Are you wondering if protein powder might be good for you?
The short answer is: Maybe. But not so fast!
Do You Need A Protein Powder?
A brief intro
Until recently (couple decades, give or take a few years) protein was a relatively unpopular macronutrient, in a sense that few people gave it much thought, if any at all. Protein-rich foods have almost always been a part of human diet, in forms of meat, dairy, beans, nuts, seeds and grains – depending on the culture and geographic location, but only with the popularity of bodybuilding in the 70s and 80s the popularity of protein as a single important macronutrient started to grow, escalating to the heights it had never seen before.
Today even those not familiar with foundational nutrition know for sure that we need to get enough protein on a daily basis, or else we will waste our muscle tissue, become tired and weak, and sick. While the lack of protein definitely leads to all of these conditions over time, it is not as black and white as dietary supplement companies would like us to believe. Let’s be honest here, this whole protein hype started as smart marketing of protein supplement companies, and dairy and meat industry happily followed suit because why not!
But this is not to say that protein powders or some extra protein will have no benefit to you. Bear with me until we get a clearer picture.
What is a Protein?
It is an essential macronutrient required for many functions in the human body. It is called a building block for a reason: it is the main building material for any tissue, from muscles and bones to nails and hair. It is also utilised in the immune system as leukocytes and, essentially, all blood cells are proteins. Hormones are proteins, too, and so are your enzymes. Without protein we can’t survive. It is as essential as the air and water. But does it mean that we need so much of it? Does it mean we should supplement?
The one and only source of protein is food. There are many foods that are rich in protein – it goes beyond your chicken or beef. There’s quite a lot protein in beans and soya, there is some protein in aforementioned nuts and grains. Protein is virtually found in almost anything. Even bananas have protein! Not much, about 1 g in a medium banana, but it’s there. The quality and quantity of protein is the main difference, and it varies from product to product.
The quality of protein is highly dependent on the amino acid profile of the protein source. Proteins are composed of almost endless combinations of amino acids, each combination forms a unique protein. But protein, as it is, is not absorbed in the human body. In order to get protein from dietary protein, the body has to break the consumed protein down into amino acids with the help of enzymes, and then form its own required proteins from the obtained amino acids.
Some amino acids can be made in the body from other amino acids (precursors) and they are called non-essential or dispensable amino acids. Others cannot be made in the body, so they are called essential amino acids and have to be obtained through food. Out of this came the idea of complete and incomplete protein. Complete protein is the one that has all the essential amino acids; it usually comes from animal products, but there are some exceptions, for example, soya or hemp. The majority of plant protein is, however, incomplete – meaning that it is lacking in some of the essential amino acids. For a long time it was believed that to thrive we had to consume all the essential amino acids in one meal, but it is now known that the body is smart enough to store some amino acids until it gets the rest of the essential amino acids to form a protein it needs. So combining different sources to get all the essentials in one meal is not required.
How much protein do you need?
This is where we have all gone wrong over the past decade. I’m not saying that a lot of protein is necessarily bad, but it doesn’t mean it’s all good.
The golden rule in medicine and nutrition is that an average person requires 0.75 g or 0.8 g of protein per 1 kg body mass. For a 60 kg person, who is moderately active, it means around 45 or 48 g of protein a day. But in our days it sounds bizarrely low, because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the more the better.
In reality, protein requirements will differ from person to person, depending on the gender, weight, activity level, goals and genetic makeup. Because it is virtually impossible to find the exact value for each individual, it is recommended that we get about 1 g of protein per 1 kg body weight a day, unless we have special requirements.
No matter what type of diet you consume, it is quite easy to get that amount of protein. Given that the more you weigh the more calories you need, there is no need for being extra cautious. Just 12% of your energy intake from protein is enough, even if you do require extra protein.
Do you need extra protein?
So, from 0.8 g to 1 g protein per 1 kg body weight is usually enough. Why do they say you need more?
Certain groups of people will require more protein at some stage in their life. They are:
- Athletes and physically active people, especially those who train to build muscle;
- People on calorie-deficit diets;
- People recovering from an injury, surgery or illness;
- Expectant and nursing mothers.
For the expectant and lactating mothers extra protein may be required to sustain the development of the foetus or lactation. In this case, increasing protein intake to 1.2 g per 1 kg body weight is usually enough.
For those who recover from an illness, injury or surgery, extra protein is required to heal the tissues and prevent the body from catabolising (destructing) muscles in order to heal. During a viral or bacterial infection, some extra protein may be of benefit since the white blood cells, leukocytes, are being actively used in fighting off the infection. In all of these cases, protein intake may be upped to 1.5 g per 1 kg body mass.
The same recommended intake would go for those on a diet. When we are in a caloric deficit, the body is not receiving enough energy and may start destructing its own muscle tissues in order to convert protein into glucose for energy. In such case scenario, it is best to shift Carbohydrate : Fat : Protein ratio to include more energy (in %) from protein while still maintaining a deficit. This will protect the muscles from wasting.
Finally, for serious athletes and bodybuilders the recommended intake may be up to 2 g per 1 kg body weight. But this is not absolutely necessary, as 1.5 g may be plenty. The researchers agree that there is no additional benefit of consuming more than 2 g of protein per 1 kg body mass. In fact, consuming more may have a detrimental effect, especially in those with kidney problems.
It is also curious to note that even being a serious lifter does not automatically warrant the use of protein powders and supplements.
As I mentioned before, when you are very active, you require more calories overall, and in the majority of cases, this will cover the protein intake. Yes, ratios may need to be shifted slightly, but in general, 12% to 15% of energy intake from protein is enough. It is also important to note that carbs are almost equally as important for physically active people, as it is the only fool-proof way to ensure that the body receives its required energy.
When do you need a protein powder?
Honestly, never. But this is, again, not to say that you should never take it.
Protein powder is a quick and convenient way of taking your protein when you do need some extra. It is easily absorbed, relatively low in calories and you can take it on the go. If you train for building strength or muscles, it may be a good idea to supplement to help speed up the recovery. Vegetarians and vegans may find it useful if they do not consume enough through food.
It is worth noting that a carefully planned vegan diet that is varied and rich in beans, tofu and other high-protein foods, does not require any protein supplements. You can easily get over 150 g of protein from plant-based foods.
Using a protein powder is a matter of convenience, even though whole foods are always the best. If you do choose to use a supplement, I would still recommend using a plant-based formula for a couple of reasons:
- It has a better nutritional profile, especially hemp protein;
- It may have slightly more carbs, which help protein absorption;
- Animal-based protein may promote oxidation (something that may already be high in the body if you engage in strenuous exercise), while plant-based protein is known for its high antioxidant content.
My protein picks:
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Vega Clean Chocolate – it is sweet and can go on its own as a shake; start with this one if you are new to plant protein or if you plan to use it on its own.
Good Hemp – it is 100% raw and has a superb nutritional profile, but is not very tasty on its own; it goes well in fruit smoothies but is still an acquired taste.
MyProtein Vegan Blend Unflavoured – a mix of pea and Fava bean protein; it has 24 g of protein per serving. I used to buy this blend before they have rebranded and changed the formula. The old one was quite gritty and an acquired taste, too, but I used to love blending it with a banana and cacao powder. I’d love to try the new blend once I’m through my Vega.
Few Myths and Facts before I go
The more the better
It is commonly thought that the more protein the better, but that’s not always the case. It is important to get enough, but getting more than you need may proof useless or even harmful.
- Currently, there is no established benefit of consuming more than 2 G protein per kilogram body weight.
- There is only a certain amount of protein your body can process at a time (around 25 g). The rest will most likely be deaminated and excreted through kidneys, the carbon part will be converted into glucose.
- Because kidneys are responsible for protein excretion, there is a concern that higher protein intake may be detrimental for individuals with existing kidney and renal conditions, such as kidney stones, etc.
Protein powders are natural and healthy
This is a HUGE myth. Protein powders are not made equally. Isolates and concentrates are highly processed to get the concentration they have. Many additives can be added to a powder to give it certain mixing properties, flavour, sweetness etc. Unflavoured proteins, especially raw hemp, tend to be the least processed, but if you want a healthy protein you are better off having a clean, unprocessed meal.
Protein (powders) helps lose weight
Nope. It helps protect the muscle tissue from wasting but not lose weight/fat. The only sure way to lose fat is to restrict calories and eat clean. Protein has calories just like everything else. Just upping protein intake will not help you lose a bit. As for the powders, they may only help if you replace meals with a shake, which is most likely to decrease energy intake, but it is not a healthy way to lose weight and I do not recommend it. If you add protein shakes on top of your regular meals, then you are most likely to gain even more weight.
Protein powder will make me fat
Not if you consume it smartly – not by just throwing a shake on top of your regular meals. In some people, protein powders may trigger hunger and lead to overeating. Weight loss, maintenance or gain is a matter of simple maths: spend more energy than you consume and you have nothing to worry about.
As you can see, there is no definite answer to this question. Most likely you don’t need a protein powder. But maybe you do. One thing is for sure: protein is not something hard to come by and there is very little chance you aren’t getting enough. Unless you are a pro-athlete who happens to not know about nutrition. Which isn’t possible.
Protein, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Protein and Exercise, International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand