For those of us attempting to sculpt our bodies into lean, toned dream machines we may feel pressured to buy a top-of-the-range protein supplement. They promise gains in muscle, loss of fat, increased energy and a whole list of reasons to rush out and buy a 10kg bucket TODAY! The market is flooded with various concoctions touting secret ingredients and formulations (many of which read like a pharmacy textbook), but do we need all this to support our exercise regimes?
Perhaps not. For most people, a healthy diet consisting of lean protein, complex and low GI carbohydrates as well as vegetables, fruit and unsaturated fats will be more than enough to shape a healthy body. On the other hand, eating enough protein throughout the day can be tricky so the use of a supplement may provide a simple, convenient way of boosting intake or an easy post-workout snack. It is recommended that intake is spread out, with doses of only 20-25g providing ideal amounts muscle building amino acids. Studies show that the effect of over-consuming (think protein shake crazed gym junkie) does not have any additional benefit but may be risky.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Many studies point to whey supplements as the gold standard, thus their heavy representation in the market. Credit is given to a specific essential amino acid found in whey – leucine. While research is ongoing, it is thought to ‘turn on’ muscle development and stimulate our body to build and repair muscle. Some formulas contain a combination of whey, casein (the two types of protein found in milk) and milk solids, whereas others contain whey only. The state of the protein can also vary – some are intact, other have been hydrolysed or split, meaning they are more readily absorbed. These are known as whey protein isolates (WPI) whereas whey protein concentrates are slightly less modified.
Concentrates and isolates are available from plant sources as well, often pea or brown rice based. These do not have the same leucine concentration but remain a popular alternative, especially for vegans.
ALTERNATIVES TO WHEY AND MILK BASED POWDERS
In response to concerns regarding a high heavy metal content in some milk based supplements, natural health companies have launched a new breed of alternate powders. These include the brown rice, wheat, soy and pea derivatives as well as hemp seed, cacao, sprouted barley and more. The leucine and protein content is often lower and care must be taken to select one with a complete amino acid array.
HOW MUCH & WHEN
Protein requirements are highly individual and even fluctuate daily depending on your level of activity. A minimum recommendation for men is around 0.8g/kg (multiply your weight by 0.8 to find out how many grams you need each day) and slightly less for women. High-intensity athletes may require up to 1.7g/kg/day although many consume far more. It is recommended that healthy adults, regardless of their degree of exercise, consume no more than 2g/kg/day.
It’s about quality and timing, not quantity. Ensuring protein is consumed within two hours of heavy exercise will also increase muscle regeneration. Many brands provide unnecessarily large serving sizes of 50g or more. There is no additional benefit as far as muscle regeneration and building goes, but there is evidence to suggest that very high protein diets can increase urinary calcium output, weakening bones and increasing fracture risk. Overdosing on protein can also lead to kidney stones and weight gain! Like everything, moderation is key!
Lactose intolerant readers are probably wondering whether or not whey supplements are likely to trigger unpleasant symptoms. The answer is not simple. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme required to digest the sugar portion found in most dairy products. Without the enzyme, lactose is broken down in the large intestine by bacteria that cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, swelling, flatulence and diarrhoea – unpleasant to say the least! Only 5% of the Caucasian population is thought to have the condition, however intolerance is the norm for most other ethnicities. Naturopaths claim that almost everyone has some degree of lactose intolerance and that consumption interferes with digestion. While many lactose intolerant people avoid dairy altogether, it may not be necessary as some of the enzyme is still produced, meaning that small quantities of dairy can be consumed without reaction. Yoghurt, some cheeses and butter are often tolerated, but what about milk-based protein supplements? Which, if any, are likely to be safe?
While whey alone will not cause discomfort for most lactose intolerant people, other ingredients may. It is always important to read the label before purchasing a supplement as some contain milk solids (high in lactose) or unrefined whey protein that may contain some residual lactose. Whey protein isolates (WPIs) and hydrolysed whey protein isolates (HWPIs) formulas are the best options for those seeking to cash in on the leucine buzz however soy, pea or egg based supplements may also prove effective.
Most importantly, remember that a protein supplement is not a safe meal replacement over a long period. They do not contain the vital elements required to maintain a healthy body and should always be used with caution or occasionally. If in doubt, listen to your body, follow the recommended dosage and if you’re unsure, just skip it.
10 TOP TIPS
- Look for brands with no artificial flavours, sweeteners or preservatives. If you can’t pronounce it, avoid it.
- Stick to a serving size that will deliver 20-25g of protein only, any more is a waste and also strains your kidneys
- Spread out your protein over the course of the day to get the best results
- Try using protein powder to increase the protein and satiety of normal meals rather than using in isolation. You might add some to your smoothie or muesli in the morning or even add some to baked goods. This will also ensure you are getting other important nutrients and fibre.
- Find a supplement that contains complete protein if you are a vegetarian or vegan. There are now plenty on the market. See links below.
- Avoid supplements with high levels of caffeine or other stimulants.
- If you play sport competitively, make sure the supplement you take doesn’t contain banned substances – there have been cases where athletes have unknowingly consumed banned substances and been suspended!
- Most PTs are not qualified to give nutritional advice so if you’re feeling pressured by someone without a qualification, ask what’s in it for them and do your own research before making drastic changes.
- Use common sense! Real foods are still the best source of nutrition, so use a supplement as a supplement, not a replacement.
- Remember, protein will not magically make you buff! You’ve still got to earn your muscles the hard way – exercise!