Do I really need a protein shake?
If there’s one thing which symbolises everything that’s wrong about the fitness industry and the way it has made everything obscure and difficult to understand for the average person, it’s the fact that protein shakes are still spoken about in the terms that they are by people outside of the little gym bubble. And this is for no reason other than a commercial one; for decades protein shakes were marketed exclusively to bodybuilders and strength athletes because some executive somewhere decided that this was the only demographic that would buy them.
(likely because up until EXTREMELY recently all protein shakes tasted like some kind of a cross between chalk and slightly off-milk that someone has shouted the word ‘chocolate’ at a few times – people weren’t going to buy these for non-functional reasons)
Protein shakes were promoted as helping you build a ton more muscle, workout harder, get stronger, that whole vibe. The language printed in aggressive text next to a veiny arm on each tub label was very much in the “bigger, faster, better” category. This is basic marketing – pick your target audience and then market specifically to them with no real care for anyone else. Sure, you alienate most people, but most things alienate most people because that’s not who they are for. Attract your audience, bugger everyone else.
The problem with this situation is that, basically, it was all a lie.
Here’s the thing: protein shakes, be they whey protein, pea and rice protein, soy protein, milk protein, egg isolate, etc, are just sources of dietary protein. They are a powder that can be mixed into liquid in order to create a relatively low calorie, high protein beverage (some clever folks cook with them, too). As such, from a nutritional standpoint, they should really be viewed as being little different to chicken breasts, tuna, tofu or Quorn, albeit with fewer vitamins. Protein is important for building muscle, yes, but these powders don’t actually DO anything other than provide some protein. This isn’t much of a marketing message and so you don’t read it often (or at least you didn’t a few years back) but nevertheless it is true.
Sure, you can talk about these powders being really fast-digesting and whatnot but that’s not really something that matters to anyone but the highest of high-end athletes training multiple times per day, so I’m not going to talk about it. It simply doesn’t matter in either a positive or negative sense. Protein powders are just low-calorie sources of high-quality protein and that’s it
So, do you need one?
Well, with protein shakes couched in this context the answer is a little easier to talk about.
Protein – high-quality protein – is a really important nutrient. A ‘protein’ is a 3D molecule made by the cells of living things from the DNA housed inside their nucleus – some cellular machinery reads certain sections of DNA, then from that code will attach a bunch of smaller molecules called amino acids together. This set of amino acids, when stuck together, forms a 3D shape. This final protein may be an enzyme used in digestion, part of a muscle cell, or a hormone protein like insulin – your body makes millions of them per day.
It can’t do that, however, if it doesn’t have the amino acids that it needs, and this is where dietary protein comes in. There are 20 amino acids used by the human body to make all of the proteins that it needs, of which 9 are essential. Essential amino acids are those that your body can’t make itself and so you need to get them from your diet, and THIS is why protein is so important. Without consuming enough of these essential amino acids through your diet you run into a ton of health problems, and so it’s vital that sufficient high-quality protein every day.
High-quality protein sources are those containing all of the essential amino acids. All animal-based proteins other than gelatine are complete, high quality proteins, and provided those on a plant-based diet are eating a variety of typical plant-based ‘protein foods’ like beans, legumes, tofu, Quorn, meat substitutes and the like then over the course of the day you’ll be getting everything you need if your intake is high enough, too.
How high is high enough? That’s a complicated question.
The current UK recommended intake of protein is 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, so an 80kg person would need 60g of protein. This is often shown as 45grams for women and 55grams for men, assuming that the average woman and man weigh around 60 and 75kg each – your individual needs will vary.
The data are pretty clear that most people already eat this or more than this (it’s really not all that much protein) and so most of us fortunate enough to be able to eat enough calories from a variety of food sources have nothing to worry about in terms of becoming protein deficient. This is why we often hear “people eat too much protein!”.
But there’s a difference between avoiding deficiency and consuming the optimal amount of something. Avoiding deficiency means you don’t get sick, getting the optimal amount means that good stuff happens, and so it’s simply not correct to say that people eating more than the minimum amount of protein required to avoid illness are eating “too much”.
The optimal amount depends on your goals. Athletes, especially strength athletes, need more protein – up to 2.2grams per kilogram in order to maximise muscle growth – but for those of us just seeking health and wellbeing, this would be overkill. Rather, for the general population, the data on such things seem to suggest that about 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day is the ideal amount. This amount seems to be that which best maintains muscle mass (especially important in older age), supports healthy hair, skin and nails, improves results from exercise, and perhaps most importantly – balances appetite optimally. In research, a protein intake around this amount seems to help maintain a person’s weight or improve results from attempts at weight loss. This is due to protein leverage theory which states simply that your body needs a certain amount of protein per day, and you’ll be hungry if you don’t eat this…because that might make you eat more protein. If you eat enough, protein reduces, and in research, those who consume a higher protein diet often start to move towards a healthy weight independently of any other intervention (not because the protein does anything, but because their appetite becomes better regulated).
For reference, our 80kg example person would need about 120g of protein per day, which would equate to something like the following:
Breakfast – 4 eggs on toast
Lunch – A wrap with 150g cooked chicken meat
Snack – 170g pot of Greek yoghurt
Dinner – 4 Quorn Fillets
And this is where protein shakes become a part of the conversation. That’s not an unreasonable menu, but it’s definitely something that would require conscious thought, preparation, and effort (not to mention more animal products than some would be comfortable with) – it’s also not the cheapest because protein is the most expensive macronutrient in the supermarket. Protein powder can, therefore, be a really cheap and convenient alternative.
Protein powders are cheaper, gram for gram than any other protein source available. They also don’t require storage, preparation or cooking before eating and so can make life a lot more affordable and easy – especially for plant-based dieters that may struggle for higher protein breakfast options. With most protein powders now tasting pretty good, adding some to a bowl of oatmeal or smoothie is a perfectly good option to get a person’s intake to where it would ideally be without having to go to the trouble and expense of finding whole food options. Small portions are even suitable for children who refuse to eat anything other than cereal in the morning (a half scoop in milk makes a really tasty milkshake, and kids need protein, too – in fact, whey protein is a primary component of baby formula for this reason).
Whole foods are arguably ‘better’ as they are more micronutrient dense and come alongside things like fibre which is missing from protein powders, but it’s not a case of one vs the other and both can exist within a high nutrient diet. If you can do without protein powders then my advice would be to do without protein powders, but to conclude this blog my honest advice would be to think about things in the following way:
Protein powders have no side effects because they are just food, and so the question of “do I need a protein shake?” can simply be answered in the same way as “do I need a chicken breast?”.
From a food standpoint: do you want one?
From a nutritional standpoint: do you want to use one to meet your ideal protein intake today?
If yes, yes, and if no? Eat something else. That’s all there is to it
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