One of the most common questions that I am asked by people looking to get in shape, or who have just started training, is 'should I use a protein supplement?"
Protein is an essential nutrient that supports growth, repair, hormone production, immune function and many other biological processes.
However, the quantity of protein that a person requires on a daily basis can often be easily met through a balanced and varied diet particularly if you are consuming meat and dairy on a daily basis. So, who needs added protein, and is a powdered supplement the best way to go?
WHAT IS WHEY PROTEIN?
This is a protein fraction found in milk. The two main types of protein in milk are casein (80pc) and whey (20pc). Whey protein is the collective term for the soluble protein that is extracted from cows' milk, most commonly produced as a by-product of cheese production. Whey is the liquid left behind when milk curdles into cheese, and the protein powder is produced when the leftover liquid is dried and the non-protein material - fats - are removed.
Whey protein contains about 79g of protein per 100g of powder. In practical terms, one 'scoop' from a typical powdered supplement is about 30g of powder giving 120 calories - 23g of protein, 2g of fat and 3g of carbohydrate. Whey protein is a complete protein meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids, and has a high biological value meaning that it has a favourable overall amino acid profile.
WHY WOULD YOU USE WHEY?
From a health perspective there are some circumstances in which both men and women could benefit from a whey protein supplement. Protein has been found to be a more satiating nutrient than either fat or carbohydrate.
This means that by adding more protein-rich foods to your diet, you are likely to feel fuller and cutting energy intake is easier. Research has found that by consuming a diet rich in protein and lower in carbohydrate foods you are more likely to reduce body fat and improve overall body composition, and similar effects can be observed when changing to consuming a protein-rich breakfast on a daily basis.
Therefore, because a whey protein powder supplement is intrinsically low in carbohydrate and fat, this often makes it an attractive snack alternative.
WHEY AND THE ATHLETE
The development of muscle mass and improving strength and power are usually important performance targets for many elite athletes.
In terms of daily intake and eating around training sessions, the timing of intake, quantity, and quality of protein plays a key role in achieving these goals. Whole food options can provide nutrient-rich sources of protein as quick snacks, such as milk, yoghurt, boiled eggs, cold meats, pulses and nuts.
Protein powder supplements offer a practical, time-efficient and convenient method of meeting protein needs. What distinguishes whey protein from other protein powder sources is that it is much richer in a subset of amino acids known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
One of these BCAAs - known as leucine - is the key amino acid in regulating growth and repair in response to exercise training, which attests to the value of whey protein in this context.
WHEY AND THE ELDERLY
Whey protein may offer the greatest potential health benefits to the elderly. As we age, particularly over the age of 40, our muscle mass naturally declines as does our general muscle strength year on year.
Maintaining muscle mass and strength is a key factor for reducing lifestyle-related diseases and frailty in the elderly. Low muscle mass and strength is known to be one of the reasons why they are more prone to falls, fractures and certain diseases.
Adequate protein intake plays an important role in maintaining muscle mass, function and strength, and evidence now suggests that the elderly need more protein on a daily basis to maintain these aspects. For this reason, supplementing the diet with whey protein powder (again leucine is important here) as well as calcium and vitamin D may be an effective strategy to help the elderly meet their protein requirements and maintain greater levels of muscle mass, and thereby reducing the incidence of falls and fractures.
SHOULD WOMEN USE IT?
Some women may think that by adding extra protein to their diet that they will get 'big' or 'bulky' but this is certainly not the case.
In simple terms, the hormonal milieu in females is not favourable to building large muscle mass. Research has shown that women who consume whey protein as part of a calorie-controlled diet in conjunction with appropriate exercise can preferentially lose body fat due to increased satiety and lower calorie intake.
Whey is practical and versatile to use in recipes. Whey powder can be used to make high-protein snacks such as protein bars, pancakes,smoothies, protein-based desserts, ice-cream and pudding.
Check the Facebook FoodFlicker page for recipes. A favourite tip among athletes is to add a scoop of protein powder to their morning porridge.
MUST IT BE THIS WHEY?
With all that said, it is important to consider whether you actually need additional protein in your diet, and whether that should be a powdered supplement form.
Using a whey protein supplement can be beneficial in specific circumstances such as for recovery by athletes training at a high intensity.
Doing a bit of recreational training does not mean you need a protein supplement. A diet based on nutrient-rich whole foods can meet any nutritional requirements you have. Improving your general eating habits is a better option. But, with busy lifestyles, convenience often wins over best practice.
If you are well organised and equipped with the right information, then you do not need a protein supplement, but a powdered whey protein supplement is a practical solution as a convenient snack or if you struggle to meet your individual protein needs.
Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist