All About Protein Powder
There are so many different protein supplements available, it can all get a little confusing...
In this blog, Amy gives us all the info so you are able to make an informed choice when it comes to your nutrition!
What's the deal with protein powder?
What is protein powder? How do I know if I need it and what should I look for?
Read on to find out more!
What is protein powder?
Protein is an important macronutrient, meaning that we require it in large amounts. Protein's job in the body is to repair and maintain all cells, transport molecules around the body, aid cell signaling, support tissue growth and even replicate DNA. It is vital to all aspects of our physiology!
Protein powder is the concentrated and powdered down protein portion of a food of choice to use as a dietary supplement. The most common protein powder is the concentrated and powdered down protein portion of milk, also known as whey. Whilst protein powder has gotten a reputation for use amongst the muscle bound and sporting types it can actually be an effective food supplement no matter your physique or activity status. It is not a steroid, it is not a drug and it has no negative impacts on the body beyond that of normal protein found in everyday foods. That is because it is the exact same protein found in everyday foods (e.g. milk, egg, rice, pea) just in a concentrated version, for your convenience.
What is protein powder used for?
Protein powder is used as a dietary supplement for those that find it difficult to reach their protein target through food for whatever reason or by people who simply find it more convenient to use a protein powder in their day.
Those that may find protein powder helpful include:
- People with high protein requirements due to sport
- People with high protein requirements due to large body size
- People with high protein requirements due to surgery and recovery
- People with small appetites who can’t eat enough food
- People with illnesses or mouth injuries that stop them from eating food
- People who are vegetarian or vegan
- People with a busy lifestyle who find the speed and transportability of powder easier
- People who like the taste and convenience of protein powder (because blending a steak with your fruit in the morning just wouldn’t be the same, right!)
How do I tell if my protein powder is a good one?
Read on to find out more!
How do I tell if a protein powder is good quality?
Protein powders are widely available and as such come in all different shapes, sizes, flavours and quality.
The best way to check for quality is to look at a few things on the nutrition label:
- Protein content for protein specific powders are usually at least > 20g per serve if not closer to the 24-25g mark.
- Good quality protein powders usually list the amino acid profile. This is the amount of each of the different amino acids (the building blocks of full proteins) such as valine and leucine. Be wary of products that don’t share this information even online.
- High quality proteins are usually high in leucine, the amino acid commonly associated with triggering muscle growth. Leucine content should typically be > 2.5g/ 2500mg per serve. Plant based proteins are generally lower quality proteins due to lower amino acid levels such as leucine.
- There will be no or a low amount of extra ingredients. High quality products do not need to bulk up on cheap ingredients such as creatine, vitamins, minerals, and green tea extract etc.
- False advertising claims. If your protein powder tells you it is a fat burner and will lead you to a unicorn grove at the end of the la la-land rainbow. It won’t. It is just a food supplement and should not be suggesting it is anything else.
- If you are a sports person take your protein powder purchase more seriously and find a brand that batch tests for contamination as this will ensure you are clear for doping tests in sport.
Protein powder is the concentrated and powdered supplement form of protein from certain foods. It can be a helpful and convenient way to boost protein intake for those that may need some help, or just enjoy the product. To choose a high quality product you will need to check the nutrition label for things like protein and amino acid content.
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Read on to find out all about the different types of protein powder!
Different types of Protein Powder
Whey protein is the fluid protein portion of milk after it has been separated from the curd, more commonly known in the process of making cheese. Curds and whey? This fluid is then dried and powdered to make whey protein powder which in its basic form is called whey concentrate and is around 80% protein. Whey concentrate is a cheap, rapidly absorbed protein with all 20 of the amino acids (building blocks of proteins). This makes it a high quality and affordable protein supplement option. Whey protein is probably the most well researched protein powder and has been found to help with muscle growth and repair (1) and may increase fat loss and improve muscle retention whilst on a fat loss diet (2).
If you like your protein powder to have less fat, carbohydrate, lactose (milk sugar) and calories or pack a higher protein punch you may want to choose whey protein isolate instead. This is whey protein that has been further processed to remove more fat and sugars, making it around 90% protein. For this reason whey isolate tends to be more expensive than whey concentrate. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference because quite honestly it is unlikely you will see a physiological difference between using either concentrate or isolate.
Casein is also derived from milk, however it is typically digested and absorbed much slower than whey protein. Casein thickens in the stomach and takes much longer to break down therefore the amino acids (building blocks of protein) reach the bloodstream slowly but can be sustained for a longer period of time. This is not as useful for rapid recovery and muscle growth so you wouldn’t necessarily want to take it first thing in the morning or after a training session. However it may have huge benefits for those dieting, to keep them fuller for longer and allow amino acids to stay in the system for longer periods in between meals. It has also gained popularity as a pre-bed protein option. Casein can keep amino acids circulating and therefore reduce the risk of muscle loss overnight. Now most people aren’t suddenly losing muscle overnight however those with high protein requirements, consuming limited food or carrying out large amounts of weight training may benefit. There is no obvious downside to using casein so if you fit into one of these groups and you’re curious, you might as well try it.
Plant based proteins
Plant based proteins are, as the name suggests, derived from plants. These include proteins predominantly from grains, legumes or seeds such as rice, pea, hemp seed, chia seed or sunflower seed. Plant based proteins are ideal for those wanting to avoid eating animal products such as vegans. They have the added benefit of being lactose free for those with lactose intolerance. Plants by nature tend to provide a lower quality protein because they are often missing 1 or more of the 20 amino acids which make up protein molecules. They also typically have lower levels of amino acids, such as leucine, and for that reason may not be as effective at triggering muscle growth.
Protein blends are a mixture of different types of protein and may even be superior by covering multiple bases in one supplement. For example, whilst single ingredient plant based proteins don’t tend to contain all 20 amino acids, a blend using different plant sources which compliment each other to ultimately contain all 20 is a superior product. Plant blends can therefore contain more and higher amounts of amino acids, perhaps even to compete with animal based proteins. Protein blends may also include fast absorbing whey proteins and slow absorbing casein proteins to give muscles a rapid hit of amino acids for growth and a slow release of amino acids to support ongoing recovery. Blending proteins can also reduce the price of products whilst still producing a high quality product, for example, blending whey isolate with whey concentrate and egg protein (albumin).
There are many different types of protein powders. The most popular are whey concentrate, whey isolate, casein, plant based protein and protein blends.
Benefits of protein powders:
- Protein is necessary for almost every function in the body and is required in large amounts every day
- Stimulates muscle growth after a training session
- Decreases muscle breakdown therefore protecting muscle in times of increased breakdown such as during dieting or hard exercise
- Increases satiety keeping you fuller for longer periods
- Helpful for at risk groups struggling with hitting protein targets (illness, vegetarians)
- Convenient and transportable protein for busy people
- Comes in tasty flavours to suit most peoples palate
- Milk derived options often supply other vitamins and minerals such as calcium
Protein powders have many health and convenience benefits
Are protein powders safe?
There is some concern around boosting protein intake via protein powders due to some research showing that high protein intake can negatively affect kidney function in mice. However there is no evidence to suggest that high protein intakes CAUSE kidney dysfunction, what they found was it can exacerbate it. Therefore if you have any pre-existing kidney issues you should probably be consuming a lower protein diet. Healthy kidneys on the other hand seem to be able to handle high protein intakes just fine. This was highlighted in a study measuring kidney health markers in men consuming very large amounts of protein (2.5-3.3g/ Kg of body weight) for a year and finding no health problems (3).
Protein leaches calcium from your bones?...No!
It was thought in the past that protein increases acidity in the blood which causes a leaching of calcium out of the bones in order to neutralise this. This was believed as high protein diets often increase acidity and calcium content of the urine. However it has since been established that high protein diets actually increase calcium absorption in the gut and therefore you have more available calcium to lose in the urine (4). This is supported by the fact that high protein diets are actually associated with increased bone density, decreased bone loss and a lower risk of fractures.
But doesn’t protein shorten your lifespan?...No!
A huge study looking at over 700,000 people found that all cause mortality (all cause of deaths) were reduced in those with higher protein intakes and plant proteins were also associated with lower mortality (deaths) from cardiovascular disease (5). High protein intakes as you age can help to retain muscle, strength and mobility meaning not only a longer life but a higher quality of life too.
But isn’t it an unnatural processed product?
Well yes and no. Protein powders usually originate from a whole food source which does go through processing. However, unlike other foods we might typically think of as ‘processed’ and therefore less healthy for us, protein powder is processed to concentrate the nutritive value (protein) to serve a purpose. It does not have the health benefits processed ‘out’ of it such as in refining wholewheat into white bread. With that being said there are usually additional ingredients in the final product which you may want to consider for yourself if you are happy to consume. For example, certain sweeteners or thickening agents may affect some people's digestive systems differently. If you are concerned with consuming only natural products there are high quality, natural ingredient protein products on the market. Protein powder has no recommended maximum intake but from a common sense perspective I would limit intake to 1-2 serves per day to allow for a variety of nutrient dense sources of protein in the diet.
There are no significant safety concerns with protein powder use. You should reduce protein consumption if you have a pre-existing kidney function issue. You may also want to check the ingredients list for any added ingredients that you personally may be sensitive to. Take care not to use protein powders as your only source of protein. Nutritional diversity in the diet is still important no matter how convenient it is.
Let’s Sum It Up
Protein powder is the concentrated and powdered down protein portion of various food sources such as milk, grains, legumes and seeds. They can be an easy and convenient way for people to reach their protein targets. Finding a high quality protein powder is not that hard, you just need to check the label for things like protein and amino acid content. There are different types of protein powders and you should choose one that suits your requirements. There are lots of benefits to increasing your protein intake and no negative health consequences to using protein powders for otherwise healthy people. As always you should not use any one product to excess if it means displacing other healthy and nutritious foods from your diet.
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DediKate nutrition services include; weekly educational nutrition videos, ongoing email support for members and a live weekly question and answer session. All with our DediKate Nutritionist Amy.
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