Let me start off my stating that “Protein Shakes” are not magical foods that suddenly turn you into muscle bound bodybuilders or beach babes. That’s all hype and marketing which supplement companies have been using to sell their products for the past 20yrs or so. First of all, protein is simply just one of three macronutrients. For some reason, people think protein is some sort of steroid which should only be used by taking great care and caution. It’s not; it’s just a piece of the jigsaw that makes up food. And almost all foods contain some form of protein from vegetables to meats. For more specific info on what proteins are and what they do, see my article – “A bit about Protein”.

When it comes to actually using protein, people seem to get mixed up about this too. Some follow the blanket statements used by supplement companies – “take 3 servings a day” etc. That sort of recommendation takes nothing into context about the individual – what the rest of their diet is, what their training is, what their goals are etc. I’ve discussed this in more detail in another article “Always Put Things in Context”, which explains why and how you need to determine your own individual requirements.

So, you will see that I have recently agreed to promote a company (www.pulsin.co.uk) that sells various protein powders. This is because there is a use for them in certain situations and I want to use the one that is as natural and “crap free” as possible. One situation which I would use them is for recovery post training. Now, as I stated in my article, this is not even a mandatory requirement nowadays. Not all types of exercise need recovery and milk is something which has been shown to be equally effective as any protein/recovery supplement. Having said that, in most hard endurance/weight training sessions, I think it is important to consume protein immediately post exercise to promote training adaptations and reduce muscle protein breakdown. As I’ve said before, you don’t get fitter during your training session, you get fitter after it. And for more on recovery after exercise, have a look at my article “Essential Recovery for the Endurance Athlete”. I know I talk specifically about endurance exercise, but many of the concepts and recommendations apply to those doing weight training/non-endurance sports as well.

Back to protein. There are several different types that come for different sources. Whey is a by- product of cheese, it’s simply the liquid run off that comes from cheese making. Pea protein comes from split peas.  Hemp protein comes for hemp seeds and soya protein comes for soya beans. Rice protein comes from brown rice. In terms of quality, you need to look at a few things. These are measures such as Biological Value (BV), protein content by weight, Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAA) and nutrient content. I’ve already discussed these parameters in the article “A bit about Protein” although I was talking specifically about food as opposed to supplements. So just to give a quick breakdown

  Protein Content/100g BV Amino Acid Profile
Whey Isolate 90 104 Complete
Rice Isolate 81 70 Incomplete
Hemp 47 70 Complete
Pea Isolate 85 49 Incomplete
Soya Isolate 90 74 Complete

 

This is just a very quick overview. Basically, you can see that Whey protein is the best in terms of protein content and absorption. This doesn’t mean that the others don’t work. They do, it just means that for example with Hemp, a 30g serving will only give you 15g of protein. And a serving of Pea protein will not be absorbed as well as the others.  There is another factor to take into account and that is the nutrient content. Whey comes with immune boosting fractions such as immunoglobins and lactoferrins. Hemp comes with fibre and omega3/6 fatty acids. Although this is obviously nutritionally beneficial, I don’t think it should be the be all and end all on your decision as to which protein powder you choose. These protein supplements should not be a staple part of your diet, they should be just used for convenience when you finish training and maybe occasionally as smoothie that you might have for breakfast when you don’t consume any other protein foods like eggs or meats or dairy.  Thus, they do not determine the nutrient quality of your diet, the real food that you eat everyday does !

A very important fact that determines the quality of your protein is the source and how they make it. A natural protein powder should consist of just one ingredient, which is the food from which it was produced from.  Whey protein should just contain whey protein. Pea protein should contain just pea protein. They shouldn’t contain artificial sweeteners, colours, artificial flavours,  refined oils, sugars or synthetic vitamins and minerals. However, most (if you just look at the ingredient list) of them do. The source, just like any food, is an important point to consider. Does your whey come from factory farmed, hormone treated, grain fed cattle ? Or does it come from pasture raised, naturally reared, grass fed cows ? There are very few studies to verify this, but a safe guess would be that the whey from the natural source is the healthier option. Finally, the manufacturing process used should also be taken into account. Some manufacturers will use high temperatures and acid treatments which denature the proteins. Vegetable type proteins like hemp and soya, are often treated using solvents and bleaches and the beans/seeds are often processed from genetically modified crops. Thus, if you ensure the actual foods you eat are whole, unadulterated, naturally raised, free from anything artificial, etc, then the same should be applied to the protein powder you use.

On to my smoothies recipes:

Berry Smoothie (good for any recovery)

  • 1 serving of protein
  • Handful frozen berries
  • 2 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • honey (a small spoon or a couple of big spoons depending on your carb requirements)
  • 100-200ml of water (to taste, whatever consistency you prefer)

Slow Release Smoothie (good for breakfast, as a snack or for recovery)

  • ½ serving whey + ½ serving pea or hemp
  • Handful frozen berries
  • 2 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1 tbsp ground flaxseed
  • 100-200ml of water

Quick Shake (good for any recovery when you don’t have time to blend !)

  • 1 serving protein
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon powder or pure cocoa powder
  • 200-300ml water

Peanut Butter Smoothie (anytime)

  • 1 serving protein or a mix
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1-2 spoons natural yoghurt
  • 100-200ml water

A few more notes:

  • Protein Cycle: like almost everything related to food, you can have too much of a good thing. Whey is probably the best protein supplement, but it can lead to intolerances if used constantly. Therefore, rotating your protein sources, simply using 1 or 2 other types (like say rice and pea), will prevent you for overdoing it.
  • Whey and soya are the most likely to contain allergens due to the specific protein fractions. Rice, pea and hemp are hypoallergenic, meaning they have a much lower tendency of causing intolerances.
  • Soya has a lot of controversy surrounding it. It contains isoflavones which have been shown to reduce testosterone. It also contains protease inhibitors and can affect the thyroid gland. Again, another commonality with foods is that the dose is the poison. Using a non GM soya product occasionally, will certainly not cause any problems. However, it would still be last on my list of protein powders.
  • Combining incomplete proteins with complete proteins is recommended to get a complete amino acid profile. So having whey with pea is a good option.
  • Delaying absorption can be good in certain situations in order to achieve a drip fed state of amino acids into the blood stream e.g. pre bed time. This type of absorption is also considered by some to be better generally for recovery as it prevents fast oxidation rates of amino acids. So again, combining a slow digesting protein (like hemp or pea) with a fast one (like Whey) might be the preferred option. I don’t have the definitive answer myself yet. You also have to remember that others foods you have with your protein will affect absorption rates. So a whey protein smoothie containing berries and yoghurt will delay whey’s absorption rates. Eating fruit and/or porridge with your whey shake will affect absorption. I think if you are having just powder + water, then a mix might be the preferred option. If you are making smoothies or having solid foods with your shake, then using whey on its own is fine.
  • Remember that recovery needs to be quantified. The recommendations range from 0.3g/Kg BW to 0.5g/Kg BW. So if you are 70Kg, that would be 21 – 35g depending on the session you did. Also, more importantly, your carb intake needs to be quantified. The smoothie examples I’ve given don’t contain much carbs. They need to be 1. Quantified and 2. Added in the form of fruits, juices, honey or other sugars.
  • The recipes I’ve given are to make unflavoured protein powders taste better. Remember, simply adding fruit juice, honey or other sugars will also complete the process !

I will finish by saying this: the simplest way of determining whether a food is healthy for you or not is to check that it is in its original state as found in nature e.g. do cheerio’s grow in the field, no, do oats, yes. If you put that question to protein powders, then they don’t comply either. So technically, protein powders are not a natural whole unprocessed food.  That’s why using naturally sourced protein powders with nothing added is key. Having said that, their use should be minimised and used specifically for convenience. They are useful for recovery as digesting solid protein foods immediately post training is not feasibly possible nor is it good for digestion as blood flow to the digestive system is not optimal after heavy exercise. So use them for recovery after heavy training or for the occasional breakfast or snack, but for the majority of the time, just eat real food !!!