To shake or not to shake? Flip through any fitness magazine or take a step inside most gyms and you’ll notice that protein supplements and exercise seem to go hand in hand. It’s true that protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery, with protein powders being a quick and convenient source. But who needs these protein shakes, and when it comes to your training goals, are whole foods just as good? Here’s the scoop, so you can figure out if a supplement is right for you.
There are a wide variety of protein powders available on the market, however the differences between them can be pinpointed to three main characteristics:
The type of protein used (animal or plant-based)
The carbohydrate content
Any additional extras such as sweeteners, specific amino acids, proposed fat burners, thickeners and emulsifiers.
The most common type of protein used is whey, which is derived from milk. The two main varieties are whey concentrate and whey isolate. Whey protein concentrate is slightly lower in protein than whey isolate, and also contains small amounts of carbohydrate (primarily the sugar lactose) and fat. Whey isolate, which is 90% protein by weight, is seen as the superior form because it is more rapidly absorbed and often tastes better. However, if dairy doesn’t work for you, there are several plant-based proteins available, including soy, pea, and rice-based formulas.
The type and amount of protein you need in your diet will depend on your overall diet, how often and how intensely you exercise, as well as your budget. Overall, a dietary protein intake that represents about 15% of the total energy intake, with an energy-sufficient diet should cover the requirements for most people. This translates to roughly 0.8 – 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example a 65kg female will require between 52g – 65g of protein per day. However, individuals who lift heavy weights, are training for an endurance event, or looking to add size to their frame will have a slightly higher protein requirement of roughly 1.5 – 4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a 90kg male will require between 135g – 180g of protein per day.
Almost everyone in Western society eats more protein than necessary, with the average person consuming roughly 1.0 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Therefore, that same 65kg female would eat, on average, 65g – 97.5g of protein per day – more than the recommended amount. If more protein is eaten than is required, the excess protein means excess calories which can lead to weight gain.
Increased training usually means increased appetite. As a result, most people generally consume enough protein throughout the day (via eating more food), without the addition of a supplement. Whole foods also provide other nutrients, including vitamins and minerals that supplements often lack, and are more cost effective. For example, 600ml of skim milk provides 22g of protein and only costs $0.75. Obtaining the same amount of protein from a supplement may cost anywhere from $2.00 – $4.00 depending on the type you purchase.
Eating a moderate amount of protein, whether from a supplement or whole foods, is essential for muscle recovery and growth. For those in a rush, a shake is a convenient way to consume your post-workout protein requirements or replace a meal on a busy day. However, eating a nutritious balanced diet should not be overlooked. Balancing your protein intake (eg. nuts, dairy, lean meats, tofu, legumes) with lots of fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains will provide your body with all the building blocks it needs so you can perform at your peak.
Grilled salmon (100g cooked) = 24g protein
Tofu (100g) = 12g protein
Tuna, canned (95g) = 21g protein
Chickpeas, canned (1 cup) = 12g protein
Natural yoghurt (100g) = 6 g protein
Raw almonds (30g) = 7 g protein
Beef fillet, cooked (100g) = 32g protein