Protein Powders: A healthy supplement or unnecessary expense?

protein powdersProtein powders are one of the most popular and widely available dietary supplements, but before jumping on the bandwagon, it’s important you understand what protein powders are, what to look for and whether they’re right for you in the first place.

So what is protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients the body needs to function correctly (the other two being carbohydrates and fats). Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids and it forms the building block of all tissues in your body – not just your muscles, but your skin, nails, hair and organs as well. Many of our hormones and enzymes also contain protein.

There are 22 amino acids that make up all of the proteins in the body – most of these the body can synthesise on its own, but there are 9 essential amino acids which must be consumed through the diet. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Where does protein come from?

There’s a big misconception that protein only comes from animal products – eggs, meat, chicken, cheese and fish.  It’s important to know that much of the protein in your diet also comes from plant foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. The difference is that animal proteins are considered ‘complete’ proteins, as they contain all 9 essential amino acids. To make a complete protein from most plant foods, you need to combine at least two of them (e.g. legumes and grains, nuts and seeds, grains and nuts, etc) to make up all 9 essential amino acids.

So where do protein powders come into the picture?

Protein powders contain protein isolated from substances such as peas, rice, soy and dairy products. Ideally, they should only be used as a nutritional supplement to increase protein intake when an individual is unable to meet their body’s protein requirements through diet alone.

Years ago, whilst working in a health-food shop, I regularly had customers (especially men) asking for a protein powder to help them bulk up. At the same time, an equal number of customers (typically women) would ask for a protein powder to help them slim down – seems somewhat contradictory, and therein lies the issue. We have been fed so many misconceptions about who should use a protein powder, what they are used for, and what type is best. Whilst sports nutrition brands sell protein powders to help body-builders ‘bulk up’, weight-loss companies sell them with the promise they’ll help you slim down!

In reality, individuals eating a wholesome diet based on a wide variety of fresh and minimally processed foods should have no problem meeting their protein intake. As in the article we posted on our Facebook recently, most people are able to meet these requirements with relative ease. That said, some may choose to use protein powders because:

  • They have increased protein needs (e.g. due to intense physical activity)
  • They struggle to consume enough protein due to dietary restrictions
  • They have limited time and protein shakes make for a quick and easy meal
  • They like the taste, or feel they benefit from a slightly higher protein intake

If you fall into one of these categories, there’s a few things we suggest you look out for when buying a protein powder:

1. Type of Protein

First of all, you need to consider what type of protein powder to choose. The main types are whey, casein, pea, rice, hemp and soy-based formulas. Whilst whey-based formulas are possibly the most common, vegans and those with dairy allergies might opt for a pea or rice-based option instead. Lactose intolerant individuals might also want to avoid whey and casein formulas. As a general guide (and for various reasons), we tend to prefer pea, rice, hemp or organic whey based formulas.

2. Protein Content

Most protein powders contain somewhere between 50-100g of protein per 100g. This will vary based on the type of protein you choose, how it has been processed (e.g. into a protein isolate or protein concentrate) and other factors, such as ‘filler’ ingredients, which I’ll detail below. How high a protein content you need would depend on your individual circumstances, but as a general rule, choosing a product with less filler ingredients is a better way to go.

3. Ingredients

Lastly, there are a few ingredients and fillers we recommend avoiding when on the hunt for a protein powder. These include:

  • Colours, flavours and other nasty additives: Many protein powders are filled with artificial colouring and flavouring agents to make them more appealing. We recommend choosing a plain or naturally flavoured option (e.g. flavoured with just vanilla extract or cocoa) and adding your own flavour by incorporating it into a delicious smoothie with a fruit, your choice of milk, nuts, berries and/or cacao powder.
  • Artificial sweeteners: If you pick up a protein powder and it contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose, put it back and move on! Again, choose a plain option (and sweeten it yourself with fruit if needed), or one sweetened with stevia.
  • Skim milk powder or milk solids: These are sometimes used as a ‘filler’ in protein powders to make them cheaper. They are highly processed, and as they contain lactose, many people suffer abdominal discomfort or bloating as a result of them.
  • Vegetable oils: These are another highly processed ingredient found in low quality protein powders. They are sometimes used to give the powder a creamy ‘mouth-feel’ but they should be avoided as they typically contain trans fats which are highly inflammatory and bad for your cardiovascular health.
  • Stimulants and appetite suppressants: Many protein powders contain stimulants like green coffee bean extract and guarana to ‘rev’ you up and give you that boost of energy pre-workout. As these can interfere with sleep and cause anxiety, we recommend you avoid stimulant-containing protein powders and instead derive your energy from beautiful, fresh, healthy foods!
  • Emulsifiers and gums: These agents often cause bloating and gas and can wreak havoc in the intestinal cell lining, contributing to increased intestinal permeability. They are also highly processed.
  • Lastly, depending on your circumstances, you may also want a product that’s certified organic, or is suitable for gluten-free and/or lactose-free diets.

Overall, most of our patients are able to consume adequate amounts of protein without resorting to protein supplements, and it’s important to remember that in an ideal situation, it’s best to get your protein from food. That said, if you’re unsure whether a protein powder is right for you or if would like some dietary guidance around the topic, why not call us on (08) 9285 0998 to book an appointment with one of our qualified naturopaths. Let us help you navigate the media minefield of misinformation and devise an approach specific to your individual circumstances and needs 🙂 

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