LIFTING THE LID ON PROTEIN POWDER
In my previous post I discussed why protein is a nutrient that plays a role in just about every function in the body and is vital for human survival. So what about consuming protein powders? Well there's nothing like the words ‘protein powder’ to divide a room of Naturopaths. Some see the health benefits, while others claim that they are totally unnecessary if dietary intake of protein is adequate. Both sides are correct to some extent, but as usual the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
MY THOUGHTS ON PROTEIN POWDERS
First up – I want to be clear, that wherever possible I recommend protein from whole food sources. Meals and snacks from foods such as grass-fed or wild-caught meats, organic vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and pulses are the perfect protein-rich fuel for our bodies.
But there are many times that I would recommend a good quality protein powder supplement to nourish and satisfy your body. Certain health conditions including allergies or poor digestive function, if you eat solely a plant-based diet or are wanting to reduce the amount of animal protein in your diet, if you're on a heavy training schedule, wanting support with weight management, if your hormones are out of balance or if you are recovering from injury or illness - these are all good reasons! Even general food quality and convenience may prevent people from gaining an adequate amount of protein on a daily basis. In these cases, a protein powder supplement is an easily digestible form of protein and might be a good thing to look into. They can provide an additional protein source that's easy to absorb and convenient to take, and with so many great options available, we're spoilt for choice.
REASONS FOR TAKING PROTEIN POWDERS
As I've just mentioned, protein powder can be used for a number of reasons. However, you will use the protein differently depending on what your goal is.
1. SPORTS PERFORMANCE
Almost as important to your exercise regime as gym gear, when consumed correctly, protein supplements can deliver a muscle-building punch and can be helpful in reaching your daily protein goals.
The best time to consume protein is immediately after exercise. This is when blood flow to the exercised muscles is high and the muscle is especially receptive to nutrients. Eating enough food to meet your protein needs when training can be challenging: it requires a lot of food. Sitting down to a meal of scrambled eggs straight after a workout isn’t always possible. This is where protein powders come in. They can decrease the severity of muscle breakdown and assist in rebuilding torn muscles after a grueling workout. If taken before exercising, protein shakes and smoothies can curb appetite and keep blood sugars stable to get you through your workout.
2. PLANT-BASED EATING
The truth is that plant foods are lower in protein than animal-based ones. If you are on a plant-based diet, it takes serious discipline to keep your protein intake up – you're doing well if you’re managing it! For the most part though, those who don’t eat meat tend to be protein-deficient, so why not supplement in the same way you might with your B12, Vitamin D or herbs? There’s no shame in adding a good quality protein powder to your diet, and you’ll likely see your health improve with it.
3. WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
Getting enough protein is important for weight control for two reasons. Firstly, protein is a powerful appetite suppressant and is the number one nutrient for making you feel fuller for longer. Secondly, protein helps your body maintain and protect muscle tissue while aiming for weight loss. More muscle is important because it increases your metabolism - it burns off lots of kilojoules, and gives you energy and strength. Studies have shown that consuming a high-protein meal can raise metabolic rates by 25%, whereas a high-carbohydrate meal only increased metabolic rate by 5%. That's why protein powders are often part of a weight loss program and can be used as an additional way to increase your protein consumption if you are falling short.
The best way to use a protein powder for weight loss, is to use them as meal replacements. A breakfast smoothie with protein powder will boost metabolism, nourish lean muscle and keep you energized all morning. When used as a meal replacement smoothie, you're having a complete meal and a great breakfast on the go. Alternatively, use as a mid-afternoon snack. Combine 1 serve of protein powder with 1-½ cups of coconut water or water and shake in a blender bottle. This will help curb appetite and stop you reaching for the biscuits when you feel like something sweet.
Protein has a stabilising effect on blood sugar. High stress levels can lead to hypoglycaemia or other blood sugar imbalances. Increasing protein intake can boost energy levels, reduce agitation and mood swings, improve sleep, and sharpen brain function. Stress can also cause play havoc with your digestion, causing all sorts of issues from malabsorption, constipation to IBS. It's important to choose a protein powder that helps support your digestive health if you have gastrointestinal issues or are lactose or dairy intolerant.
5. IMMUNE SUPPORT
To have a healthy immune system your body needs a daily supply of quality protein. Research studies have shown that a deficiency of high-quality protein can result in depletion of immune cells, inability of the body to make antibodies, and other immune-related issues. Some studies have shown that the immune system can be significantly compromised with even a 25% reduction in adequate protein intake.
WHAT TYPES OF PROTEIN POWDERS ARE THERE?
The decision of which type of protein powder to consume is often down to what tastes good and what you can best tolerate.
Protein powders are usually either:
Whey based - whey proteins are derived from milk, or dairy products. They are quickly digested, often tastier, more satisfying and can have a healing action of the gut. Not all people can tolerate or wish to consume dairy however. Others who are looking to decrease inflammation in their body should also avoid dairy products.
Vegetable based - many protein powders are based on brown rice or pea protein. Brown rice protein powder is compatible with vegan, gluten-free and low-allergen diets. Brown rice protein powder is especially high in cysteine, a sulphur-containing amino acid needed for glutamine synthesis and methionine, which plays an important role in the synthesis of other proteins, such as carnitine which helps convert fats to energy. Rice protein has been demonstrated to be comparable to whey at building muscle, strength and aiding in exercise recovery. Pea protein powders are made from the yellow split pea, a legume that is high in branched-chain amino acids containing all the essential amino acids except for methionine. Hemp protein powders are high in omega-3 fatty acid content and are easily digested by the body, however, they are low in the essential amino acids lysine and leucine. Other vegetable based protein powders may include lupin, chickpea, sacha inchi or a combination thereof. By adding enzymes to these plant protein mixtures, digestion and absorption is often enhanced.
Straight or complex - there are protein powders that contain nothing but the one ingredient (protein isolated from the primary food source, as in dairy or pea). Others have the protein isolate, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fats added. Blended formulations are also available which can contain superfoods, herbs, enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics. If using these types you should take into account what other supplements and superfoods you are having daily to ensure you don't overwhelm the body.
WHAT YOU DON'T WANT IN YOUR PROTEIN POWDER
Like most manufactured foods, protein powders are not created equal. It’s important they are un-denatured and free from chemicals and additives. Here are a list of items to stay away from:
CASEIN + WPC
These are also known as caeseinate and whey protein concentrate. Both are high in lactose, which can often cause bloating, flatulence, and gastrointestinal distress in some people. You want pure whey protein isolate, that’s it!
Food sensitivities to gluten can elevate inflammation in some people and cause a range of health problems including hormonal imbalances, skin conditions, fatigue, mood swings, and headaches.
SUGAR (INCLUDING MALTODEXTRIN/DEXTRINS)
Sugar can be hidden under many different names. Look out for glucose, maltodextrin and fructose. These ingredients can raise glycemic load, which may contribute to fat storage. Most are processed with GMO corn and they can also cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. They are mostly added to protein powders as fillers to bulk it out or make the protein mix easier. Instead, try to find a natural protein powders that is sweetened with stevia only (which can still be quite sweet and not suitable for some people).
Common artificial sweeteners used are sucralose, splenda (955), aspartamine, equal, NutraSweet (951), or saccharin (954) and xylitol. Several negative side effects can come from ingesting these ingredients, including headaches, migraines, gastric distress such as bloating, acid reflux and weight gain.
SKIM MILK POWDERS/MILK SOLIDS
Skim milk powders and milk solids are often used as a cheap bulking agent in poor quality powders. They are high in lactose sugars, which can cause bloating, gastrointestinal distress, constipation, and loose stools. The protein is poorly absorbed into the body, making it harder for you to gain all of its benefits.
Most soy proteins are heavily processed and come from genetically-modified sources with high pesticide use, and contain phyto-oestrogens which may cause hormonal disturbances and suppressed thyroid function in some people. Some natural protein powders may contain a very small amount of soy lecithin in such small doses it shouldn’t pose a problem. Just make sure it’s from a non-GMO source.
VEGETABLE OILS AND FATS
These ingredients are often added to many weight loss and protein powders to increase richness and make them taste creamy. However, these fats are often derived from hydrogenated sources that contain trans fats, which are more harmful than saturated fats. Trans fats raise levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol, they are toxic and can cause all sorts of havoc in our bodies.
THICKENERS, GUMS + FILLERS
Thickeners and gums, including xanthan gum, are manufactured from soy or corn and can cause bloating, constipation and gas. Fillers are often added to bulk up the protein and may include ingredients such as coconut flour or psyllium, which can cause gastric distress such as bloating, constipation and reflux in people who are susceptible to digestive issues.
MY RECOMMENDATION FOR THE BEST PROTEIN POWDERS
It’s time to toss the overpriced, flashy looking protein powder tubs that are often spiked with maltodextrin that will send your insulin soaring, and probably bloat you along the way. Instead, you should choose pure whey protein isolate or a brown rice and pea blend to give you the best spectrum of amino acids.
All brands listed below have no added chemicals, preservatives or additives, they all use grass-fed whey (lower hormones and chemicals), are GMO free and usually have under five ingredients. The protein source should be the first ingredient on the list, with maybe some organic, wholefood flavourings like vanilla or cacao or stevia to sweeten, but that’s it! The exception here is if your protein powder also contains wholefoods like crushed flaxseeds, coconut and nuts. In this case, ensure you know and understand each ingredient before you buy to avoid allergies.
Therefore, I am comfortable to recommend the following:
Amazonia Raw protein powders - with both whey and vegetable-based to choose from, they have a mild taste and a variety of flavours. They also have simple isolates or boosted protein powder blends.
Prana - made with golden pea protein and sprouted, fermented brown rice. Also containing digestive enzymes, they are not gritty and are well tolerated in people with digestive issues. They are sweetened with stevia though, and some people find them too sweet.
180Nutrition - they also have whey protein isolate or pea protein isolate powders, with additional flaxseeds, nuts + seeds. Also sweetened with stevia.
Bare Blends - from beautiful Byron Bay, try their organic vanilla bean whey protein powder with added stevia extract and non-GMO soy lecithin (a tiny amount just used for mixing).
The following are Practitioner only brands I recommend - you can get them from your Naturopath:
Mediherb Vegan Premium Protein Powder - a blend of complete protein from sprouted brown rice protein, pea protein, potato protein, flaxseed and chia seeds suitable for vegan, vegetarian and individuals requiring a hypoallergenic diet.
Metagenics Endrua Opti - contains hydrolysed whey protein (breaks down faster), carbohydrates and electrolytes for energy, strength and endurance on a heavy training schedule.
Metagenics BioPure - a whey protein isolate powder that's obtained from the milk of a pristine dairy herd in NZ, meaning free from disease, injected hormones, genetic alteration and environmental contamination. Nut and seed free.
Bioceuticals Aminoplex Rice Protein - a vanilla flavoured low-allergy organic brown rice protein powder with added enzymes for excellent digestibility.
Vital Protein - a range of pure and natural pea protein isolates extracted from golden peas with a high bio-availability.
Hopefully the tips above will help you pick a protein powder that meets your needs, tastes nice and allows you to reach your protein intake requirements each day.
To really appreciate protein powders, we need to let go of the big commercial marketing brands and the misinformed culture that accompanies them. When used to correct a deficiency, or as a boost when our bodies need something extra, protein powders can be a winner. Although like anything we put into our bodies, keep it pure, and use it in moderation.