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Protein, part 2 - the shake minefield.

So last time we did some mythbusting about protein, it was good times and now we can rest easy that we are neither going to contract kwashiorkor or experience renal failure as long as we eat right. Phew.

Now I want to talk supplements, because this is another thing people like to ask me about!

Protein supplementation can be quite divisive. There are those who swear by it and those who rally against it and yet again, both of them have their points. So shall we mythbust?

If you are strength training you need to be drinking protein shakes.

Protein lowdown part 2 - the shake minefield
How beautiful is this?
I drank my last protein shake out of the Pyrex jug I mixed it in.
Nope. If you read my last post (why didn't you read my last post? Go there now and think about what you've done), you will know that pretty much everyone, including high level athletes can meet their protein needs with real food, and....say it with me...


The possible exception being athletes who are trying to gain or retain muscle mass, whilst also in caloric deficit to promote fat loss. The high levels of protein necessary in this case are hard to consume, alongside other necessary food groups, whilst keeping the calories down.

So I don't need protein shakes?

In an ideal world, no. However, there is a difference between understanding nutrition in theory and actually applying it in the real world.

As a Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach, I get to look at people's lives and help them find ways to make good nutrition work for them. It's no use simply knowing what a day of good, balanced meals look like. There's no point just telling someone to eat that way. It has to work for them, they have to enjoy it, it has to be manageable and sustainable.

Almost every client I see could benefit by increasing their protein intake. Some are not meeting RDA and nobody has ever come to me already consistently eating optimal levels for their weight loss or performance goals.

Now, I can say to them "eat 4 palm sized portions of dense protein a day". I can give them a list of options. But then John has to leave the house at 6.30am to catch his train to work and isn't up for getting up 15 minutes early to make an omelette; and Katie likes her pre-run banana and post run porridge - she's not up for changing that, so that's one meal a day that's not getting the protein in. Then there's Jo who's dietary restrictions leave her with limited choices....

Protein supplements can bridge the gap. That might mean adding a shake on at breakfast, or a scoop of pea protein in a soup or casserole, or having a high protein version of instant porridge or a snack bar. One of those can count for one of their portions, and take the pressure off a little.

There are other non-supplement options. For instance I have the iconic "tin of fish", which I always have in my handbag for snack emergencies. But not everyone wants to eat mackerel from the tin with a fork. That's a weird fitness person thing. Supplements that are easier to stomach can be a good gateway to eating in a balanced, clean way.

You need several shakes a day to see results

Seriously? I've seen this on the back of the pack "1-2 scoops, 4-6 times a day". Really? Really? A scoop of protein powder is usually about 20g of protein and 100 calories. So that's up to 240g of protein rocking in at 1200 calories. That exceeds the protein needs of all but the beefiest of strongmen without picking up a fork. This is not a good life choice. Say it with me... REAL FOOD FIRST.

Protein supplements are full of unhealthy chemicals

So this is where you have to get a bit savvy. Protein supplements are becoming big business, and very widely available. There's kinds with all sorts of variations and some of them are indeed crammed full of all kinds of things.

Some protein shakes contain other supplements, like CLA (fairly innocuous), green tea extract (not for before bedtime) and taurine (hmmm....) Personally I'm not up for this kind of thing. I would rather have the flexibility to choose my supplements and take them separately than trust that the particular protein shake that claims to be suited to my goals is actually right for me. Also plain proteins are cheaper.

Then there is stuff like flavouring and sweetener. You can get unsweetened, flavour free protein powder. I tried it for you, I tried a load of smoothie recipes and it was all pretty disgusting. You are welcome. I decided in future that I would buy sweetened vanilla flavour even as a smoothie base because it is so hard to make plain whey truly palatable - but if you are really into being super-clean, that's the way to go.

As a rule of thumb I would advise you to look at the ingredients and go for a powder with the least possible content. My preference at the moment is Musclefood Free Range Whey 80/85. You can get it here, and if you use this link, you and I get a referral bonus. Good times.

Whey protein is just powdered milk, you could just drink milk

Yeah, I once saw a fitness professional trying to claim this, I don't think they had read the labels. It is, in truth a powder, that is made from processing milk. The nutritional content however is not at all comparable. 200ml of milk from 56g of skimmed milk powder contains about 70 calories and about 8g of protein. Whey protein supplement made up from a similar amount (a double shake for most brands) would contain around 180 calories and 40g of protein. If it really was just milk, we'd be onto it.

What about protein shakes for people who can't have milk?

It depends on why you can't have milk. If you are lactose intolerant then you could try a whey isolate. Whey isolate has been processed in such a way as to purify the whey protein and remove the carbohydrates, including lactose. Many people who can't have milk have no issues with whey isolate. It's also a better option if you are on a low-carb diet or just watching the calories.

If you are vegan, then there are loads of options out there for you. My favourite is the Vegan Complex from The Protein Works, which is a mix of a few different protein sources and very smooth and palatable - like flavoured soy milk (here is is, once again this is a referral link, no pressure but there's free stuff in it for you...)

Or how about other proteinaceous foods?

Pretty much everything comes in a high protein version lately. Some of these have more value than others. It seems to be a big thing in food marketing lately to slap some extra protein in stuff and sell it as a health food. As before, read the labels and be cynical. Real food first.

That said, I'm a big fan of instant proats (protein porridge, protein oats, proats!) because they are super handy for breakfast out of the house, you just need a kettle and a spoon.

Protein yogurt is a thing now, but I prefer skyr - a type of Icelandic yogurt that is higher in protein by nature.

Protein bars are often not a great choice. They are easy to carry around (but then so's a tin of fish people...) They do have the advantage of not making you look like a poseur as you leave the gym munching a chocolate bar. Some of them are also super-yummy. I have a bit of an obsession with a certain millionaire's shortbread bar that actually had way more calories and odd sounding ingredients than is entirely right. And that's the thing. These are not health foods, they are convenient snack foods that happen to have a portion of protein in them. But if you were going to have a cookie anyway, why not make it a protein cookie? Just choose well and remember it's a treat food, just like a normal cookie.

What's the deal with BCAAs?

BCAAs are branch chain amino acids. They are essential amino acids that you must consume as part of your diet.

They come in pill form, or in a powder that usually mixes to form a clearish fruit flavoured liquid that people like to drink while they work out. There is some evidence that supplementing BCAAs can help with muscle growth and recovery, but there is also a fair amount of sensible thinking that suggests they are a waste of money.

The pros for BCAAs is that they are fast absorbed, dense in super-important nutrients and low calorie.

On the other hand all complete protein sources (meat, dairy, eggs, soya, buckwheat, quinoa) contain all the BCAAs. If you are eating a variety of proteins, about 20% of that protein is BCAAs. If you want a fast absorbing protein for recovery after your workout, whey isolate is quickly digested and highly bioavailable. If you are really hurting after your workout, you might also want to look at your training programme as a matter of priority.

Once again it comes down to REAL FOOD FIRST! There's no point supplementing protein if you haven't first exhausted the reasonable possibility of getting what you need from a healthy diet. There is also no point taking a costly BCAA supplement if you can achieve the same ends through diet (perhaps including meal timing) possibly with a whey supplement. This is another case of the copycat syndrome, where top level bodybuilders are consuming a supplement, on top of their strict diet and training regime, but that doesn't mean it's a good plan for the average gym goer who still eats a portion of fries for dinner 3 nights a week.

There have been some interesting studies about BCAAs and their application for treating certain medical conditions - that's outside my scope to comment on here, except to reiterate that if you are suffering from a health condition that might benefit from a supplement, consider whether you are able to get that nutrient from food, because basic nutrition for general health isn't a step you can miss out.

If you want personalised advice or support in implementing healthy nutrition and exercise that gets you results, why not check out my online personal training options.


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