Protein shakes – to drink or not to drink?

Both athletes and bodybuilders require a greater intake of protein than other non-active people. How much is enough? What is the best method of acquiring the right amount of protein? Protein shakes have been criticised as expensive, unnecessary for most people and at risk of contamination with dangerous, and illegal, substances. What is the best way to maintain a healthy diet while performing at the peak of one’s ability?

Protein is made up of groups of amino acids which work together to provide sustained energy, as well as to grow and maintain the human body and is found in every cell including skin, organs and muscles. The amino acids act by building new tissue and repairing broken tissue and are typically used to ‘bulk up’ and repair muscles after exercise and during recovery. Different types of protein will work and be absorbed in different ways leading to a wealth of supplement products on the market. However, are these products really necessary or can all the protein we require be absorbed through diet?

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), protein shakes are a beneficial and safe way to ensure athletes absorb enough protein, as long as they are taken as part of a balance diet. Healthy adults require approximately 45–55g of protein a day although estimates for the protein required by bodybuilders and endurance athletes varies widely. A research study undertaken by Tarnopolsky and colleagues in 1988 found that bodybuilders require only a slightly greater intake of protein than sedentary individuals (with endurance athletes slightly above this). More recent research has since discovered that physically active athletes tend to consume much more protein than recommended and that for the majority of the developed world, a varied diet will provide sufficient protein without the need for supplements (vegetarians, dieters, the elderly and those suffering from muscle disease-induced weakness will however, benefit from protein supplements). Too much protein can actually lead to osteoporosis and kidney failure, as well as weight gain, lethargy, halitosis, body odor, loss of appetite and constipation.

If you are waving goodbye to the shakes, as an athlete, how can you ensure that your body is absorbing enough protein to repair and rebuild muscles following training?

Probably the best source of dietary protein is seafood which is naturally low in  fat and high in omega-3; similarly white meat, dairy and eggs are rich in protein whilst being fairly low in fat and rich in other beneficial nutrients. It is important to note that red meats, such as beef, may have only 20% useable protein and will increase cholesterol and fat levels. If you are vegetarian/vegan, or concerned about your cholesterol levels, a variety of plant-based
protein foodstuffs are available. For example, one cup of lentils is equivalent to three chicken’s eggs (18g protein); other vegetarian protein sources include wheat (such as bread and rice), nuts and seeds as well as soya-based products (such as tofu).

Indeed, soya is one of the main protein shake components and contains more protein per 100g than its whey equivalent. One of the considerations when buying a protein shake is the speed of results; as such, some research has shown that soya protein has a longer time frame and may not work as quickly as some other powders. Whey protein is absorbed very quickly and has the highest biological value of any equivalent protein product. Many people are allergic to whey however, and a huge number of alternative products are becoming available including rice protein, hemp seed protein, milk and egg protein.

Whilst protein shakes can provide benefits for the endurance athlete through helping to recover after intense exercise and for the strength athlete through repairing damage to muscles, most evidence suggests that, with a western diet, supplements are not necessary. For those wishing to ‘bulk up’ it is important to note that protein shakes will not increase muscle mass and, if taken by non-active people, this can lead to the protein being stored as excess fat.

The message, as always, is to ensure a varied and balanced diet coupled with exercise. If you are a highly active individual you may wish to increase your protein intake in ways as simple, and inexpensive, as an extra tuna sandwich a day.