Do You Need Protein Powders?
Protein powders are becoming more popular as a nutritional supplement. They are in every nutrition store, most markets, and all over the Internet. You can even find pre-mixed, ready-to-drink protein shakes in many stores. But are protein powders just for bodybuilders, or can the average, everyday athlete benefit from them as well? With so many options out there, which should you choose?
What Are Protein Powders?
The four most common protein powders are made from whey, casein, soy, and other plants (e.g. pea, hemp, rice).
Whey is the most commonly used protein powder on the market. It is a water-soluble milk protein, and is also a complete protein (contains all the essential amino acids). Whey protein is produced as an isolate or concentrate. The isolate form has little if any lactose, so it generally produces fewer digestive disturbances in lactose-sensitive individuals. Whey is also fast-acting and contains the important muscle building branch chain amino acids (BCAAs). I prefer the isolate over the concentrate since it is generally better tolerated and is of higher quality.
Casein is a slower-acting protein, also from dairy. It is often consumed at night before bed while the body repairs and rejuvenates. I’m not a big fan of casein because it has been shown to be inferior and is often contaminated with toxic residues.
People who are vegan may prefer soy protein, although its taste is sometimes considered to be unpleasant, and it doesn’t dissolve as well in water. Soy may also act as a phytoestrogen, mimicking the role of estrogen in the body, which is not desirable for anyone other than menopausal women. It may be especially counter-productive for those trying to build lean body mass.
Other vegan protein powder sources include hemp, rice, pumpkin seed and pea. Some companies combine these proteins in order to make a complete protein (such as Vega brand). However, in my opinion, these are inferior for muscle building.
Protein powders often come with a number of fillers, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors. Ideally, when using a protein powder, get one that is unsweetened and as pure as possible. Adding nut milks, fruits (bananas, berries) and vegetables (green leafy veggies) can provide flavor in addition to nutrition.
Protein powders can be useful under specific circumstances. They can be an easy and convenient source of complete, high-quality protein, that can be used to supplement a balanced diet when you are:
- Growing. Active teenagers need more protein to fuel their workouts because the teenage body is still growing and uses more protein in general.
- Starting a workout program. If working out is new to you and you’re trying to build muscle, your protein requirements will be greater
- Increasing your workout intensity. If you normally work out for half an hour a few times a week, but now you’ve decide to train for a half-marathon, your body will need more protein.
- Recovering from an injury. Athletes with sports injuries frequently need more protein to help them heal.
- Going vegan. People who pursue a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle eliminate a number of common protein sources from their diet, including meat, chicken, and fish, and sometimes dairy and eggs as well.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t take that much protein to achieve the above goals.
Some of these powders have very high amounts of protein per serving. The amount of protein you can absorb in one sitting depends on a number of factors, such as body size, activity level, age and stress.
- Recreational athletes need 0.5-0.75 grams of protein daily for every pound of body weight
- Competitive athletes need 0.6-0.9 grams per pound
- Teenage athletes need 0.8-0.9 grams per pound
- Athletes building muscle mass need 0.7-0.9 grams per pound
The maximum amount of protein that most adults can use per day is 0.9 grams per pound of body weight.
How to Use Protein Powders
Some signs of inadequate protein intake include fatigue, feeling weak when lifting weights or doing other strenuous activity, or recovering from injuries slowly.
Keep in mind that before, during, and after a workout, carbohydrates are what your body needs most. They’re what your body uses for fuel, and what your muscles run on. Protein is also important for recovery after a workout, but research shows that at that point, the body needs fuel with a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
Sample pre/post workout smoothie: 1 – 1.5 cups unsweetened almond milk, 3/4 cup berries, 1 banana, 1 cup spinach, 2 tbsp hemp seeds or ground flax seeds, 1 tbsp nut butter, 1 scoop protein powder (15-30 grams).
Bottom line: Protein powders are not really necessary if you have access to a whole foods-based, balanced diet, but they can be useful as a convenience or under those specific circumstances mentioned above.