In my experience, regular exercisers and gym users have lots of questions about protein. They want to know about protein shakes and their role in their exercise and nutrition plan. Are these manufactured supplements better for sports performance and nutrition?
Look around any health food shop or supermarket and you'll likely see an abundance of protein bars, shakes and supplements. They are a popular item. Supplement companies market them as a simple and convenient way to eat well. Adverts also suggest these 'foods' do a better job than say chicken, eggs or fish.
So, if you're wondering about protein shakes and whether they're worth it, you're in the right place.
I don't just want to help you decide the best way to optimise your protein intake. Additionally, I want you to be able to spend your food budget wisely and not waste money.
Q: "I'm looking to bulk up and gain lean muscle. I've started drinking protein shakes. I have 3 each day as snacks in between my main meals. I read on the label this is the amount recommended. Am I taking enough or is this too much?"
A: Firstly, we can determine how much protein your body actually needs as a whole. From there, we can then decide how many protein shakes you'll need if any.
Contrary to popular belief, more protein is not necessarily better. While it's important to have adequate intake to maintain and enhance muscle growth, more protein doesn't automatically mean more muscles.
If you're thin, weak and unconditioned - excess protein isn't going to suddenly secure you a spot in The Avengers.
If you're looking to bulk up then you need all of the following:
- Additionally calories over your maintenance requirement
- Adequate protein intake
- Effective and consistent training
- The ability to pick your parents so you get good genes
Okay, that last point is a little tongue-in-cheek, but genetics will play a role in the amount of muscle mass you can build.
The food-first approach to shakes and supplements
Most nutritionists and dietitians will tell you that 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight is a generous allowance for athletes looking to build muscle. For most people, 1.4 to 1.7g of protein per kg will do perfectly fine. Even still, we'll be generous.
A beginner bodybuilder weighing 80kg gets adequate protein intake from 160 grams of protein daily.
In real terms, this would be a big bowl of cereal, 500ml skimmed milk, 3 eggs, 2 tins of tuna, and 2 chicken breasts along with 1 scoop of protein powder.
Split between breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, you'll see that isn't that much really.
I'm a strong advocate in the food first' approach. In other words, if you can get enough protein from your diet, you don't need copious amounts of shakes. To put it simply, you need more nutritious calories which you can get from drinking extra fruit juice and milk. Remember, it's not just the protein that counts, you need extra calories to build muscle too.
Q: "I've heard the protein contained in manufactured shakes and powders is better for me. Is it more effective than eating chicken, fish and eggs?"
A: I can understand where this comes from. Big brand marketing can be powerful.
Think of the product names like Gold Standard, Xtend, Farm Fed, Isoject and Lean Whey Revolution. They sound hi-tech, right?
You'll also come across phrases and slogans like "high bioavailability", "no cheap fillers" and "100% whey."
Certainly, you might end up wondering if good old-fashioned food really makes the cut.
Bear in mind, the protein you get from natural whole foods works perfectly well. It has done for thousands of years.
Food retailers tend not to market their products as "premium protein", "hydrolysed" or "isolates."
When it comes to bioavailability, any animal protein can be considered high quality. It contains the full complement of amino acids your body needs to build muscle.
Things can get quite expensive when you start eating healthy, nutritious meals then slugging protein shake after protein shake.
Remember, more isn't necessarily better.
Want to know the least expensive protein powder available?
Skimmed milk powder. You'll find it in the supermarket aisles next to the UHT and other long term milk.
Not only is it a source of high quality, bioavailable protein, but it's also designed by nature to be perfectly nutritious.
Add a few tablespoons to a glass of milk to supercharge the protein content. Or add a couple to the protein shake itself if you still choose to use them.
Q: "I see ads all the time at the gym and in magazines. There's lots of jargon like bioavailability and protein digestibility. Are these products better?"
A: If your diet is already nutritious and well balanced, you won't get any further benefit from these protein shakes.
Unless you have certain digestive tract issues or diseases, you generally don't need to worry about how your body digests protein from food.
These terms are more of an issue in malnourished people. For example, in developing countries where protein intake (and food intake overall) are chronically low. However, in the Western world, we tend to have many more cases of excess rather than deficiency.
Q: "I get busy and I always seem to be rushing around. Instead of eating cereal in the morning, I've started drinking a protein shake for breakfast. Is that alright for me?"
A: If you're training hard and want great performance and results from your gym sessions, your body needs a solid base of carbohydrate throughout the day to fuel activity.
Yes, we need protein to build muscle as well as perform its many other functions within the body. However, too much protein affects our appetite and can lead us to reduce the amount of carbohydrate we eat.
Consider your bowl of breakfast cereal and milk. You'll probably be getting at least 60g of good quality carbohydrates to fuel your muscles.
On the other hand, your protein shake may only contain as little as 4g of carbohydrate.
Your protein shakes don't really help count towards your carb intake. You might end up feeling you fatigue quicker as your glycogen levels and fuel stores aren't what they should be.
Additionally, we need to consider fibre along with other micronutrients you might be getting from your cereal.
Breakfast cereal can be a great source of these, especially if you throw in a piece of fruit like a banana.
If you can, find ways to manage your schedule so you can have a proper breakfast.
You're committed to your training and you want results, commit to your nutrition just as passionately.
Aim for whole foods and fuel your muscles properly for the day ahead.
Sure, on crazy busy days the protein shake can be a great plan B. But where you can, keep the breakfast cereal as part of your daily meal plan.
Q: "At work, we eat lunch and dinner from a buffet selection. I find I don't eat that much of the protein choices that are put out. I'm thinking I should be supplementing with a protein shake but money is tight. Is there a way I can make my own?"
A: Here's my favourite version of what I call a 'high-energy shake'. I use my nutribullet but you could use whatever you have, even a protein shaker would do.
Mix 1 cup of milk, 3 tbsp skimmed milk powder and 1 tbsp Milo. Next, blend briefly until smooth and combined then enjoy.
You'll get an impressive 20g of protein from this. You could also add fruit and berries too.
I also have a recipe for a 'breakfast' smoothie I'll link below if you want something even more flavourful. I say breakfast, but really you can have it any time of the day.
Additionally, keep an eye out for cheap food sources of protein. Stock up on things like cottage cheese and tins of tuna. You can successfully boost your protein intake without having to faff about cooking. Likewise, you'll also be able to stick to a fairly modest budget.
Hope that helps!
If you have a question you'd like me to answer in a future post, leave a comment below.