Supplement Low Down… Protein Powders
The range of protein supplements available can be quite confronting… caseinate, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, egg albumin & more recently hydrolysed proteins as well as a wide range of individual & combination amino acid supplements. Protein supplements can be broadly classified according to their nutrient profile as either providing protein only (as a single protein source or a protein blend i.e. combination of several proteins) or a combination of protein & carbs with or without a range of proposed performance boosters such as creatine, specific amino acids & fat metabolisers. Protein‐only supplements are typically 90% protein by weight, while those with added carbs can vary markedly with protein varying from as little at 10‐15 g per 100 g powder, to ≥50 g. Use the guide below to better interpret the list of ingredients of commercially available protein powders.
Which protein supplement is best?
- Whey Protein ‐HBV protein that is rapidly digested, comprising ~20% of the protein in milk. Whey is rich in branched chain amino acids, especially leucine, the amino acid primarily responsible for stimulating protein building. Whey protein can also be quite filling, alluding to a potential role in fat loss as well as muscle gain.
- Casein or Calcium Caseinate ‐HBV protein that makes up ~80% of the protein in milk. Casein clots in the acidic environment of the stomach, slowing digestion & delivery of amino acids to the body.
- Soy Protein ‐HBV, rapidly digested protein. Some research suggests it may be preferentially utilised by the internal organs. As with whey, available as both a soy concentrate & soy isolate. Often used in mixed protein supplements, as well as protein bars as it is cheaper than whey.
Egg Albumin ‐The go‐to high quality protein source for supplements before the emergence of much cheaper dairy derived whey & casein proteins. A HBV protein source free of fat & carbohydrate.
While the addition of carbs to a protein supplement doesn’t appreciably influence muscle building or breakdown, it does help meet other nutrition goals, especially if consumed in the post‐exercise period when restoration of energy reserves is a priority. The inclusion of other proposed ergogenic ingredients may do little else but add unnecessary expense to the product. Even for ingredients with proven performance potential such a creatine monohydrate, intake of these products may be best prescribed in isolation (i.e. pure creatine monohydrate supplement), rather than as part of a ‘one stop shop’ protein powder where individual dosing of active ingredients is not possible.
Debate continues on the health implications of high protein diets. Furthermore, health concerns have been raised about an overemphasis on protein derived from protein supplements. A report out of the USA on popular bodybuilding protein shakes suggests that regular intake (three servings a day) may result in exposure to heavy metals exceeding health guidelines. Taken together, athletes are advised to firstly consider their intake of protein from whole foods, emphasizing the inclusion of small amounts of HBV protein at most meals & snacks throughout the day, to achieve both protein & other nutrient needs. When the convenience of protein supplements outweighs the cost, intake should be restricted to 1‐2 serves a day at times when the ingestion of rapidly digested HBV proteins is beneficial, such as the immediate post‐exercise period. Individual doses should be limited to an intake of no more than 20‐30 grams.
Take home message
The decision to use a protein supplement should only come after consideration of several factors including an athletes training load & goals, lifestyle commitments, daily energy requirements, existing meal plan, appetite post‐exercise, & available finances. Current evidence indicates WPI offer benefits for athletes attempting to increase muscle mass. The selection of carbohydrate containing protein supplements may be warranted in some situations. HBV protein‐rich foods that contain valuable amounts of other essential nutrients should be a priority when attempting to optimise nutrient intake. However, protein supplements may be of value when the delivery of rapidly digested proteins is a priority, such as the immediate post‐exercise period. Liquid protein shakes may be particularly appealing to athletes who lose their appetite after exercise. These products are also convenient when portable nutritional support is required. At other times, wholesome protein rich foods should be a priority, such as an omelette at breakfast, cold meat & cheese on sandwiches or fat trimmed, beef, skinless chicken or seafood at dinner.