If you’re putting in the hours in your gym’s weights room, lifting dumbbell after barbell after kettlebell, it’s only natural to expect bigger, stronger muscles. Unfortunately, if you’re not also making the same effort in the kitchen to ensure you’re eating the right food to support your workout regime, the effect of your exercise might be a little disappointing.
By the right food we mean protein, which is essential for repairing and rebuilding your damaged muscles after a tough session. The benefits of protein aren’t limited to building muscle, either: it’s required for a host of other critical bodily functions and also has the happy knack of making you feel fuller for longer, which diminishes the likelihood of you turning to sweet or fatty snacks to fill a hole.
Eating more protein is generally something people have no trouble signing up for, because it’s found in many delicious foods. However, getting the amount you need to support a heavy training workload is not always that easy. If you’re looking to hit the 1.4-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day that’s recommended for those trying to build muscle, it will probably take more than a chicken breast for lunch and dinner and a handful of nuts for breakfast. A lot more, in fact, and that can be as expensive as it is annoying to keep track of.
Protein shakes can be a handy way to ensure you hit your daily targets. They’re easy to make and quick to consume, and they’re certainly easier to get down after a savage training session than a plate of steak and eggs.
But with more protein shakes options now available than ever before, finding the right product for the right situation can be confusing. Here you’ll find out all you need to know about the options available, allowing you to make the right decision to get the results you want with minimum time, effort and expense.
Do I need a protein powder?
If you follow any sort of exercise programme, whether it’s based around weights, cardio, or endurance training, then you need more protein than the UK government’s current recommendation of 55g per day. Powdered protein offers a quick and easy way to increase your daily intake. A fast-digesting protein such as whey is especially useful after training when you might not feel like sitting down to a proper meal. Casein, a slow-release protein, is a great option before bed because it drip-feeds muscle-building amino acids into your bloodstream overnight to rebuild muscle tissue as you sleep.
It’s always important to remember the clue is in the name “supplement” – they are designed to fill in the nutritional gaps of a complete and varied diet. Getting most of your daily dietary protein from red and white meat and fish is the best way, because you’ll also consume more of the essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients vital to health.
How should I consume protein powder?
You can drink it with water, mix it with flavoured fluids such as milk or coconut water and blend it for a healthy fruit smoothie, or even use it as an ingredient to cook with – protein powder cookbooks are big business.
How much protein powder should I take?
Serving suggestions for most protein powders are typically around 30g, and with good reason. Research suggests that this is around the ideal amount to repair the damage done by training and initiate muscle protein synthesis, the process through which new muscle tissue is laid down. Research also shows that a high-protein diet can also help reduce body fat levels, so you’ll not only get bigger and stronger but leaner as well.
When should I take protein powder?
After a workout is the most obvious time to consume a protein powder because that’s when your muscles need it most. Drinking a shake of whey protein mixed with cold water or milk within 30 minutes of finishing your training session will initiate recovery by flooding your bloodstream with amino acids, which are quickly shuttled into your muscle cells to become new muscle tissue.
Protein powder can also be taken at other times. Blend a scoop of your favourite flavour with an egg and a banana then cook in a pan to make some high-protein breakfast or dessert pancakes. And it’s especially useful to have to hand to make a shake when you’re out and about all day and don’t have time to eat a proper meal.
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What else is in protein powder?
Many protein powders contain additional ingredients from the sports nutrition world designed to support or enhance performance and recovery. Here are the key compounds.
- Creatine: This organic compound powers cells and has been shown to improve effort during high-intensity training like lifting weights.
- L-Carnitine: Often added to “diet” whey products, this amino acid mobilises fatty acids from fat cells so it can be used to provide energy.
- Enzymes: Enzymes or probiotics help your stomach break down specific compounds for better digestion and nutrient absorption.
Why are some whey protein products so expensive?
Making high-quality and effective products isn’t cheap, so some reputable brands’ products may seem quite expensive. But, as with high-quality food, you get what you pay for. If a product appears too cheap, or too good to be true, the chances are it is.
What if I follow a specific diet?
If you are vegan you need to find a non-dairy protein powder, and happily these are now far easy to get hold of than ever before. If you are vegetarian most protein powders should be suitable although it’s always worth checking each product’s nutritional information. If you follow another specialist or restricted diet or have allergies, then as with any food you will have to check every individual product to ensure it’s suitable for you to consume.
The Big Three Protein Powders
Whey is a liquid left over from milk once it has been curdled and strained and is a by-product of the cheese-making process. Whey protein powder is one of the most popular sports nutrition products in the world because of its availability, cost and effectiveness. Once consumed whey is rapidly digested, then absorbed by your digestive system so it gets into your bloodstream and your muscles very quickly, initiating the recovery and rebuilding process.
Whey protein powder comes in one of four forms: concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate and native. All four types are abundant in BCAAs, the amino acids that are essential for rebuilding and repairing the muscular damage caused by working out. Some whey products use one type of protein exclusively, typically a higher-quality protein source for a premium product, or an inferior type to keep the cost down. Other products contain different combinations of whey, as well as other sources of protein, such as casein or soy, again depending on the product’s recommended use or to reduce manufacturing costs.
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Casein is the main type of protein found in dairy, making up around 80% of the protein content of cow’s milk. Whereas whey protein is rapidly absorbed by your body, making it the perfect post-workout protein source, you break down and digest casein much more slowly, over many hours, to give a slow and sustained release of amino acids into your bloodstream and then to your muscles.
To fuel your muscles with the essential nutrients they need to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, supplement with a casein protein shake just before bed. The slow-release digestion of casein makes it the perfect source of protein to drip-feed amino acids in to your muscles during the night to build new lean muscle mass during sleep while your body recovers from the effects of training.
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If you’ve consistently struggled to add muscular size despite following a challenging training programme and a high-protein diet, you might need to consider a high-calorie protein powder that also includes a significant amount of carbohydrates. Known as weight gainers, these products can include multiple forms of protein as well as quick- and slow-release carbs to dramatically increase your calorie consumption to help build more muscular size.
Weight-gainer products are typically used by bodybuilders during a bulking phase when they want to add as much muscle mass as possible, even if that means storing some extra fat, or by serious athletes who burn a lot of calories through training and don’t want to be in a daily calorie deficit (burning more than they consume). If you’re a “hard gainer” or ectomorph who has always struggled to add muscle mass despite training and eating right, you may benefit from the extra energy these products provide to ensure your body is always in a calorie surplus so it has the fuel it needs to grow muscle.
Other Types of Protein Powder
If you follow a strict diet or have allergies to dairy, you may want to consider some vegan and hypoallergenic protein powder alternatives. Here’s what you need to know about the most common other sources.
A powder made from separating and dehydrating egg whites from the yolk.
Pros: It is a complete protein source, containing all the essential amino acids, as well as other health-boosting vitamins and minerals.
Cons: It is one of the more expensive options, favours are often limited and not as tasty. And obviously, it can trigger a reaction if you have an egg allergy.
One of a handful of plant sources to contain all the essential amino acids, soy is hulled and dried into a flour, then concentrated or isolated into powder form.
Pros: One of the few vegetarian sources of a complete protein and also wallet-friendly.
Cons: Research suggests that soy can increase levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen (which encourages fat storage), and the plant is often genetically modified to boost crop yields.
Rice is known as a source of carbs, but brown rice contains around 8g of protein per 100g, which is isolated and ground into powder.
Pros: Ideal for vegans and those with dairy, soy or gluten allergies, it also contains B vitamins.
Cons: Not a complete protein source, so you’ll need other forms of protein to get all the essential amino acids.
Derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant, hemp protein has gained popularity as a hypoallergenic protein source that’s also high in essential fatty acids.
Pros: A high-fibre vegan protein source that’s also ideal for those with common food allergies. If you’re worried about THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, don’t be – it’s absent from hemp protein.
Cons: It’s low on leucine, one of the most important amino acids for muscle growth.
Made from the golden, not garden, pea plant, this is a slow-release type of protein much like casein. And don’t worry, it comes unflavoured.
Pros: A vegan-friendly alternative to night-time casein for a gradual release of amino acids overnight.
Cons: It’s not a complete protein source so you can’t rely on it alone, and you may want to blend with other ingredients to improve the taste.
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Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.