‘Should I take a protein supplement?’
The short answer is very few people NEED a protein supplement and a well-balanced diet is usually sufficient – providing energy requirements are met.
BUT protein supplements can be useful for people who have certain dietary restrictions (that may limit their protein intake) or those who have increased requirements (e.g exercise a lot). They are also very convenient and relatively cheap per portion.
How do I know if I’m meeting my needs?
The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is 0.75g/kg bodyweight/day for adults. The amount of protein we need changes during a lifetime and can vary depending on different disease states. Also the amount, type, duration and intensity of exercise you do will alter your needs. For strength training higher protein requirements are often recommended at 1.2-2g/kg/day and endurance training at 1.2-1.4g/kg/day. Meat, fish, eggs, dairy, lentils/beans/pulses, whole grains and soy-based products are protein rich sources.
Is it dangerous to have too much protein?
Too much protein has not been proven to be dangerous in healthy people – the exception is those with certain health conditions (liver and kidney problems). Any excess protein, in a healthy individual, is likely to be passed out in urine, used as fuel, or potentially stored as fat. There is no evidence to say higher protein intakes are beneficial for making muscle GAINZ.
WHEN to have it?
In the interest of performance/building muscle, the general consensus is to space out your protein intake throughout the day at regular intervals, having about 15-25g of protein per meal/snack. The ‘anabolic window’ (the period around exercising where you make gains) is actually 24hrs and not a strict deadline so don’t panic too much if you’re not having protein right before or right after you exercise.
Types of protein powders
Okay so you’ve decided you want to try a protein supplementation – but where do you start?
Protein powders are either animal-based proteins or plant based. They also may have added extras eg. vitamins, minerals, greens, fibre or carbohydrates.
…are advantageous in that they are a complete protein source (contain all essential amino acids in sufficient amounts). Whey and Casein are both milk proteins. Whey is considered a fast protein as it is digested an absorbed quickly where as casein is considered slow as it it is absorbed and digested at a slower rate (which is why it is often recommended before bed). Whey is probably the most researched of all the protein supplements and is generally considered superior in terms of muscle protein synthesis (muscle building). It’s popular, palatable and easy to find. It’s not suitable for vegans or those with a dairy intolerance. Egg protein is an alternative, without dairy/lactose. It is also a complete protein. Less widely available, not the most palatable.
…are on the rise and more sustainable. However, in isolation, most plant-based proteins fall short one or two amino acids and do not stimulate muscle protein synthesis to the same effect as animal-based proteins. Due to this fact, most are now sold as blends of a few plant proteins (e.g. pea and brown rice) so that they have a more complete amino acid profile. The amino acid leucine is of particular importance, and plays a key role in triggering muscle protein synthesis (pea, brown rice and soy protein are good sources). One study found no difference between pea and whey at increased muscle thickness (size) and this is believed to be due to the fact it’s particularly high in important amino acids, including leucine (Babault et al., 2015).
Do your homework, find the supplement/brand that suits you (ask for a sample first!), if you’re going plant-based maybe choose a blend if you’re looking for maximal gainz BUT always remember FOOD FIRST. Protein supplements are rarely essential.