I'm often asked by my clients whether or not they should be taking supplements to help them achieve their health and fitness goals.
Most frequently, they want to know about protein shakes, which are probably the most widely used supplement out there. The shakes tend to consist of whey protein, although casein (milk), soy, egg, hemp, rice, and pea protein powders are also available.
What is a protein shake?
There are still many misconceptions regarding protein shakes. Firstly, people often mistake them for steroids - perhaps understandable, given the big promises that drive the products' marketing campaigns.
But protein shakes are purely nutritional; unlike steroids, they have no direct influence on your hormones.
Another source of confusion is the differentiation between a "mass gainer" and a protein shake. Mass gainers are used as an aid to bulking up. They typically include a large amount of simple carbohydrates that get delivered straight to your muscles.
These serve a purpose after a workout when the muscles' energy is depleted, but use them at the wrong time (as many do) and the end result is fat gain.
Protein shakes, by contrast, deliver amino acids to muscle cells, helping them to recover after strenuous workouts.
Which protein shake should I choose?
Whey is the most common base for the protein powder, as it contains all of the nine essential amino acids that facilitate the healing of damaged muscles.
There are three main types of whey protein: isolate, hydrolysate, and concentrate.
Isolate yields a high level of protein and is low on allergenics, making it a good option for the lactose intolerant.
Hydrolysate is produced in a way that effectively means it has been predigested, so its rate of absorption by the body is super fast.
Concentrate, meanwhile, is the cheapest option, as the effects of its protein content are offset by its significant fat and cholesterol levels.
Serious athletes tend to use hydrolysate - so it will come as no surprise that hydrolysate is also the most expensive of the three options.
How much protein does my body actually need?
Without adequate protein, training hard will leave your muscles with a deficit of the building blocks they need to recover, which means you'll never build new fibres.
There's a lot of debate as to the ideal amount of protein to consume on a daily basis; each individual needs to work out their body's specific need.
However, the traditional recommendation for muscle building is 0.7g of protein per 453g (1lb) of body weight per day.
This would mean the average man of, say, 77kg (170lbs) needs 119g of protein per day if he is to undertake a heavy weights program with the aim of gaining muscle.
That's the equivalent of:
Chicken Breast x 2 (60g) Egg x 3 (18g) Steak (6oz): 40g
Consuming two chicken breasts and a steak per day sounds like a lot to ask of your stomach (not to mention your bank balance), but it's a far from impossible task. So, protein shakes are not strictly essential.
At the same time, you can see why they offer a convenient alternative. One shake can save you a lot of time and money.
I believe the most important factor to consider when deciding whether or not you need to begin supplementing with whey protein is to remember that it's just a food supplement.
Don't expect instant results: whey protein is a great source of protein, but it's not going to "do" anything for you that food wouldn't do.
Like all supplements, whey protein is best used as part of your overall health and fitness efforts, which will include planning the correct training phases, training intensity, consistency, adequate rest periods, and, of course, a nutritional programme calibrated to your current goals.
Personally, I use protein shakes following a workout simply because of the convenience.
I always try to remember that I could completely replace protein powders with whole foods and suffer no negative side effects, other than having to rethink my post-workout logistics.
Protein shakes are a helpful, convenient solution to modern workout life; they're not a magic wand that will turn your body into a temple overnight.
- Daily Telegraph