Protein powder: why and what?

You know I’m a fan of protein powder, and I thought I would share with you some of the research that is out that sways me in the direction that it is a convenience source of protein for people who struggle to get it in. There are multiple studies, these are just a few that have come my way.

To back up the truck, one of the questions I often get asked is if it is okay to consume protein powder? I always come back with the response that, as long as people get a broad spectrum of protein-dominant foods (eggs, animal protein, dairy (if they tolerate), vegetarian sources for those who choose not to eat animal protein) then protein powder can definitely form a part of an otherwise healthy diet, and in fact be an integral part. This is because even with whole food protein, people with higher energy requirements and those who are vegetarian (as vegetarian protein sources are not as bioavailable as animal protein sources) can struggle to meet their requirements.

Active teenagers fall squarely in the camp of ‘higher energy requirements’. For an active teenager, at least 2g of protein per kilogram body weight is a safe amount to ensure they are covering their amino acid requirements (amino acids are what the protein source provides) and not consuming so much that they miss out on other nutrients. There is some good research coming out to show that increased protein, particularly after training is beneficial for bone turnover in adolescent swimmers, with a whey protein based drink being consumed having a positive effect when compared to carbohydrate or plain water. The amount provided in the drink was equivalent to around a serve of protein powder, and while we don’t know what the long term benefits are, as this was an acute study, these positive changes indicate it is likely a good recovery strategy for adolescents who might otherwise miss the mark on their protein needs in this food environment where refined carbohydrate sources are convenient and the go-to for a lot of kids in the form of cereals, muesli bars, bread and the like. Not that these foods should be completely off the menu for most, but they do need to be balanced with protein and fat.

Turning our attention to another group, this study is also interesting, it looked at the difference in body composition index (a measure of lean tissue and fat mass) in professional dancers (where aesthetics are an important indicator of performance) and found that a bump in protein from 1.4g to 2.2 g per kilogram body weight did not result in body fat gain. Across the 12 week period, where the intervention group added 25g of whey protein to their daily diet three times per day (i.e. an additional 75g per day), their caloric intake across the 12 weeks increased at half way to settle into a lower calorie intake at the end of the study, and the substitution in their diet seemed to come from their carbohydrate macronutrients, keeping their fat intake steady. While there was no significant difference between the placebo group (who were given an equal number of carbohydrate calories) and the intervention group, the intervention group overall had a drop in body fat mass and an increase in lean tissue mass which shifted the body composition index in favour of the higher protein intake.

In an older population, researchers have studied whether taking whey protein (at 35g) before training, after training, or not at all (i.e. a placebo group) for women undergoing a 12 week resistance training programme was beneficial at increasing our endogenous antioxidants and reducing markers of oxidative stress. One finding was that uric acid decreased more in the whey protein group compared to the placebo group. Uric acid acts as a pro-oxidant, stimulating the production of pro-inflammatory cells, though it also has antioxidant properties in the body (binding heavy metals so they don’t cause oxidative damage and cell degradation). Compared to vitamins C and E, though, this antioxidant activity is weak, and it’s generally considered beneficial to have a lower level of uric acid. Outside of that, the main finding in this study was that the resistance training itself was most effective at increasing antioxidant activity, and the whey protein dose did not appear to enhance this effect. This clearly speaks to the importance of doing resistance training as we age (and, for what it is worth, the workouts were three times a week, doing 3 x 12 of exercises to complete a whole body workout). This study shows that gait speed increased along with grip strength (a marker of health) in an older population who have sarcopenia (bone loss) when whey protein combined with vitamin D and leucine were consumed, and this allowed the group to meet their protein requirements of 1.2-1.5g per kilogram of body weight per day, something which is challenging in an older population who might not have as much of an appetite cue. They also found that adults in the 65y – 74y were more likely to note improvements than those 75 years and older. That said, an intervention that provided the same nutrients found marked improvement in gait speed in hospitalised adults aged 80 years and older who were being rehabilitated, and also resulted in a shorter hospital stay. TL;DR: it’s never too late.

In this study of physically active younger females (mean age of 20 years), the researchers wanted to test whether a short term dose of 20g of whey protein (twice per day) would help reduce exercise induced muscle damage compared to the same number of calories coming from carbohydrate. They reported that creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage) was reduced four days post the sprint protocol used to induce the muscle damage.

So… there are plenty of studies in other groups to show the effectiveness of whey protein stimulating muscle protein synthesis, aiding recovery, boosting body composition and protecting against injury as we age. In part because it allows protein requirements to be met easily, and in part because whey is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. That said, plant proteins that are pea protein and a rice/pea blend are also not so far off from the properties of whey with regards to these benefits in terms of their amino acid profile. Some of my favourites are:

  • Balance Natural Whey
  • Inline nutrition
  • Go Good Whey and Pea Protein (Mikki20 saves you 20% here)
  • Clean Lean Protein (Mikki20 saves you 20% here)
  • Balance Plant Protein
  • Vega Sport Protein
  • Amazonia Raw Protein
  • MyProtein Protein Powder

There are others too! You want to look for powders that have a minimal amount of added ingredients outside of the protein source itself, branched chain amino acids (if not a whey or complete protein source, e.g. vegetarian) a natural flavour and natural sweetener (erythritol, stevia, thaumatin, monkfruit are the sweeteners.

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