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Protein Shakes: A Complete Guide for Beginners

Protein shakes are marketed in all manner of ways and to support all manner of goals. Want to lose weight? Build muscle? Recover from exercise? Then there is a protein shake for you!

It might seem that unless you are consuming some form of shake, especially after a workout, that all your hard work in the gym will go to waste; but what’s the truth behind protein shakes? Do they actually work? What’s in them that makes them so special? And do you even need them?

All these questions are about to be answered!

WHAT IS PROTEIN?

Protein, no matter what the source, is a protein because it contains amino acids. However, not all proteins should be considered equal!

Some proteins are known as complete proteins and these contain all nine of our essential amino acids and in fact often contain all of the twenty or so amino acids that the body requires. The reason that only nine are essential (essential meaning we need them to survive and thrive) is because all the other amino acids we might need can be created in the body from the essential ones.

All animal protein sources are complete proteins and this includes things like whey protein, the most popular ‘gym’ protein, which is derived from the curds and whey of cheese fame!

Incomplete proteins are those that do not contain all the essential amino acids, and this is typically the case with many plant-based proteins, although there are some exceptions… one of the most popular vegan protein sources is soya as this contains all the essential amino acids.

WHAT DO AMINO ACIDS DO INTHE BODY?

Amino acids do loads of cool stuff; they are part of many of the body’s tissues including muscles, so are important structural components, they make up ‘peptide hormones’ such as insulin and growth hormone and they make up enzymes which allow reactions in the body to take place efficiently.

So yeah, protein and amino acids are essential for recovery from exercise and in providing the building blocks to build muscle.

But what about weight loss? Well, protein does us a few favours here as well. Protein is the most filling nutrient, so helps curb hunger when dieting. It also takes quite a bit of energy to digest and stored, so quite a large chunk of the calories we consume (up to 30%) from protein are used up in the process of digesting and storing them and also helps prevent muscle loss.

The amino acids most people will focus on for muscle building are known as branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) and this includes leucine. Leucine is an important ‘trigger’ to build muscle and again leucine is found in abundance in animal proteins, but not quite as much in plant sources… this means vegetarians/vegans looking to build muscle might want to consume a little more protein or add leucine into their diet as a supplement at around 2-3g per protein meal.

BCAA’s are also often sold as a supplements in their own right, and although they are important in recovery/muscle building, on their own they do not work effectively! So, if you’re looking to top up your daily protein intake always go for complete sources where possible and if this is not possible then, with a bit of planning, vegans can combine protein sources at each meal to make sure they get all their essential amino acids.

WHAT TYPE OF PROTEIN SHAKES ARE THERE?

Protein shakes come in many types. Your ‘bog standard’ protein shake is usually a whey protein, which is a quality source of protein and comes in two main types; whey isolate and whey concentrate.

Whey concentrate tends to be cheaper and is marginally higher in calories as it is not fully ‘isolated’ from milk sugars and fats in the manufacturing process. However, in terms of the actual protein content 20g of protein from concentrate provides exactly the same benefits as 20g of protein from isolate.

There are some slight differences in digestion and absorption rates between these proteins, however this makes NO DIFFERENCE to their impact on recovery or muscle growth (we’ll come back to this shortly!)

Diet protein shakes tend to be exactly the same ingredients as whey protein but marketed differently, often with added ‘fat burning ingredients’… these do not work, well no more so than a normal protein shake that is simply used as a meal replacement to reduce calorie intake, these have no added benefit than just consuming a ‘whole foods’ high protein diet for weight loss!

There are also vegan protein shakes. These tend to either be made from soy or combine different plant protein extracts (pea, rice, wheat etc.) to make sure they provide all the essential amino acids you need.

You also get ‘mass gainer’ shakes, these are just an easy way to consume protein whilst having a ton of extra calories to support recovery and muscle growth!

There are also pre-bedtime shakes made from another dairy product called casein. Casein digests slowly meaning it provides protein over longer periods which makes it ‘apparently’ ideal before bed time… again though, this is not essential to support muscle recovery and growth.

SHOULD I USE PROTEIN SHAKES?

To be crystal clear, protein shakes are not required to support recovery, build muscle or lose weight. They are simply just another form of easy to consume protein.

Total daily protein amounts relative to your goals are the most important thing. If you can do this through normal protein rich foods then great, but if not then a protein shake can be a convenient way to help top up your daily needs and hit your goal specific targets. For muscle gain and weight loss this means an intake of around 1.6-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight (e.g. 80kg person requires 130-160g of protein per day).

If you want to get really ‘scientific’ about it, then breaking your protein down into 4-5 equal sized portions per day every 3-5 hours would be the next priority, as this helps maximise our muscle building response… but again protein shakes are not essential to do this.

SUMMARY…

Protein shakes do ‘work’ but only in the sense that they provide another source of protein to meet our daily needs. Do not be drawn into clever marketing by thinking they are essential in reaching your goals but do take a look at your own daily intake of protein and see how much you are consuming, then perhaps use this to decide whether a protein shake will help ‘top you up’ and reach your daily protein targets!


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