There is an abundance of whey protein supplement products available. Not only can you buy protein powder in “bucket with a handle” form and protein bars or balls from gyms and health shops, but whey protein is now also appearing in everyday foods like porridge and cereals.
Widely marketed to help you recover quicker, build more muscle and lose weight, it’s easy to think that we should all be on a protein supplement of some form.
Do you need EXTRA protein?
Regular exercisers and athletes have higher protein requirements than the general population. The extra protein helps with repair and rebuild muscle cells that are damaged during intense exercise. Strength athletes or people who do high intensity exercise have higher protein requirement (1.2-1.7g per kg body weight per day) than endurance athletes (1.2-1.4g per kg body weight per day) who have slightly higher requirements than the general sedentary population (0.8-1.0g per kg bodyweight per day. Older adults are also less efficient in making protein than younger adults hence elderly people also need significantly more protein. This can help prevent the reduction in muscle mass (called sarcopenia) that comes as a result of ageing.
Whether you choose to take a protein supplement or not depends on several factors including goals, training load, daily energy requirements, dietary intake, appetite, post-exercise appetite, general dietary intake and so on. There isn’t anything magical in protein supplements that will automatically pack on muscle or strength or help you lose weight. Their main advantage is convenience as they provide protein in a concentrated and easy-to-consume form.
Does the TYPE of protein matter?
The nutritional value of a protein is determined by its unique amino acid profile. Animal-based proteins such as dairy foods, eggs, meat, fish and poultry as well as isolated soy protein are considered high biological value (HBV) proteins as they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by the human body. Plant based proteins only contain only some of the essential amino acids are considered to be of lower biological value.
Leucine, a branched chain amino-acid, plays a critical role in ‘switching on’ muscle protein synthesis. The leucine content of foods varies but some foods are naturally high in leucine, including milk (and whey protein) and red meat. Research suggests that ~2-3g of leucine maximally stimulates protein synthesis (equivalent to ~20-25g of HBV protein).
The research suggests that a whey supplement is better at getting your body to make more muscle compared to plant-based protein (i.e. soy), however if you use a combination of plant proteins ( such as brown rice and pea protein) you will get all the amino acids found in whey.
Does the TIMING of protein intake make a difference?
A recent study looking at 48 volunteers found that 20g HBV protein (whey in this example) was the optimal level for maximising muscle repair after training. However, this is a ball park figure - the more you weigh the more you need. Consuming more than 0.25g/kg body mass offer no further benefits to muscle protein synthesis and the excess is basically used for energy. In studies where volunteers were already consuming adequate amounts of protein in their diet then consuming whey protein supplements after their workouts made no difference to protein synthesis or strength. But if you do need to supplement, then eating protein in the hour following exercise can help to prolong the protein synthesis response to exercise, helping to promote muscle gains and minimise muscle breakdown (losses).
WHEY… what is it?
Whey is a by-product of cheese manufacturing. It provides all nine essential amino acids and is rapidly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream meaning it reaches muscles quickly. Whey is one of the most researched sports nutrition supplements out there.
There are 3 main forms of whey protein:
- Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) – Typically 70-80% protein by weight with small amounts of lactose (milk sugar) and fat. Cheaper than Whey Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) – Powder is usually 90% protein by weight, with negligible amounts of carbohydrates (lactose) and fat
- Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH) – Derived from whey protein concentrate or isolate and is known for its shorter peptides or amino acid chains, supposedly resulting in even more rapid digestion. However evidence to date is conflicting.
What SUPPLEMENTS are out there?
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). There are also supplements which contain a combination of protein and carbohydrates. Some supplements also have additional ingredients such as creatine, specific amino acids, proposed fat metabolisers, vitamins and minerals. There are more and more plant based protein powders on the market as well (that’s another whole story in itself!)
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
- Talking to a Registered Sports Dietitian or Nutritionist can help you establish if the use of a protein supplement is necessary, how to make changes to your protein intake if your training needs change and which supplement is best.
- If you are hitting your protein numbers with your diet there is probably little point in taking supplements. However, if your protein intake is lower than recommended then a protein supplement can be used to boost your intake.
- Eating protein around workouts may improve your body’s response to exercise. You can use a protein supplement or you can eat real food. Milk for example has been shown to improve protein muscle synthesis after resistance exercise. If you have higher-than-average requirements, then whey protein maybe a convenient way of adding protein to your diet and maximising gains from exercise.
- If you’re a fan of plant based proteins rather than whey protein, use a combination of proteins (i.e. hemp protein and pea protein) rather than just relying on one protein.
- Learn label language. Read supplement labels so that you know what you are getting and can make the most informed choice.
NEXT UP: Superfoods, should you believe the hype? Find out here.
- Arentson-Lantz E, Clairmont S, Paddon-Jones D, Tremblay A, Elango R. Protein: A nutrient in focus. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Aug;40(8):755-61
- Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Orris S, Scheiner M, Gonzalez A, Peacock CA.A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women—a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Oct 20;12:39.
- Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, Willett WC, Longo VD, Chan AT, Giovannucci EL.Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Aug 1.
- Witard O et al. 2013. Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise. American Society for Nutrition. 20.3945
- Weisgarber K et al. 2012. Whey protein before and during resistance exercise has no effect on muscle mass and strength in untrained young adults. 22 ( 6): 463-9