Being in the sports medicine field and working side by side with an ever expanding bootcamp has made protein a very recurring topic of conversation. I'm often asked questions such as; whether people need extra protein, would it make any difference, is it bad for you to take protein or what protein should I be taking? So I've decided to compile a list of the questions I come across the most and lay them all out for you to read, Q&A style. Have a read, enjoy, and let me know if you have any additional questions or comments!
What are the health benefits of protein shakes?
Protein has many roles in the body so the benefits of adding extra protein through supplementation include: increasing lean muscle mass, speeding up recovery (injury or after a workout), and strengthening the immune system to name a few.
This can also become very important in the aging population where falls become an increasing problem, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. Maintaining muscle mass is directly linked with increased balance and a decreased amount of falls.
How effective are protein shakes for someone wanting to gain muscle?
When combined with a resistance training program it is essential to be obtaining enough protein to support the demands of the body. This can be done through a whole foods diet, however, for busy people on the go a protein shake is the perfect solution. Furthermore, at a certain point, depending on the demands of training, individuals may require an amount of protein that is just too difficult to obtain through food alone. In this case, additional protein gained through a shake can be easier to get down. If someone is exercising but not getting enough protein, they cannot gain more lean muscle.
Are they effective for weight loss?
There was a study that looked at excessive protein consumption in body builders. By the end of the study period the researchers actually found that the body builders placed on the very high protein diet had lost more weight compared to the subjects who were put on a moderate protein diet.
This is only 1 instance but increasing protein consumption does have an overall beneficial effect in terms of metabolism and weight loss. Our body does have the ability to convert and store excess protein as fat, however, to do so requires more work from our metabolism. The process of converting protein to glucose or fat is more metabolically taxing, therefore increasing the amount of calories the body will burn and aiding in weight loss.
This is not a linear relationship though. If all other calorie intake remains equally elevated you will still end up gaining weight. More is not better if all is not done in moderation.
What should I look for in a protein shake?
My biggest suggestion is to look for a clean protein source that works well with you as a unique individual. My top choice would be a Grass-fed Whey Isolate (Whey isolates currently are the quickest and best absorbed proteins on the market). Typically if dairy is a problem, it is the casein protein people tend to have issues with and the whey isolates are well tolerated. If dairy is a problem overall, look for a grass-fed beef protein. They are newer to the market but are complete proteins with great amino acid profiles. If you're looking for vegan or vegetarian sources, ensure that they are a blend of multiple plant proteins to ensure a complete amino acid profile.
Aside from the type of protein, the next most important thing to look for would be to ensure little to no sugar is added. Sugar has no beneficial use and adds extra calories. Watch for unhealthy sweeteners as well, stick with stevia, erythritol or xylitol if some sweetness is desired.
Alternative to whole foods?
Protein shakes make a great SUPPLEMENT to whole foods but should by no means replace them. As mentioned earlier, if someone is too busy to have a complete meal soon after a workout, a shake is very easy to bring around and consume on the spot. They can also be very effective in cases where protein requirements are simply too difficult to meet based on whole foods alone.
They can also be a great supplement for people who avoid meat and are worried they may not be consuming enough complete protein in their diets.
Are there any negative effects to protein supplementation?
While protein shakes are generally well tolerated and safe, they are extra calories. If no other changes are made to the diet and extra protein is added, it is likely that you will gain weight. As for negative health outcomes related to protein, studies have yet to conclude that extra protein intake can cause any health risks.
It is important to note however that while our bodies can readily deal with extra protein without negative consequence, there are instances where someone who is already in a compromised health condition may not process the extra protein well. Kidney disease is one of these instances. Remember to consult with your doctor before making any major changes to lifestyle if you have a medical condition or suspect you may.
When is the best time to have a protein shake?
The absolute best time to consume a protein shake would be immediately after a workout. Mix with some water or unsweetened dairy alternative and try to consume about 20-30g (of total protein) within 2 hours of your workout. The sooner the better! After exercise our body is primed to absorb much more protein into the muscle and use it to rebuild and repair. Take advantage of this window!
Can you have too much?
Yes, too much of anything is a bad thing. If you only consumed protein shakes you would not be obtaining the proper amount of nutrition that you need to live optimally and in good health. Also, consuming more protein than your body needs to carry out all of it’s functioning will cause the extra protein to be converted and stored as fat. While not the main energy source for the body, protein still can be used as energy and has calories associated with it.
Are protein shakes effective for athletes and regular gym goers?
Athletes should absolutely be using protein shakes in order to enhance their game. With increased demands of training, protein shakes offer an easy way to supplement and optimize protein utilization in terms of timings and controlled amounts.
Regular gym goers can also benefit from adding protein shakes to their diet, so long as they are consistent in training. Maximum benefits can be seen with consistent training programs. Increases in muscle mass, strength and power can all be enhanced even in regular gym goers if protein shakes are added after a workout. This can also be accomplished with whole foods, but taking a shake with you to the gym is a lot easier than packing a meal.
Dr. Rob Raponi ND, CISSN, B.Kine(Hons)