They used to be the preserve of bodybuilders, and were often considered to be in a category adjacent to steroids. Now protein shakes are a common sight at the gym, but how many people you see clutching their shakers actually know what’s in their shakes? When they should be taking them? How much they should have? And what the difference between all the varieties available is?
This comprehensive guide answers all those questions and more, leaving you fully informed and sure of exactly what you need to take and when to achieve your goals.
What Is Protein?
All types of proteins contain amino acids. There are lots of types of amino acids, but just 20 or so that the body uses to make the proteins it requires. Proteins can be split into two groups: animal sources (known as complete proteins), which contain a full spectrum of amino acids required to repair and build muscle, and plant sources (known as incomplete proteins), some which contain fewer amino acids.
The amino acids you gain from your diet, alongside those your body makes for itself (Essential Amino Acids, EAA), are also used to build many other different proteins. All these proteins fulfil a whole host of bodily functions, ranging from hormone production and helping transport substances in the blood, to aiding the growth and repair of your muscles. This is the bit we are interested in because minuscule muscle fibres are torn every time you exercise, and in order to repair – and become bigger and stronger – these fibres require a steady stream of amino acids to fuel the process. That’s how muscles get bigger – they don’t just swell and inflate from extended use, they tear, patch over the gaps, and end up bigger as a result. This process is known as protein synthesis. You break your muscles down in the gym and protein repairs old muscle tissue and builds new muscle tissue.
How Much Do I Need?
There’s no point even thinking about shakes until you’ve worked out how much protein you should have each day. Also, you need to know how much you’re getting from your diet, because it’s possible you won’t need protein shakes to top up. The government’s recommended minimum daily allowance for an adult is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight – although that’s for people just getting on with their life, proud of themselves when they walk up an escalator. If you’re regularly exercising and are trying to gain muscle mass, you should increase that amount to around 2-2.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 90kg you should aim to consume between 180-225g of protein each day.
Why Protein Shakes?
If you aren’t getting enough protein through your diet you’ll find it hard to make significant gains in the gym in terms of strength and muscle mass, no matter how hard you work. That’s because your body doesn’t have enough protein to effectively rebuild, repair, and grow your muscles. Where possible you should try to get more through natural high-protein foods such as milk, eggs, meat and fish because they’re unprocessed and have a higher nutritional value as a result. Whole foods high in protein (particularly animal foods) contain the full muscle building spectrum of amino acids that we are after. But protein shakes are a good way to conveniently get a large, quick protein hit whenever it is required. To ensure you are getting the best-quality protein products, look out for ones that provide all 20 amino acids.
Having said that, if you want to wolf down a can of tuna, some smoked mackerel, or some chicken straight after your session, that’s probably a better option in terms of your health. Protein shakes are convenient, but like most convenience foods they are also processed, and the less processed food you have in your diet, the better. It’s as simple as that. So, while protein shakes will definitely help you get bigger and stronger, they should not become regular replacement for real food. If you have one after each workout, for example, it’s not the best idea to have one for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Oh, and there’s the farting issue.
Are Protein Shakes Bad for You?
In short, no. The most common protein powders you’ll encounter in your shake are either whey or casein and they’re not manufactured by evil scientists in secret volcano laboratories. In fact, they usually originate from farms. Fast-digested whey is a liquid left over from milk once it’s been curdled and strained, and is a by-product of the cheese-making process. It’s one of the most popular sports nutrition products around because of its availability, cost and effectiveness for rebuilding muscle after exercise. Slow-absorbed casein is the main type of protein found in dairy, making up around 80% of the protein content of cow’s milk.
Both contain amino acids that are chains of organic compounds primarily made from the elements carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. More than 500 amino acids are currently known and classified, but only 23 are involved in the process of building proteins. Of these, only nine are known as essential because unlike the other 14, your body cannot create them from other compounds, meaning you need to consume them through your diet – which is where protein shakes help fill in any gaps your diet misses.
Protein shakes could only start to cause minor problems if you become over reliant on them. It’s always important to remember the clue is in the name supplement – they are designed to fill the nutritional gaps of a complete and varied diet. Getting most of your daily dietary protein from red and white meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, beans and nuts is the best way, because you’ll also consume more of the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients vital to boost health and performance.
Protein powders are often linked to an increase in ‘passing wind’. This, however, may only occur if you are over consuming protein daily and/or are intolerant to lactose. The simple solution to controlling your flatulence may be to reduce your daily protein consumption and/or start using a non-dairy plant based protein supplement. The amount that you pass wind may not even have anything to do with how much protein you consume and could be caused by intolerances to other foods. Anything that upsets your gut bio could lead to digestive problems. Consult a doctor if this is a problem that you regularly suffer from.
Plant Based Protein Powders:
When to take it: Throughout the day (if you’re vegan).
Why: Being vegan makes it tougher to get enough protein in your diet to make really impressive gym gains. However, it’s still possible. There is a fair few companies that make plant-based protein powders. Some shops sell individual serving packets so you can give them a try without shelling out for an entire tub. Compared with whey or casein, most have a gritty or chalky texture that isn’t great, but if you add it to a smoothie, pancake batter or baked goods such as brownies or cookies, your taste buds won’t have much to complain about. Also, like anything you get used to it over time, and considering the positive physical response it creates, you may start craving it after your workouts and wondering what the problem was in the first place.
How: Vegans have less opportunities to get protein in their daily diet so we recommend having a morning shake and a post-workout shake, as well as adding plant-based protein powder to baked goods that you can snack on in the afternoon or have for pudding after your evening meal.
Whey Protein Powders:
When to take it: After a workout.
Why: The most popular type of protein shake, whey is a fast-release protein, which means it’s quickly digested and so gets into your bloodstream – and therefore your muscles – fast.
It’s ideal for rapidly replenishing your muscle tissues after training and kick-starting protein synthesis (the process where new muscle fibres are built), resulting in bigger and stronger muscles. It also has a higher concentration of essential amino acids than whole milk, which can help to minimise muscle protein breakdown immediately after exercise.
What you consume after training is one of the most important meals you eat, so make sure you buy a high-quality product with all 20 essential amino acids, added vitamins, and barely any sweeteners.
How: It’s commonly believed that your muscles are most receptive to nutrients as soon as you finish training. If possible, drink a protein shake as soon as your final rep is completed. However, the golden period of time is thought to be the 1 hour window after exercising. You still don’t have to panic if you miss that – your body will still absorb and use the protein if you have it later, although it may be slightly less effective at aiding recovery. Either way, aim for a minimum of 40g of whey protein powder.
Casein Protein Powders:
When to take: Before bed or first thing in the morning.
Why: Casein is a form of protein commonly found in dairy products – it makes up around 80% of cow’s milk, for example. It’s a slow-release protein which means its larger molecules take longer for your body to digest, so you get more of a ‘drip-feed’ effect of protein into your bloodstream over a longer period. This makes it unsuitable for taking immediately after your workout when you need an instant hit, but ideal for consuming before bed or when you first wake up.
Having casein before bed helps your body continue to repair and grow muscles while you sleep, which sounds so good it’s almost like cheating. Alternatively, knocking back a casein shake first thing in the morning means your body gets a steady supply of protein throughout the day.
How: Have it in a shake with water before turning in for the night. This means your muscles will receive quality protein while you sleep, which is when they are repaired and rebuilt. Alternatively, have one in the morning – not as a breakfast replacement though, you still need the nutrients provided by real food.
What to Look Out for On the Label:
There are literally hundreds of companies out there that sell protein powder. They all seem to have different prices and slightly different ingredients on the labels. It is this blend of ingredients which determine the quality of the supplement you are spending (and in some cases wasting) your hard-earned cash on. The protein companies can be very clever in their wording with how they advertise their products, so don’t be too drawn in to what they claim. Use this section as a guide on what to look for when buying your protein powder.
Quality is going to be your first port of call here. High quality protein powders are usually found with a high percentage of protein per serving. For example, let’s say that we had a protein powder which had a serving size of 100 grams. We’ll also assume that in that 100-gram serving size 50 grams of it was protein. Therefore, when purchasing the product, you would be paying for 50% of non-protein! If you want protein you should pay for protein, not 50% protein and 50% filler (most of which cause digestive issues). I am talking about pure protein powders here and not mass gainers or similar.
As already listed above, we know that there are different types of protein. These proteins act differently within the body and can vary in rates at which they are digested and distributed around the body. Proteins function differently based on the types you use and how those proteins are manufactured. For example, whey protein can come in several forms. These forms can include:
– Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)
– Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
– Hydrolysed Whey Peptide (HWP)
Whey protein is made by pushing the liquid portion of milk through a filter. The material left behind is then dried and ground down into a powder. This powder forms whey protein concentrate (WPC) in its most basic form. WPC contains varying amounts of carbohydrates and fat in the form of lactose. The percentage of actual protein found in WPC varies from about 30% to about 80%. WPC does include a variety of other compounds that can have significant health benefits. A few of these health boosting compounds found in WPC are cysteine (which regulates metabolism), lactoferrin (a prebiotic which helps promote good bacteria in the gut) and immunoglobulins (which are powerful immune boosters). In order to receive a large amount of these health boosting compounds the whey protein needs to remain as undenatured as possible.
WPI is made from further processing and purifying WPC. The extra processing to turn WPC into WPI can impact negatively on the amount of health boosting compounds found in the whey protein. This negative effect on these compounds can be limited depending on the filtration process used to turn the WPC into WPI. Micro-filtration techniques, such as Cross Flow Micro filtration, are a more expensive procedure but yield a whey isolate with more intact bioactive peptides.
Hydrolysed whey isolate (HWP) is whey isolate that has been further broken down, yielding small peptides that are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream. Again, though, this extra processing comes at the cost of destruction of health promoting substances.
In more simple terms, “hydrolysed” means that WPC has been broken down from whole proteins into smaller groups of amino acids (which are the building blocks of proteins), also known as peptides. This method is meant to improve the speed of digestion and allow the protein to begin repairing old muscle tissue and building new muscle tissue. The term “isolate” refers to a purification process where supplement companies attempt to get the purest form of whey protein possible with the highest percentage of protein per serving. When done properly it is this purification process which can make the price you pay for WPI to increase as it is an expensive process.
So, when it comes to whey protein you may get what you pay for. The better that a WPC has been filtrated will mean it still contains many health promoting substances associated with taking the protein powder. The poorer the quality of protein used the less bioavailability of the protein – this means you won’t get much actual protein in your protein powder. As long as you aren’t lactose intolerant you can still get a very good WPC for a reasonable price. Just ensure you get at least 80% protein per serving. The further along the filtration process you go the higher the amount of protein and lower amounts of carbs and fats per serving, and the less digestive upset you’ll get from taking them. But you may have to pay more for this.
There is some extremely good plant based protein powders available on the market which harness all of the health benefits of hemp, pea, rice and quinoa.
Pea protein is naturally fat and cholesterol free and contains similar amounts of protein per serving to whey and casein, except it’s missing one amino acid – cysteine.
Although hemp seeds contain a high amount of protein they are also higher in calories. This is due to containing decent amounts of omega 3s and omega 6s. These fatty acids are good for you but if you’re on a calorie restricted diet hemp protein powders might not be the best choice.
Brown rice protein is a low calorie alternative plant based powder BUT it does have one drawback. It lacks certain muscle building amino acids (particularly lysine). Rice protein powders, all be it healthy, might be best taken when paired with other plant (or animal) based proteins so you can cover the full spectrum of amino acids necessary to repair and build muscle.
Perhaps the best-known plant based protein available on the market today is soy protein. It is considered a whole protein as it contains a full spectrum of amino acids. Although you would think this low calorie, dairy and gluten free protein would be the best choice it does have its drawbacks. The main one being that it contains isoflavones. These isoflavones can cause hormonal problems in males by negatively affecting testosterone levels due to boosting estrogen levels. This drop-in testosterone and increase in estrogen levels would therefore negatively affect your bodies capability to build muscle. Research has shown that as long as you are not having excess amounts of soy in your diet then you should be ok. Equally, the way that the soy protein powders are manufactured may lower the risk of this hormonal disruption occurring.
When buying the best vegan or plant based protein you might be better off buying a ‘blend’ of a few. This will ensure a full spectrum of amino acids are covered and you can still have a vegan protein powder that is dairy and gluten free. If you have digestive issues with whey protein powders, then a vegan blend protein powder may be your best choice!
A quick note on SWEETENERS and ARTIFICIAL FLAVOURING:
Most flavoured protein powders will contain sweeteners and artificial flavouring. Although research to date has demonstrated that there are no negative health effects to consuming these sweeteners and artificial flavours I still believe that we should be careful. Although these studies have shown no negative side effects in the consumption of the sweeteners and artificial flavours they have been short term, and if you are consuming these ‘fake foods’ on a daily basis the build-up of this over long periods of time (years of drinking protein shakes) could be detrimental to your health (especially your gut bio). Look for protein powders which offer natural flavourings and natural sweeteners; such as stevia.
Breakfast Peanut Butter and Blueberry Protein Shake:
Starting off the day with a high-protein breakfast can help you get lean, add muscle and have a more productive day. Just having a protein shake doesn’t deliver enough of the nutrients and energy your body needs to be the best muscle-building machine it can. However, the carbs in this smoothie will top up your glycogen stores while the protein will feed your muscles with the essential amino acids they need to grow, and the other ingredients provide the additional good stuff.
1tbsp peanut butter
1 scoop vanilla whey protein powder
2tbsp low-fat Greek-style yogurt
100ml skimmed milk
Blend the ingredients together in a blender.
What’s So Good About This Shake?
Oats are full of slow-digesting carbohydrates that will provide you with plenty of sustainable energy to see you through the morning. They are also packed with B vitamins, which help convert proteins and sugars into energy.
Yogurt contains protein, potassium and calcium, which together help build muscle and burn fat.
Peanut butter is a great source of energy and protein and contains fibre and healthy fats, which can help regulate your appetite by stabilising blood-sugar levels.
Blueberries are one of the best sources of antioxidants among berries. They are also low GI, low in calories and count towards your five a day.
Flaxseeds have nearly 1.5g of omega 3 fatty acids per tablespoon. These essential fats lock protein into your muscle fibres and boost your metabolism.
How to Make this Shake Work for Your Goals:
If fat loss is your goal:
– Reduce the portion of oats to 50 grams.
– Use almond milk instead of cow’s milk.
– Remove the teaspoon of natural peanut butter and use a powdered version of peanut butter instead (PB2 is my recommendation here).
If increasing muscle mass is your goal:
– Swap the low-fat milk and yogurt for the full-fat variety.
– Add an extra scoop of protein if required.
If you are happy with your body composition and train for performance and/or fun:
– Keep all the ingredients the same and enjoy your breakfast shake.
All this information is great, but are there any companies you recommend?
Ok so there are 2 companies I am going to recommend for protein powders. The reason I am recommending these companies is because of the high-quality products they produce. All of their products have traceable ingredients and they do not use any artificial ingredients or ‘fillers’. All of their products are batch tested and have a vast amount of scientific reason as to why they are using certain compounds within their products.
Both companies listed above have a great selection of whey protein powders and plant based protein powders. I have personally tried both brands and they are exceptionally good. They mix easily, taste great and cause me no digestive irritation. I am not associated with either company but it is what I personally use and what I recommend to my clients.
I hope you have found this article to be of some use and if you have any further questions then please don’t hesitate to send me a message.
*This article was written alongside Sam Rider for Coach Mag – www.coachmag.co.uk *