sure? Because the numbers speak for themselves. Just look at Holland & Barrett, for instance, where sales of protein powder have increased 20% over the past five years, with 62% of purchases made by women; likely a result of the female exodus from the cross trainer to the squat rack over the past few years. ‘These days, I rarely meet a woman who lifts but hasn’t introduced protein shakes into her diet,’ says PT and body transformation coach Dan Wheeler*. And as a tub and scoop are now everyday essentials for women who work out, more and more questions are being asked about the body claims they make – so we’ve called in the experts.
THE FULL SCOOP
‘Protein is a macronutrient that provides amino acids, which join together to create and maintain muscle, bone, hormones and skin,’ says Dr Graeme Close, professor of human physiology at Liverpool John Moores University, who advises British athletes on nutrition. ‘Think of them like Lego blocks. When the muscles are damaged through exercise, the Lego builders are ready to rebuild, but they can only get to work if you give them blocks,’ he says. Train muscles without adequate amino acids and you leave them with no option but to break down. Back to the Lego builders. ‘They’re so determined to build those muscular walls that they’ll break down existing muscle in order to access the amino acids required,’ Dr Close explains. So focusing on increasing your protein intake as you increase your body’s training is a no-brainer. In an ideal world, you’d get this protein from whole foods – meat, eggs, seafood, dairy, beans and pulses – but unless you’re down with dropping half your salary in the local butcher’s and spending your evenings boiling eggs and poaching chicken breasts, the ease and speed of protein powder is its greatest selling point. ‘Protein powder isn’t some weird artificial substance – it’s just an isolated part of the food,’ says sports nutritionist Drew Price. ‘And when it comes to muscle growth and repair, 30g of protein from a shake is as good as the equivalent amount from a chicken breast.’
SHAKE ON IT
If you’re really into strength training, Dr Close recommends you consume 1.5g protein per kilogram of body weight every day. So if you weigh in at 60kg, you’d be looking to put away 90g of protein a day, irrespective of your body’s existing musclefat ratio. Cardio fan? ‘Runners would need less, say, 1.2g protein per kilogram of body mass,’ says Dr Close, because cardio doesn’t damage the muscle fibres as much as weight training. Some experts argue that supplementing with protein is pointless, insisting women only need 10% of their calorie intake from protein (roughly 0.8g per kilogram of body weight). But Dr Close, who is also deputy chair of the Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register, disputes this. ‘General recommended intakes are based on sedentary people,’ he argues. ‘Women who train regularly and perform at their optimum have different needs.’ And it’s not just down to how much you’re consuming – when you have your protein shake is just as important. If you sink it straight after a healthy, proteinrich meal, Dr Close says you’re wasting your time – and money. ‘Your body will simply take the protein it needs from both – roughly 30g – and excrete the rest as urea,’ he explains. ‘It’s best to supply your muscles with a steady stream of amino acids.’ His advice is to calculate the total amount of daily protein you need, divide by four, and aim to consume it in even amounts every three or four hours. But what of all the shoulderpress pros downing their shakes post-session, eager to make the most of that 30-minute window when your body utilises protein most efficiently – and turning the gym changing room into the protein shake equivalent of a cocktail bar? Well, the theory behind that is still up for discussion – or not, according to some. ‘It’s nonsense,’ argues Price. ‘We know the anabolic response to training – that is, the body’s ability to increase muscle synthesis – lasts for 24 hours.’ Dr Close agrees that the concept is a myth. ‘Humans would never have evolved to create a mechanism that meant by the time a hunter-gatherer returned home with their prey, the nutrients were no longer useful or adequately metabolised by the body.’
JUST YOUR TYPE
Time to choose your fuel. If you’re lifting weights, whey remains the experts’ first choice. With good reason: 2016 research in the journal Nutrition And Metabolism found whey to be the easiest protein supplement source for your body to utilise. ‘It contains 13% leucine, an amino acid that triggers the process of muscle protein synthesis,’ says Price. ‘It basically has the power to flick the “on” switch to build new muscle tissue.’ Whey protein is commonly available in three different forms, all with varying degrees of efficacy. Whey concentrate offers the lowest protein content and is therefore the cheapest option; whey isolate has 99% of the lactose removed so it tends to be a better choice for those with intolerances; and then there’s hydroxylate, made up of 95% pre-digested protein – it’s the most easily absorbed, but has the price tag to go with it. With those credentials, why aren’t we all downing whey? Well, for vegans and those who prefer to follow a primarily plant-based diet, whey won’t do. There’s also the fact that some people who don’t report dairy or lactose intolerance nevertheless suffer painful bloating after consuming whey protein. ‘It’s likely that, even for people who can normally tolerate milk, the quantity of whey protein in every scoop is too much to easily digest,’ says Price. ‘You’d never eat the amount of Greek yoghurt necessary to consume 30g of dairy protein in one sitting.’of the plant-based alternatives – most commonly hemp, rice or pea – is there a top pick? Experts say you’re best off trying a few and making your choice based on protein content and taste. ‘Vegan proteins don’t have a complete essential amino acid profile,’ says Price. ‘Hemp, for example, contains half the
‘PROTEIN FROM A SHAKE IS JUST AS GOOD AS THAT FROM A CHICKEN BREAST’
‘CHANGING UP YOUR PROTEIN HIT CUTS THE RISK OF DEVELOPING SENSITIVITY’
amount of leucine as whey. And even pea protein, which is higher in leucine than other plant options, lacks amino acids like glutamine, which maintains the body’s acid balance, and arginine, needed for tissue repair,’ he adds. So if you’re lifting heavy and would prefer a vegan option, you might need to up your protein-rich whole foods or supplement some of these amino acids to reap the optimum benefit. Happily, as demand soars, brands are looking to blend plant proteins to create powders with a more rounded amino acid profile, which will aid muscle building as effectively as whey. But isn’t chopping and changing while you try to find the right protein for you going to mess with your body? Well, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘Alternating between two or three types lessens the risk of overloading your system and developing a sensitivity,’ says Price. But if there’s one new protein on the block to swerve, it seems to be collagen powder. It sounds appealing – promising to boost tresses and complexion along with muscle repair, but Dr Close challenges the latter claim. ‘While it may benefit skin and bone health, it’s impact on muscle will be negligible.’
THE FINE PRINT
Once you’ve chosen your protein source, it pays to look out for any nutritional deal-breakers on the label. The most obvious, and important, is the actual protein content. ‘The powder should be at least 70% protein,’ says Price. Whey tends to be on or above this mark, but vegan options, containing more added fat and carbs, often linger below. Lengthy, impossible-topronounce ingredients lists are a no-go. ‘Go unflavoured and you’ll find products with just the protein source and an emulsifier,’ says Price. Experts are divided on whether artificial sweeteners should be vetoed, but if you want to play it safe, choose a blend naturally sweetened with stevia or katemfe fruit extract. What about those artfully packaged pouches boosted with ingredients like macca and green tea? ‘They’re generally the same thing, plus some unproven “superfood” extras,’ says Dr Close. It’s also best to hold back on those powders that are sold as meal replacements. ‘When you consume protein powder, you’re not getting any of the fat-soluble vitamins or healthy fats you’d find in, say, eggs or salmon,’ explains Price. Dr Close agrees. ‘First, see where you can hit that quota from food, and if there are any gaps – or times when it’s just not realistic to do so – that’s when you add a protein shake or bar.’ Got it? Good.
The Lord’s whey