Do you need a protein powder? 

Protein requirements differ for everyone and the use of protein powders can be beneficial in specific situations. We don’t actually need as much protein as some would have us believe and it is quite easy to meet our daily recommended dietary requirements of protein, which can be achieved through dietary sources alone. For the average male adult, the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein is 0.84 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and for a female adult it’s 0.75 grams per kilogram of body mass. This, however, does not take into consideration type, frequency, intensity or duration of exercise. Therefore, requirements will change dependent on these things.

Situations where protein supplementation may be required or prove beneficial include: facilitating post-exercise recovery of muscle function and performance, when you are just starting a muscle building program, when you are increasing the intensity and/or duration or a workout, when you’re recovering from an injury or procedure, those trying to gain weight or mass, you decide to go vegan, a growing teenager participating in heavy training, and even the elderly.

What are the main types of protein powders?

There are many different types of protein powders on the market and all serve different purposes and have a different response in the body – particularly when it comes to bioavailability and absorption. A summary can be seen below:

  • Whey protein– is a complete protein from dairy and has an optimal amino acid profile and is quickly absorbed making it an optimal choice for post-workout recovery.
  • Casein protein– is the second type of protein found in dairy. It offers similar benefits to whey but with a different release process. It digests over a long-period of time, which means it’s not beneficial for the immediate post-recovery process but may be an optimal protein to consume before bed.
  • Soy protein– is not a complete protein but still has a good amino acid profile and is very low in fat or fat free. Soy protein powders are an alternative for vegans and vegetarians but are often genetically modified and contain endocrine disruptors.
  • Rice protein– being a plant-based option, it is not a complete protein and is deficient in some amino acids. However, it is extremely hypoallergenic and contains other nutrients such as fibre, B vitamins and complex carbohydrates.
  • Pea protein– as with most plant-based proteins, pea protein is hypoallergenic. And with few additives or artificial ingredients, this one appeals to those looking for protein sources closest to the whole-food source. It is also the closet plant-based protein to a complete amino acid profile.
  • Hemp protein– is derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant that’s gained popularity in recent years. It’s a natural source of B vitamins, D3 and minerals, and is extremely hypoallergenic.

Top tips for choosing the correct protein powder?

Firstly, it’s important to identify your training goal and need for protein as a supplement in the first place. Different goals will call for different ingredient requirements. Also, if you suffer any food allergies or intolerance, that will determine what protein powder you should choose as well. It’s also important to recognise that supplement manufacturers are notorious for hyping up their products with unrealistic claims and promises. Don’t buy into the hype of major companies that price their product well above what you really need to pay because you can probably gain the same benefits from a cheaper protein powder.

Take the time to compare ingredients, nutrition information and claims, and credibility of the company, and do not let the hype influence your decision. In my opinion, the quality of the protein/supplement is more important than the total quantity. Therefore, always look at the label when deciding on a protein powder and make sure it doesn’t contain any more that 7-10 ingredients and try and find a powder with more natural ingredients. That is, if you can’t pronounce all the ingredient names, it might serve your best interest to look for another one. Typically, when looking for a quality protein powder, you should be looking at the following ingredients and guidelines:

  • Opt for organic – it might be slightly more expensive but you know it will be free of hormones, heavy metals and pesticides.
  • If purchasing a dairy-based protein powder, make sure the cow source is grass-fed
  • Look for natural sweeteners over artificial sweeteners e.g. stevia
  • Amino acid profile – branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) provide nutritional support for muscle building and athletic endurance. An ideal ratio of the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine to delay muscle fatigue during exercise should be 2:1:1.
  • Glutamine (L-glutamine) – is another beneficial ingredient in that it assists with the growth and maintenance of healthy muscles and may help avoid the development of overtraining syndrome by assisting in muscle repair after strenuous exercise. Glutamine also provides nutritional support for the gastrointestinal lining and helps maintain healthy digestive function.
  • Probiotics – not essential but can be beneficial to support a healthy gut. A healthy gut means better absorption of protein and amino acids.
  • If looking for “low fat” – aim for 1-5 grams per serve
  • If looking for low carb – aim for 1-5 grams per serve
  • If looking for high protein – aim for about 20-30 grams per serve

Ingredients/types of protein we should be wary of

Everyone is different when it comes to the fuss of what we should be avoiding in our supplements. Remember, if you have an intolerance or allergy, there will be more specific ingredients you will look to avoid. For me, in order to choose the best quality protein powder, there are a few ingredients I look to avoid. These include:

  • Casein + WPC – These are also known as whey protein concentrate and caseinate. WPC’s and casein protein sources are high in lactose. Therefore, if you have a lactose intolerance or an allergy to dairy, try to avoid these as they can often cause bloating, flatulence, reflux, and gastrointestinal distress in these people.
  • GlutenIf you are gluten intolerant or have Coeliac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, then it is best avoided. Ingestion of gluten in these people will increase inflammation and can cause a range of health problems including hormonal imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, skin conditions, fatigue, mood swings, and headaches.
  • Artificial sweetenersCommon artificial sweeteners used in protein powders are sucralose, splenda (955), aspartamine, equal, NutraSweet (951), or saccharin (954) and xylitol. Side effects can come from ingesting these ingredients (if you have a sensitivity to them) include headaches, migraines, gut issues such as bloating, diarrhoea and acid reflux, and weight gain.
  • Dextrins/MaltodextrinThese ingredients can elevate glycaemic load and blood sugar levels, which may contribute to poor insulin control and fat storage. Most are processed with GMO corn starch and they can also cause gut issues in some people. They are usually added as a filler to bulk the protein powder.
  • Skim milk powders/milk solidsare often used as a cheap bulking agent in less quality protein powders. They are high in lactose, which can cause bloating, gastrointestinal distress, constipation, and loose stools in people sensitive to the sugar. Additionally, the protein is poorly absorbed, making it harder for your body to receive all of its benefits.
  • Soy proteinMost soy proteins come from genetically-modified sources with high pesticide use, and contain the chemical compound phyto-oestrogen, which act as an endocrine disruptor that may cause hormonal disturbances and suppressed thyroid function in some people.
  • Vegetable oils and fatsThese ingredients are usually added to many fat loss and “lean” protein powders to increase the richness of the powder. Unfortunately, these fats are often derived from hydrogenated sources, which contain trans fats. Trans fats raise levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lower levels of HDL (healthy) cholesterol.
  • Thickeners and gums such as xanthan gum, are manufactured from soy or corn and may cause gut problems.
  • Fillersare often not needed and used as an additive to bulk up the protein in order to save money for the manufacturer. Some fillers include ingredients such as coconut flour or psyllium.

Anything else to be wary of?

the easiest way to spot a poor or cheap protein powder is its price. If it’s much cheaper than the major brand protein powders, you can pretty much assume something is wrong. You will not get a good-quality protein powder at a low price. When in doubt, think of the old saying “you get what you pay for”.

In addition to price, you can also distinguish a low-quality protein powder by its percent of protein. Always look at the label, nutritional information panel and ingredients list to guide you to the best protein powder. If you’re still confused, follow the tips in this article or ask the shop assistant.