When you see people shaking their protein drink shakers at the gym, do you roll your eyes and think that they take their fitness “way too seriously?” If so, it may be surprising to hear that these gym-buffs may be onto something; consuming more protein is not just about rippling biceps.
Why should I consume protein?
Protein is the very building block of our bodies. Not only does it replace worn-out cells and transport various enzymes throughout the body, but it also has a role in revving your metabolism and burning more calories. Because protein takes longer to digest, you feel fuller for longer, minimising your cravings throughout the day.
However, most people don’t get enough protein into their diet. Whether you eat a plant-based diet or are a meat eater who is apathetic about your protein intake, I find most people aren’t getting the protein they need.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is approximately 0.8g of protein per kilogram. For a 60 kg person, that equates to 48 g of protein per day (about two chicken breasts).
However, the RDA guidelines are based on the minimum amount of food to prevent a nutritional deficiency. There is a vast distance between what your body needs to survive versus thrive. According to Examine, an educational organisation that analyses nutrition and supplements, the optimal amount of protein per day is around 1.2-1.8g per kg of bodyweight if you’re sedentary. It can increase to 3.3g/kg depending on your activity level.
You can get enough daily protein from eating various whole foods with little planning, whatever your dietary choice. Foods such as lean cuts of meat, egg, poultry, fish, and seafood are all action-packed with protein. Also, mixing high protein vegetables, grains, dairy, nuts, and seeds provides enough additional protein.
If you’re still struggling to get enough protein through your food, the logical choice is to turn to protein powders; it may even save the day. After all, no one wants to be packing endless tiffins of sliced chicken breasts or stinking up the car with tuna. And yes, it is tough for vegetarians, in general, to get adequate protein. I’m sure most of them don’t want to do food chemistry in the kitchen, concocting the perfect high-protein meal. This is where protein-based products such as protein powders become great dietary supplements.
What is protein powder?
Protein powders are extracts of protein from various whole foods. The most common type of protein powder is from milk proteins, such as whey or casein. These protein powders are very high in overall protein (1 scoop is approximately 22-30 grams of protein, which is very close to the protein content of a chicken breast.)
Protein powders can also come from plant-based sources. Some commonly used plant-based protein sources include rice, hemp, pea, and soy. Suppose you’re a vegan or vegetarian and worried about getting enough protein through plant-based sources. In that case, you’ll also be relieved to know that plant-based protein sources can also pack a big protein punch, as rice or hemp have between 22-25g of protein per scoop.
When you purchase a protein powder, it’s easy to get lost in the terminology used on the package. The most common form of protein powder you may see is an “isolated protein .” An isolated protein is what it says it is, a protein that has been isolated away from the food. Once the protein has been isolated, it will also go through a filtration process. Once the protein is appropriately filtered, everything else but the protein has been removed.
Hydrolysed protein is another technique for making protein powders. It involves adding water to protein polymer and breaking them into peptides containing 2-5 amino acids. The reason why some brands choose this method is that it enhances the absorption into your body. However, this is an expensive technique to use.
And finally, ion-exchange protein is an interesting protein extraction method because it uses an electrical charge to spot a protein from food and then remove it.
Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Things to watch out for
Sometimes protein powders may not sit well in our stomachs. Those who suffer from lactose intolerance can’t stomach whey (derived from dairy.) Although casein is a protein derived from dairy, it doesn’t contain lactose. Therefore, casein or plant-based protein powders may be a better choice. However, if any protein powder causes discomfort, please stop consuming it.
According to research published by the Clean Label Project, there are downsides to protein powders. One of those is the extra unregulated ingredients that you can sometimes find. For instance, protein powders may have large amounts of added sugar to make them more palatable. Undeniably unwanted ingredients can range from BPA (in plastics) to heavy metals such as lead.
For this reason, it pays to read the label and do your research on what’s inside your protein powder.
How to use
There is no doubt that protein powders are a more convenient way to get in your daily protein consumption, and they can also be delicious. However, the keyword here to describe protein powders is supplemental, as they are certainly not essential in your diet.
First, attempt to eat enough protein through natural sources before you consider adding a protein powder into your daily routine.
The easiest way, of course, is to mix it with water and milk and swig it down. But there are also a lot of other ways to make it more interesting.
Here are some suggestions
1. Mixed into milk and cooked into breakfast oatmeal
2. If you’re into baking, you can make protein powder pudding (ex: chia seed pudding)
3. Add protein powder into your favourite Greek yoghurt
4. Blend protein powder into your favourite Greek Yoghurt and pour it into popsicle trays for a treat to beat the heat.
5. You can add flavour-free protein powder to mashed potatoes.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach