Protein Powder: A Complete Guide for Beginners
With the vast number of protein shakes and powders available, it can be hard to decide which one will be best for your fitness goals… or if you need them at all! Before we jump into the different types of protein shakes and powders, we need to lay some ‘ground rules’ in regard to your protein intake.
No matter how well marketed they may be, a protein shake is just another source of protein and has no other magical benefits. This means it’s the total amount of protein you eat over the course of a day that will be the most important factor if your wanting to lose weight, build muscle or to boost recovery from exercise.
PROTEIN FOR WEIGHT LOSS
When it comes to weight loss, protein is very important as it’s the most filling macronutrient, helps protect muscle tissue and also helps bolster your metabolism because it has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF is the energy it takes to digest, absorb and store a nutrient and around ? of the calories in protein are used up in this process!
Suggested ranges of protein intake for those with a weight loss goal fall anywhere between 1.5-3g per kg of lean bodyweight. If you don’t know your lean bodyweight you can easily get an estimate from one of our trainers in the gym. Alternatively, just aim for the middle of this range at around 2g per kg of bodyweight and you’ll be right in the ballpark of where you need to be.
PROTEIN FOR MUSCLE GAIN
For muscle gain, if you consume around 2g per kg of body weight then chances are you’ll be getting enough protein to support muscle growth. To an 80kg person this equates to 160g of protein per day. As you can see, 30g serving of protein post-workout is only a small part of what you’re going to require to maximise your muscle gains. There’s also somewhat of a myth that you need to consume a protein shake IMMEDIATELY after training to build muscle. Although it’s a good idea to consume a protein shake (or any protein source) post-workout as the body will be starting the recovery and repair process after weight training, this ‘anabolic window’ is much larger than people realise.
The idea of a post-workout anabolic window is why many gym members looking to build muscle use whey protein as a preferred protein source during this period. Even though it may not be essential, whey protein is a great source of protein to build muscle. It digests and absorbs into the body rapidly, making the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) available for the muscles to repair and grow. Whey’s amino acid profile provides all the amino acids the body needs to support muscle in these processes too.
Whey proteins comes in three forms, concentrate, isolate and hydrolysed whey; in real world muscle building terms there isn’t much difference, but isolates and hydrolysed whey have more protein and less sugar and fats per gram than concentrate.
Image source: My Protein
Whey is one of the proteins found in milk and the other is casein. Like whey, casein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids, but unlike whey it is much slower to digest and absorb. This is because it coagulates in the stomach and passes more slowly through the digestive system, meaning although we don’t get as rapid a ‘spike’ in amino acids entering the body compared to whey, we do get a more sustained supply, which might be an advantage in periods when we may not be able to provide protein regularly. This makes casein a popular pre-bedtime protein source to support recovery whilst we sleep.
Image source: The Protein Works
Next we have blend proteins. These contain both whey and casein protein sources and are really a best of both-worlds protein supplement, designed to provide the short term benefits of whey with the longer term benefits of casein. Blend proteins are an ideal source of protein to be used at any time, especially if using protein shakes to meet your daily protein requirements. This is because they replicate more accurately whole food complete protein sources such as eggs, dairy, meat and fish.
Image source: Bulk Powders
Vegan proteins come in a number of different forms including pea, rice, wheat and soy extracts. Unlike animal protein sources, plant protein sources (except soy and a couple of others) are incomplete proteins. This means they don’t provide all the essential amino acids to support health, recovery and muscle growth. Therefore many vegan proteins combine different plant sources to create a more complete protein source.
Vegan protein powders are great for people who are looking to lose weight because most high protein plant sources are also high in calories. This means powders can be very important to meet daily protein requirements whilst keeping calories in check.
Image source: My Protein
In terms of protein powders/shakes for weight loss, many on the market specifically target women and have added ‘extras’ to support weight loss. Honestly, most of these ingredients do not increase rates of weight loss and the protein is often of lower quality and generally much more expensive than a normal whey protein, with no added benefits.
There is (again due to clever marketing) an assumption that whey protein will build big and bulky muscles and some people who want to avoid this look often gravitate away from whey protein even though it might have potential benefits. The truth is muscle growth is actually a slow process in men and even slower in women and will only occur typically in a calorie surplus with the right type of training. So if you are worried about excessive muscle gain then don’t be, protein powder alone will not cause that, it is just another protein source, nothing more, nothing less.
On an important side note, for weight loss, it is advisable (unless you need the protein) to not drink your calories. This is because whole food sources of protein are going to keep you feeling fuller and control cravings. Don’t fall for the marketing hype.
One situation where you might want to drink your calories is if you are struggling to gain weight/muscle. As protein is filling, it can be hard to consume enough protein and overall calories to support muscle growth for some people, often referred to as hard-gainers. In this situation mass gainer shakes, which combine protein (usually whey) and lots of carbohydrates and potentially added fats, are a convenient way to boost daily calorie and protein needs. But be careful they are HIGHLY calorific and can easily lead to unwanted fat gain.
Ultimately, many forms of protein powder and shakes might be beneficial, but not essential, in supporting you in hitting your daily protein needs. If you are looking for a protein powder the things you most need to consider are the protein content, calorie content and the type and quality of protein it contains. Among the more expensive brands there is often very little difference in terms of quality and price (although there are always exceptions!), and it is often suggested cheaper brands may lack quality, however there is very much a brand to brand variation, so do your research and choose wisely!