Note: I mainly talk about whey protein in this article, so stay tuned for Part 2 and 3 where I will:
- Provide you with a guide to many other types of protein powders (soy, hemp, etc)
- Show you some sample meal plans that meet high protein needs, without the use of supplements
Grocery stores, health food stores, pharmacies, the gym – just a few places where you can now find a variety of protein supplements, making it even more confusing to know which one to buy, or if you even should.
Ask yourself these 3 questions to help you make the right decision.
#1 – What goal am I trying to achieve by using a protein supplement?
When your goal is sustainable weight loss
The popularity of replacing meals with a protein shake is huge and its often one of the first questions I get from clients looking to manage their weight.
In short, replacing a meal with a scoop of protein in water is not the best strategy for sustainable weight loss. Sure, protein does help promote satiety and that drink itself may be less calories than a full meal, but your body processes a full meal much differently than liquid. A liquid empties much more quickly than solid food from your stomach, leaving you with hunger pangs shortly after you drink that shake. A healthy meal will keep you feeling fuller, longer and maintain your energy and blood sugar levels better than a protein drink.
While trying to lose weight, its important to make sure you are getting enough protein, but even more important is that you get enough protein at each meal and snack so that its spread evenly throughout the day. This helps to keep you feeling full, maximize the usage of the protein you consume, and can help you maintain muscle. Greek yogurt, eggs, nuts and seeds, chicken, fish, beans – the list goes on and on of nutritious high protein foods you can include. With the right planning and preparation, these can be as convenient as a scoop of protein.
I do recognize there can be a time and place for these supplements, but my main message is that they are not the deciding factor in long lasting weight management. If you did want to use a protein supplement to replace a meal, such as a quick breakfast on the go, I would suggest at least adding a few extra things to your smoothie to make it more balanced. Add some frozen fruit (Great taste enhancers, and adds antioxidants, fibre, nutrients), use a milk or milk alternative (protein, nutrients) instead of water or juice, throw in some greens (antioxidants, fibre, nutrient dense) and chia, hemp or flax seeds (heart healthy omega 3’s, fibre).
There are better strategies to focus on first to manage your weight before you spend money on protein supplements as a meal replacement
Consider the differences between liquid and solid meals
Whole foods provide more bang for their buck
If you do use them, make sure to add the right foods to balance out the meal
When your goal is muscle growth:
A well designed strength training program is needed to help you gain lean mass. In addition to that, both extra protein and total energy intake needs must be met. Total protein is important, but just as stated above, getting protein throughout the day at each meal and snack and ASAP after a workout are crucial.
Additionally, your total calorie intake needs to increase as well, since it takes extra energy to build muscle – so fat and carbohydrate intake will increase too. A protein supplement after a workout is just one component of the plan, however it can be beneficial. Whey protein is rapidly absorbed by the muscles, and when taken post workout, it has been shown to stimulate muscle growth, likely due to the high leucine content, which is a branched chain amino acid. 2-3g of leucine is enough to help stimulate muscle growth. This amount is found in 20-25g of protein (about a scoop of whey).
For those looking to build muscle, consume a post workout snack right after a workout. A whey protein supplement has not only been shown to be effective, but it is convenient, you can keep it with you in your gym bag, and liquids are good for those who have a low appetite post workout. Be sure to add carbohydrates to your shake or have that on the side as these are needed post workout as well.
If you want to choose whole foods to consume after a workout, the following contain 20-25g protein and about 2-3g of leucine (approx. the maximum amount of both that have been shown stimulate muscle growth). Note that there will be difference in the amount of calories and cost compared to whey protein.
- 600 ml milk
- 3 eggs
- 120g almonds (about 200 ml)
- 120g (raw weight) chicken, beef, seafood
- 380g lentils (almost 2 cups)
- 140g cottage cheese (just over ½ cup)
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
Another type of protein is involved in muscle growth and that’s casein protein. Casein protein before bed can help prevent muscle protein breakdown, which is greatest while sleeping. There are casein supplements but cottage cheese is also a high source.
Whey protein post workout has been shown to promote muscle growth, and may partly be due to the high leucine content
Consume a source of protein at every meal and snack so that you get protein frequently during the day
Overall total energy intake needs must be met as well (not just protein) in addition to other dietary, lifestyle and training factors
#2 – What other ingredients does this product contain?
Extra vitamins, sweeteners, caffeine, or other herbal supplements can be added to protein supplements that aren’t necessary, so be sure to check the ingredient list.
For athletes who may be subject to testing, many supplements are not tightly regulated and even if they not listed on the ingredients list may contained banned substances (like steroids) due to cross contamination during the manufacturing and packaging process. NSF is a third party certification that tests supplements to ensure they do not contain any banned substances. Ones that pass will have this symbol:
For whey supplements, a few things to look for are:
Whey isolate (more filtered than a Whey Concentrate so it contains more protein by weight)
20-25g protein per scoop
No artificial sweeteners
Is NSF certified
# 3 – Are there things in my diet that I should change first before adding a supplement?
Likely, there are lots! There is no one specific diet, food or supplement that will help you to reach your goals. Supplements are just that – something to add once your diet is in check, otherwise they will not be as effective. Even other non-nutrition related aspects are important for weight loss and muscle growth that you should consider, including proper hydration and sleep.
Contact me to help you figure out what other areas of your nutrition can be improved upon to help you reach your goals or for help with other supplement questions.
Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 of this article where I will provide examples of high protein meal plans without supplements and I will provide a quick guide all the different types of protein powders.
Written by: Andrea Docherty, RD
Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist