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The Truth About Protein Supplementation

If you are interested in putting on some muscle or maintaining muscle as you lose weight, then you may be considering adding extra protein to your diet. There are many options when it comes to protein supplements. You can choose from powders, bars and tablets, in just about any flavour you can think of, but is protein supplementation necessary?

Protein – Of First Importance

First let’s look at the role of protein in the body. Protein accounts for 20% of our total body weight. It transports nutrients, repairs tissues and  is needed for proper growth. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of the body. There are 20 amino acids, 12 which are non essential, meaning we can produce them ourselves within the body, and 8 which are essential, meaning we must obtain them from our diet.

Amino acids can be used in two ways, either for building new proteins within the body or for energy. The body is constantly breaking down and repairing itself so it’s important that the diet supplies enough protein to meet the body’s requirements.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The amount of protein you require depends on how active you are. Someone who has a fairly sedentary lifestyle would require less than an athlete. Your weight is also important for working out how much protein you need.

The RDA for a person who does not workout is 0.75g per kg of bodyweight. Whereas an athlete on a weight gain programme may require as much as 1.8 – 2.0g per kg of bodyweight.

A person who is not training but is eating a balanced diet with good quality protein sources is most likely meeting their protein requirements.

Do You Need Extra Protein?

If you workout on a regular basis then adding a little extra protein could be of benefit. This extra protein could be supplied by eating more protein or by including a protein shake or protein bar. But don’t get obsessed with the idea that you need to be taking in huge quantities of protein. This idea is largely down to fitness magazines who are sponsored by the products that take up half the magazine’s pages that they are featured in. But a high protein diet alone will not provide you with increased size or strength.

“Once optimal intake has been reached additional protein is not converted to muscle.”

Lemon et al 1992

Benefits To Protein Supplementation

Supplementing protein:

  • can help you to meet your daily protein requirement
  • it is easily absorbed
  • can help prevent muscle breakdown

It can also be convenient if you are unable to have a proper meal. Another benefit to protein supplementation is as a weight loss aid. You are probably familiar with SlimFast. It’s basically a protein shake, the reason it is marketed as a weight loss aid is because protein helps you to feel fuller quicker. When you feel satisfied you are less likely to overeat. It isn’t the shake that is making you lose the weight but the fact that you are also replacing a meal or two with it and cutting overall calories.

The Most Common Protein Supplements On The Market

Whey

Whey powder is probably the most widely used and recommended protein supplement. The reason it is so popular is due to the fact that it has a higher biological value (BV) than whole food and is made up of 50% essential amino acids. It is also easily digested and believed to stimulate muscle growth.

Casein

Casein is much more slowly released than whey. It is recommended that you would take whey protein after a workout to quickly supply the body with protein and casein right before bed for a slow release of protein though the night. From the research I have done, casein seems to have potentially negative side effects on your health when used in the long term. But short term use should be fine.

Egg Protein

Eggs have a BV rating of 100 and are the gold standard of protein which all other sources of protein are rated. Eggs are also the only protein supplement that is a whole food. It should be noted that raw egg whites can block biotin (B6 vitamin) uptake. Biotin deficiency can lead to hair loss.

Pea Protein

Pea protein isolate is a plant based protein source. It is a beneficial source of amino acids and easily digested. Generally favoured by vegetarians and vegans but can also be of benefit to meat eaters.

Amino Acids

Amino acids can be supplemented to prevent muscle breakdown during exercise and can also be used as fuel by the muscles when carbohydrate stores are depleted. If you are using another protein supplement then taking amino acids as well isn’t really necessary.

When Is The Best Time To Take A Protein Supplement?

If you where to believe the common belief regarding building muscle and taking protein supplements, then it would be 3-4 times a day. Before and after your workout, between meals and before bed. But this is overkill.

I have tried using protein powders different ways and I think the most beneficial time to take it is right after a workout. This is the one time you want to rapidly increase your blood sugar levels so you will get a strong insulin response which will quickly absorb the protein in your blood stream from the shake you just drank. Whole foods may be broken down too slowly and miss the window of opportunity. This would be more important for an athlete or someone looking to add muscle. The rest of the time you want to be eating whole foods to keep your blood sugar stable.

A Great Tip For An Inexpensive Protein Shake

Low-fat chocolate milk - an inexpensive protein shake alternative

I go through phases of using protein powders but quite often I actually just use low-fat chocolate milk. Before you dismiss it let me explain the reasoning.

Milk provides the necessary protein, and the sugar will cause a spike in blood sugar levels. The reason I use low-fat or no-fat milk is because the fat in whole milk would slow down digestion. Now normally I don’t drink milk, eat sugar or go near anything low-fat but right after a workout this works perfectly. It’s also a fraction of the price. The one I use is called “Fit For Health”. It comes in a six pack of mini cartons. I’m not sure how widely available it is but I have bought it in Dunnes and Superquinn in Ireland.

I think low-fat chocolate milk works best when limited to post workout but wouldn’t recommend drinking it throughout the day or as a meal replacement.

Final Thoughts On Protein

In my opinion you are best to exhaust whole food sources first before looking to add protein shakes or bars. If you do choose to use a protein supplement I think whey protein is best. Don’t get caught up in all the marketing ploys some supplement companies use, just find a basic good quality one and use it after a workout and possibly as a meal replacement when unable to get real food. Protein shakes can also be a useful and convenient way to supplement a low protein diet.

Otherwise stick to good quality whole food protein sources like organic chicken, turkey, beef, fresh fish and organic free range eggs. It’s important to remember that in addition to taking enough protein you also need to be eating a variety or fresh fruits, vegetables and low GI sources of carbohydrates to have a balanced diet.

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