Are Protein Supplements Worth It?

Proteins and amino acids that they’re built from are essential for repairing and building muscle hence the reason why almost all high-level athletes and body builders take some form of protein supplement as part of their diet. The question is, are protein supplements such as protein shakes and bars worth it, or can you get all the protein you need from a normal diet?

What Happens to the Body During Intense Exercise?

As you exercise, especially heavy resistance training, muscles and tendons and put under pressure and sustain minor tissue damage. After the workout, blood flow is increased to the ‘injured’ tissues and the repair process is started, with amino acids (which make up proteins) being taken up by these tissues to aid the repair process. The new tissue that is built in and around the ‘injured’ muscles then contributes to the overall growth of the muscles.

The rate at which the new tissue can be synthesized by the body depends, in part, to the availability of essential amino acids that are in the blood during the period of muscle repair. The quality of the new muscle that is built during this process is also partly dependent on the amount and availability of these essential amino acids, among other factors such as hydration, adequate rest and overall nutrition and health.

The Premise Behind Protein Supplements

The theory behind protein supplements is that high-level athletes, especially bodybuilders require higher-than-average quantities of protein to support maximal muscle growth. Many of them believe that they cannot easily get the quality protein containing all the essential amino acids they need through a conventional diet i.e. a diet without supplements.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for both men and women is 0.8 g of good quality protein/kg body weight/d and is based on careful analyses of available nitrogen balance studies (from a study carried out by the USDA). This can increase to more than 2g / kg body weight for physically active individuals such as body builders, which would amount to over 180g for a 90kg person. Protein shakes and bars are seen as the quickest and most convenient way of getting the good quality protein that the body needs.

So What About Protein Shakes?

Protein Shaker

Protein Shaker (image source)

There are three main types of protein powders that make up shakes: whey, soy, and casein protein, with whey protein being by far the most popular. This is because it is cheap to produce (whey is a by-product of cheese production), it is water-soluble and it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that the human body cannot make itself.

Typically, whey protein powder is mixed with water, milk or fruit juice and usually drunk after a workout (and sometimes before) so that the amino acids are available in the blood when they are needed.

There are three types of whey protein: whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. Whey concentrate is the cheapest option and is 29–89% protein by weight, whereas whey isolate is 90%+ protein by weight and is low on allergenics, making it a good option for the lactose intolerant. Hydrolysate is enzymatically predigested, so its rate of absorption by the body is very quick and therefore tends to be the first choice for more serious athletes.

So, Are Protein Powders Worth it?

In short, yes. Though no consensus has been reached in determining whether or not all individuals who exercise can benefit from protein and amino acid supplements, most research suggests that protein supplements are beneficial to individuals who carry out strenuous exercise. The reasons for this are:

  • Although it is possible, the majority of people will not eat the necessary high quality protein foods as part of their natural diet
  • Getting the recommended high quality protein as part of a natural diet is particularly challenging for larger individuals who train strenuously. For example, an individual weighing 120kg would have a protein requirement of over 250g a day. That’s a lot of steak and eggs!
  • Absorption rate – the amino acids in protein shakes are quickly absorbed into the blood, meaning they can be taken up by the muscles quickly and when they’re needed i.e. right after a workout
  • Convenience – it is far easier and quicker to drink 1 or 2 protein shakes than it is to prepare 1 or 2 high protein meals
  • Cost – it is also usually cheaper to get your protein requirements from shakes than meals

Which Protein Supplements Are The Best?

All protein supplements are not made the same. We have already mentioned about the different types of protein powders and specifically whey proteins, but which whey proteins are the best?

Unfortunately, many protein powders are loaded with problematic ingredients such as artificial colours, fructose, saccharin and aspartame. It is advisable to look for protein powders or bars that are made from natural ingredients and do not contain these suspect ingredients. In other words, do your due diligence by seeking out unbiased reviews and investigating the company’s reputation.

One particular trusted product that is used by body builders and high-level athletes is Body Fortress Whey Protein and this is one example of a protein powder that also contains creatine, which can help to increase muscle performance and therefore strength.

Most protein supplements come with recommended intake instructions and it is important to follow these based on your size, exercise regimen and outcome goals. Do not replace more than two meals a day with protein supplements and most of all, don’t overdo it and enjoy your exercise.