Protein powders are dietary supplements, isolated from whey, casein, egg, soy or other protein-rich foods, like peas, hemp or brown rice. Protein powders allow to increase the intake of complete proteins without consuming carbohydrates and fats. Because of the way they are processed, the amino acids in protein powders are quickly absorbed in the system and utilised as required.
Protein powders are the most popular type of supplements among bodybuilders, but nowadays they are becoming increasingly popular among the entire population, young or old. The hype is mostly due to the manufacturers, who try to sell their products beyond the targeted bodybuilders. They say you can’t have too much protein, it’s necessary if you work out. And even if you don’t work out, you need to ensure that your protein intake is adequate, so an extra protein shake won’t hurt.
But the truth is – we don’t even need that much protein. Even bodybuilders consume way too much. But since we’re not bodybuilders (at least, the majority of us is not), let’s have a look who will benefit from extra protein and who won’t.
What is a protein?
It is a macronutrient (a nutrient that is needed in relatively large quantities – as opposed to micronutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals). It consists of numerous amino acids, little building blocks that join together in different combinations to form unique chains of proteins.
Most of the amino acids can be produced in the body if there is enough precursors, but there are quite a few amino acids that the body cannot create. These are essential amino acids and they must be obtained from the diet. Different foods contain different combinations of amino acids. The foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called complete proteins.
Foods of animal origin are all complete proteins. Some plant sources are also complete proteins, they include: soya, hemp and quinoa. It used to be thought that you need to combine different plant based foods to obtain a complete protein at each meal, but now it is known to not be necessary. Our smart bodies can store amino acids until it gets enough of each type to combine and use as required.
Each amino acid and type of protein are unique in their purpose, each carries out a different function in the body, and, interestingly enough, they are not at all for building muscle.
Yes, proteins build tissues. But those tissues include skin, organs, bones, and muscle. Some proteins also act as enzymes – they break down other macronutrients for the body to use as needed. Proteins have many functions and are key to our health, just like carbohydrates and fats.
Who needs proteins?
We all do. Since it is the main building material in the body, it is crucial to have an adequate intake of proteins in our diets. And we need a variety of amino acids, so that the body can assimilate them and produce different kinds of proteins for different functions.
How much is needed?
The golden rule in medicine and nutrition is 0.8 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight. This means that a person weighing 60 kg will need roughly about 48 g of protein a day. For most people this is enough
There is a number of circumstances in which a person will require an increased protein intake. They include:
- Athletes, involved in strenuous workouts or requiring to build muscle
- Pregnant and lactating women
- People recovering from an illness (unless the kidneys are involved)
- People recovering from an injury or a surgery.
If you do not belong in any of these groups, you do not need extra protein in your diet.
If you do belong in any of these categories, you might need more protein than the majority of people. It is advised that you get about 1 to 1.2 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight. Any excess will not necessary benefit you.
Now I would actually like to address the most common myths about proteins, and I hear them quite often, sometimes from people that are otherwise fairly knowledgeable about good nutrition and healthy lifestyle.
Myth no.1 – The more the better.
The supplement industry would love us to believe that, but it is simply isn’t true for several reasons.
- There is no solid evidence that more protein than required for body weight is beneficial in any way.
- There is only a certain amount of protein the body can process at any one time. Any excess is excreted through the kidneys, placing an unnecessary strain on them.
- Excess protein leaches calcium from bones, because it creates an acidic residue in the process of protein metabolism. The acid washes the calcium away from the bones. The calcium is also excreted through the kidneys, again, placing an unnecessary strain.
Myth no.2 – High-protein diets are healthy (or not healthy).
As a nutritionist, I have to be fair and unbiased, which makes me admit that a carefully planned higher-protein diet might benefit some people, thus I cannot say that high protein diet is 100% not healthy.
I also cannot say that it is healthy. It is not a perfectly balanced diet, for one. Two, high-protein diets can be very harmful for people with kidney problems, especially such as kidney disease, kidney failure and even kidney stones (calcium leaching through the kidneys can cause or aggravate stones). It also may be detrimental for people prone to kidney infections.
And even if you don’t have any kidney problems, which I hope you don’t, remember that even the healthiest kidneys might get overworked if your diet is too high in protein.
Myth no.3 – Protein powders are healthy and natural.
Well, they are not created equal. Some powders are natural, free of additives and can be considered healthy and safe, while others may have sweeteners added to them. The most common sweeteners added are aspartame and sucralose and, unfortunately, there is nothing healthy and natural about them.
If using protein powders, try choosing the unflavoured ones or those that have the least ingredients in them.
I prefer hemp protein. It is not as high in protein content as whey, casein or egg, but it’s ok. 1 scoop of hemp protein contains 15 g of protein, which is almost 1/4 of what I need in a day, and it is a reasonable amount that the body can absorb. It also contains a good profile of Omega 3 and 6. My latest choice contains quite a few additives, but they are all natural. I will make a post on it some day in my new Favourites section.
Myth no.4 – Protein powders help lose weight.
This depends on the way you use them. If you replace meals with a simple protein shake (which I do not recommend), then you might lose some weight purely because of the lower calorie intake. It is, however, not a smart way to use protein powders. They must be used as a supplement and not as replacement for normal meals. Even if your protein shake is needed in your circumstances, and a natural one is used, consuming protein powders as meal replacement will lead to improper balance in your diet. This is not a good way to lose weight and should not be used as one.
Myth no.5 – Protein powder will make me fat.
No protein powder on its own can make you fat, if you consume it smartly. There are a few ways, though, in which protein powders could make you gain weight:
- They are known to trigger hunger and may lead you to overeat.
- If your protein powder has a lot of sugar, it can impair your metabolism and lead to unnecessary weight gain.
- If you already consume enough calories and add a protein shake but forget to burn those calories, you will start gaining weight. It’s simple maths – if you consume more than you spend, weight gain will follow.
So keep these three points in mind when making your choice. But if your diet and exercise routine are carefully planned, if you add a natural protein shake because you require more protein, then you shouldn’t gain any weight.
This article is intended to provide you with information on protein powder, its uses, benefits and side effects. It is not to tell you when you need or need not to use any protein supplement per se. If you wish to start consuming protein powder, but unsure whether it is safe for you, please consult with your doctor or a registered dietician, especially if you suffer from any medical conditions.