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About protein powders

Do you find it difficult to get enough protein from your food? Using protein powders to supplement your shortfall in your diet may be the answer you’re looking for. In this post I’ll discuss your protein needs and how much protein powder you might take to supplement your diet.

Why do we need extra protein?

For those of us who workout and are more physically active, extra protein can help your muscles recover from physical activities, allowing your body to repair damage and even building more muscle where appropriate.

Protein is made up of amino acids that are the building blocks for growth and help build muscle. Having enough protein puts you in a positive nitrogen balance putting your body in an anabolic state. If you are not in a positive nitrogen balance you give your body no chance to carry out the repairs and building of muscle from those physical activities.

How much protein should I have?

Most people will agree that they don’t consume enough protein and as mentioned above it also becomes more important if you workout. Protein is a very important nutritional macro whether you are looking to bulk up, gain muscle or lose body fat. You want to maintain or build muscle above all other loses/gains.

As a general rule you need to get between 0.5 to 1 gram per lb of lean body mass. How much you need will depend on your physical activity, age, size and goals. See more about protein here.

Getting enough protein in your diet

For many people it is difficult both physically and logistically to consume enough protein from whole foods, especially if you don’t eat meat or fish, therefore making up your shortfall using protein supplements is a great way to cover that shortfall.

Most of us are too busy to prepare or cook enough protein rich food and so for convenience having protein drinks can help fill the gap. However I always suggest whole foods first. Don’t use drinks in place of solid whole foods, but to just supplement your diet. Look to get lean meat, eggs, seafood, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, vegetables and dairy into your diet as much as possible first before looking at supplements (see the last few paragraphs at the end of this post).

Your overall protein intake is a major factor regardless of where it comes from. The problem is when you use too much from supplements and not enough from whole foods, you miss out on feeling full/eating satiety and the additional benefits that real whole foods provide.

How much should I take in the form of protein powder?

How many protein shakes you have is going to be dependent on your goals and diet. The truth is you can with a little effort make progress in your muscle maintenance or even build muscle without supplements. Also drinks don’t fill you up like whole foods and taking too much of your nutrition in the form of liquid could mean you end up adding extra calories to your food intake unexpectedly. However you can add protein powder to other foods, such as breakfast cereals,  pancakes or you could create protein bars etc. They are not just restricted to use as a drink/shake.

Remember it should only be used if you can’t get all your protein from whole foods and that it is a supplement. They should only be used for convenience and not a replacement for proper food, which is much more superior to supplements due to the natural make up and extra nutrition that whole foods provide. You need to think about why and when you take it. Don’t just do it because everyone else is.

One advantage to consider however is using them for a purpose and take advantage of the way they can be digested. For example, I’m only going to be mentioning three types of protein powder here. They are, whey protein, which contains a full spectrum of amino acids and is quickly digest and absorbed, casein which is a slow digesting milk protein and soy isolate protein which is ideal for those who do not eat meat or dairy. Although you can also get protein powders from egg, soy and various other sources.

Just to be clear, there are also different types of whey powders. There is concentrate (tends to be the cheapest option and therefore has the least protein content and more additional carbs, fats and fillers, isolate (a filtered version of concentrate, has more protein content and very easily digested) and hydrolysed (a predigested isolate making it yet even more easily digested). Be careful here as there is a lot of marketing hype associated with supplements, so go with what best suits your needs and do some research before purchase.

Personally I have one scoop of whey (approx 20 grams of protein) in the morning with my breakfast, half a scoop half an hour to one hour before my workout, one scoop after my workout and then a casein drink before bed. On non workout days I don’t have a pre and post workout shake, but may have a single shake in the afternoon if I haven’t had the time to get enough protein for lunch.  (see my personal plan here for more details). Note: I am very active and burn a lot of calories, so don’t copy my plan it is just there for an example.

Whey allows me to have a quick digesting protein intake after a long sleep and also have protein in my system during and after my workout when it is most needed, reducing muscle breakdown, as well as getting the recovery process started as soon as possible. Casein before bedtime gives me a slow absorbing protein while I sleep to supply my body with a steady supply of amino acids for repairing and building my muscles while I sleep.

For those who do not eat meat or dairy, soy isolate is great as it contains 90 grams of protein per 100 grams. Just follow the instructions on your chosen powder.

Protein shakes also provide another advantages of being convenient when you are too busy or unable to prepare or cook a good protein source.

You will need to think about how many scoops you need/want to take. Most protein shakes have between 20-30 grams of protein per serving. While I always say read the labels of a supplement and follow the instructions, with protein powders you can vary the scoop amount for your own requirements. You could if you wanted for example have as little as 2 x 10 gram scoops a day just to add a little extra protein to your diet or for those looking to pack on size and lift weights, have up to 2-3 scoops of 20-30 grams each depending on your overall daily protein requirements that are based on your body weight, physical exercise regime and goals. Again to note, large scoops and quantities of protein powder are not required. The body can only absorb what it needs and often excess protein from supplements will just add extra calories and not be utilised, so go easy on the scoop sizes, more isn’t always better.

Just remember to get your protein from food first. If you really can’t fulfil that criteria, then look to limit your intake from powders to around 20% of your overall total protein requirements. So if you are a lean 180lbs and very active and workout hard with weights then you may need for example up to 150 grams of protein daily. Look to get around 35 grams from powder and the rest from food. That will be 2 scoops of less than 20 grams each. Yes that’s right, just 2 x 20 gram scoops, one after your workout and either one before your workout or in the morning or split it and have half  (10 grams) in the morning and the other half before your workout. That’s it.

Are protein powders safe?

This can be up for debate, but usually top quality powders are generally a safe supplement to take, however they are still a processed food stuff and too much of anything could lead to issues.

If you have any kidney issues, too much protein in the diet can lead to them working too hard, so be careful here or better still consult your doctor first. Those with normal functioning kidneys should have an issue with this.

High protein diets do also run the risk of causing dehydration, so make sure you consume enough fluid, especially water to help maintain a balance and also help clear your kidneys. Also remember I don’t recommend large scoops of powder to be taken at once.

Some protein powders, whether they are made from soy, milk or something else can affect those with allergies associated with those ingredients……..watch for side effects and read all labels. Also watch for brands that add too much refined carbohydrates or fat or fillers to their products and buy from a reputable company only. There are many unscrupulous companies that can and do also add all sorts of toxic and dangerous additives, so be careful.

With regards soy protein, there has been some controversy with it being good or bad for you. There is too little evidence to show it has significant negative affect on human health, but you may be best reading about this yourself to satisfy yourself if you are happy to take this supplement.

One other side effect/effects for some people who are lactose intolerant or even slightly lactose intolerant are stomach aches and/or flatulence from some types of powders. Being made from milk can mean they are not ideal for you, so again read the labels and monitor any side effects.

Finally, it is quite easy to get carried away and buy the ones with various flavours that taste nice and even mix your own concoctions. Be careful as this can lead to huge calorie drinks, making you gain weight and over supplementing your diet. Keep it plain and simple and don’t get carried away.

What are the alternatives to protein supplements?

As mentioned real solid foods are better at filling you up and likely to be better for you in the long run as far as that they are governed by various food and health agencies while supplements are generally not.

These include quark, cottage cheese, cows, goats and soy milk, natural/Greek yogurts, natural peanut butter (or powdered peanut butter), eggs (or egg powder), fish (various), poultry, various lean meats (steak, jerky), nuts, seeds, hemp, lentils, peas and beans.

What you have to realise, is that in order to stay in a positive nitrogen balance you need to supply the right amount of protein daily. This can be achieved by eating every 2-3 hours and having a portion of protein at each meal. So long as you do this then supplementation is not needed and all the amino acids that your body needs should be available when you need it.

Please also see:
About protein
Protein before bedtime