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The truth about protein supplements

Claire Baseley

Claire BaseleyYou can’t move in health food shops, supermarkets, sports shops and definitely not on Instagram for people shoving protein powder at you from every angle. From bodybuilders and fitspo queens to endurance athletes and over 50s, it would seem that everyone can benefit from protein supplements. Or can they? What’s the truth behind the hype? Does anyone really need a protein supplement?

I’ll level with you, I do use a protein supplement but I will be the first to tell you that you don’t need one. Sound contradictory? Well maybe but hear me out first. Supplements are just that. If you eat a reasonably balanced diet, you don’t need supplements (apart from maybe a vitamin D supplement in winter). But, when it comes to protein, there is no doubt that, while you can eat enough protein, even if you’re active, via food, protein powders are undoubtedly a convenient way to boost your intake when you’re rushing or on the go or if you have a small appetite.

Why do we need protein?

I’ve covered this in a lot of detail in a previous blog but, in summary, we need protein to support muscle growth and maintenance as well as bone health. This is important for anyone who is active because protein helps muscles to recover or grow after exercise. It’s critical for over 50s because, as we age, we tend to lose muscle and bone mass progressively over time and this can result in reduced strength, mobility issues and a higher risk of falls. That’s why people who do a lot of sport and those who are 50 plus (or even 40 plus if you have an early menopause and are at risk of accelerated bone and muscle loss) have higher protein requirements than sedentary people or younger adults and children.

How much protein do we need?

It’s unlikely that anyone can really benefit from protein intakes over 2g/kg body weight a day, unless you are dieting to reduce body fat. For me, 2g/ kg body weight is around 110g a day. But that’s really only if you lift heavy weights regularly. If you do more mixed exercise, lighter weights and a bit of cardio, you probably need around 1.6g/ kg body weight a day. Over 50s, if active, probably need at least 1.4g / kg body weight a day. A can of tuna contains around 25g, , a chicken breast around 20-30g, depending on size and an egg is around 8g. So yes, I can chug chicken, beef, eggs and tuna all day long but I don’t want to do that for three reasons.

Firstly, I have a small appetite. I try to eat at least 5 portions of vegetables a day which are bulky, require a lot of chewing and fill me up. As do protein foods, which may help you feel fuller for longer. I get most of my carbs from wholegrains which are again, bulky and fibre rich. There’s a theme here! Small appetite and lots of satiating foods means it can be hard to get enough protein. Older people often have smaller appetites, particularly if they are not very active, so protein intake can be a watch out.

Secondly, most convenient, quick to eat breakfasts are pretty low in protein. Toast, cereal with a bit of milk, porridge: they’re all pretty low in protein. To hit my requirements, even if I’m only aiming for 90g a day, means at least 25g per meal and 15g in a snack, bearing in mind that it’s best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day rather than mainlining a 20oz steak for dinner. If my breakfast only gives me 10g protein or less (which is typical for a cereal and milk combo), I’ve work to do for the rest of the day. I say this like I track my intake: I don’t. I never will and pretty much anyone but elite athletes don’t need to because it’s misery making and unnecessary. However, I do like to ensure I eat protein at most meals.

Finally, I don’t want to eat meat every day. Studies do show that animal protein (whether meat and fish or animal derived products like milk, yoghurt, cheese or eggs) is of better quality than plant-based proteins. Yes, you can still get enough protein from a plant-based diet but you may have to eat more of it to get the same results when it comes to muscle maintenance or growth.

So yes, I use a supplement. You don’t have to. Plenty of research shows the benefits of using protein supplements on muscle mass, strength or maintenance, in athletes and the over 50s but there are also plenty of studies showing that if the diet is adequate, you don’t need a supplement.

When might I need a supplement?

For me and a lot of people, breakfast tends to be a snatched meal, at least in the week, and there isn’t time to whip up an omelette or a chicken roast dinner (seriously, when I was bodybuilding, I had beef, sweet potato and green beans for breakfast; what was I thinking?) I therefore make myself a smoothie that’s quick and easy to drink. I blend berries, almond milk, flaxseeds, oats and whey protein into a smoothie and I’m good to go with around 25g protein, wholegrains, a portion of fruit and some healthy fats.

There’s a lot of talk of the need for a quickly absorbed source of protein within an hour of training. That has largely been dismissed now. Your body’s ability to absorb and utilise protein for recovery after training is heightened for up to 24h. It doesn’t drop off a cliff an hour after training, thus negating any benefit of having been to the gym. If you’ve trained and eat a meal containing protein an hour or two afterwards, that’s sufficient. It’s more important to achieve your daily protein target, spread out evenly and regularly throughout the day than it is to get protein immediately post-workout. So chill out. That said, if you’re not going to eat for several hours after training then again, a supplement can give you a convenient boost.

If I do want a supplement, what do you recommend?

Don’t worry! I’m not going to start promoting products! Actually, as a Registered Nutritionist, I’m not even allowed to promote specific brands. I’ve worked for plenty of sports supplement companies but you won’t find me plugging any of them or giving you affiliate codes.

If you’re looking for an animal-based protein supplement, my advice would be to go for a whey blend that contains a mixture of whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate, made from cows’ milk. There’s no need to go for the more expensive pure isolates just because they offer a bit more protein. Actually, the concentrate provides important micronutrients like calcium, while the more purified isolate boosts the protein content so a combination of the two is ideal.

If you’re looking for a plant-based protein powder then I’d go for soy, which is a complete protein, providing all the different essential protein components known as amino acids. Alternatively, if you want a different protein source because you’re allergic to soy or don’t like the taste, then go for a blend of different types, whether they’re based on hemp, pea, rice etc. Alone, they miss out one or more essential amino acids but in combination they are fine.

Now, do you go for the bog standard versions or do you try the expensive, fancy stuff that claims to get you lean, jacked, hench, detoxed or beautified? Do you even need to ask? The majority of the additional nutrients (bar maybe calcium, vitamin D, B12, iodine for example) are hocus pocus nonsense. So-called fat burning ingredients like green tea, caffeine, L-carnitine on so on will do no such thing (more on this next week). Superfoods are just expensive marketing of wacky powders – eat a variety of fruit and veg and you’ve no need for baobab and acai powder. Creatine might work to help develop explosive strength and power but it makes more sense to use it separately from a protein powder which you might not use daily. Just get the bog standard version and your wallet will thank you.

But as I said, you don’t need supplements. They’re just convenient.

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