We explore the health benefits of using protein shakes as a sports supplement.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Becky Fletcher
Protein powder might have once been the sports supplement reserved for body builders, but these days many health conscious people integrate shakes into their diet. So how does protein powder work, what’s the best way to consume it and what should you look out for?
Is protein powder good for you?
Even if you don’t hit the gym on a daily basis, additional protein in the form of a powder does come with some proven health benefits.
While high-protein foods are unprocessed and have a high nutritional value, shakes are convenient. And research suggests that protein supplements significantly improve muscle size and strength in healthy adults who perform resistance exercise training, such as lifting weights.
‘Getting additional protein in the diet can benefit most people, especially those who are physically active’ Hertzler says. ‘Our bodies needs vary depending on body weight and activity level. With our busy schedules and active lifestyles, we might not always get enough from our diet and protein powders provide a convenient way to give our body the nutrition it needs.’
Even if you don’t hit the gym on a daily basis, additional protein may be beneficial.
Many people assume consuming protein powder is all about building muscle, but it can support a number of health and fitness goals, including:
- Weight loss
- Getting lean
- Building strength and endurance
Protein powders are not just for bodybuilders – they are often used to support weight loss because they ensure muscles have the nutrition they need on reduced calorie diets. And for people who are working out, using protein powder within 30 minutes of their workout can prevent muscle breakdown and speed up recovery.
The types of protein powder
There are various types of protein available on the market and different protein sources have different digestion rates and amino acid profiles. According to Hertzler, most people who work out regularly can narrow their choices to the following, based on their goals and dietary preferences:
- Whole milk protein
Whole milk protein contains whey and casein, both excellent sources of high quality protein in their own right. Together they complement each other, with whey providing a fast-digesting protein source that muscles can use quickly and casein a slower-digesting protein that can stave off hunger for longer periods. Pure milk protein powder is a good choice for people looking to support weight-loss goals or a low-carbohydrate diet.
- Whey protein
Whey, which is a byproduct of cheese production, is ideal for workout recovery. Whey is a fast-digesting protein that gets to the muscles quickly when taken after a workout to prevent breakdown and speed recovery.
Lactose intolerant or vegan protein powder
Soy protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. While several studies have said soy may interfere with hormone levels, the jury’s still out and a daily soy shake shouldn’t affect these.
Hemp protein is another good option if you can’t have whey protein, as it has a high nutritional profile and is almost a complete protein (although it has low levels of lysine and leucine), but it may have a high fat content. Pea protein powder, while affordable and with adequate levels of protein, has been shown to be deficient in cysteine and methionine amino acids – this is why it is sometimes mixed with brown rice protein.
What to look for when buying protein powder
With so many products on the market, it’s important to seek out quality protein. ‘Once you choose the right protein source, look for products from reputable manufacturers that are committed to quality and transparency,’ says Hertzler. ‘Treat protein supplements the way you would the other foods you put in your body: read the label carefully and make sure you know what’s in the powder and why it’s there.’
Hertzler recommends you look out for the following three things when shopping for protein shakes:
- The first is making sure that the protein is high-quality, such as whey or pure milk concentrate and pure.
- Secondly, keep an eye our for purity – do all the ingredients have a purpose or are there unnecessary sugars or filler?
- Lastly, focus on mixability and taste. You want a product that dissolves easily and tastes nice.
‘All protein powders will tout the number of grams of protein per serving on the label, with typical numbers ranging from 15 to 30 grams,’ says Hertzler. ‘But it’s worth double-checking to ensure all of those grams are coming from the source you expect. For example, some whey proteins also contain creatine, which is a nitrogen-containing compound and may be mistakenly counted as protein during label claim testing, even though it is not protein.’
He also advises avoiding unnecessary fillers or sugars. Make sure you’re not getting more than you bargained for in the form of added sugars.
How to use your protein powder
Hertzler recommends the following ways to consumer protein powder:
✔️ Protein powders don’t just need to be mixed with water – although, according to STRIPPD protein, mixing it with water helps the protein reach muscles faster.
✔️ Protein can easily be added to a breakfast smoothie, porridge or used as a shake between meals as a healthy (and filling) snack.
✔️ For those working out, using protein powder within 30 minutes of finishing a workout can help prevent muscle breakdown and speed recovery
✔️ The amount of protein powder you need depends on diet, weight and activity level and Hertzler explains that most protein powders provide between 15 and 30 grams of protein per serving.
✔️ Unless you are training for a bodybuilding competition – or get very little protein through your diet – using a protein powder once a day should be sufficient. If your activity level increases, increase your protein intake as well.