Protein pancakes, protein brownies, protein smoothies… there’s even protein chocolate bars on the market these days! Protein plays a key role in muscle growth and repair, it forms enzymes and hormones to keep our bodies functioning normally and performing optimally. It’s good stuff and is being added to all sorts of foods. But. Is the real deal good enough or do you really need protein supplements?
The news this week has been full of reports about protein supplements being ‘wrong and immoral’. The BBC released a documentary Addicted to Protein documentary where the followed the journey of one guy who was using protein supplements daily with the aim to build muscle. They got him to quit the supplements cold turkey for 6 weeks and eat more naturally protein rich foods instead to see the result.
Spoiler alert – he gained more muscle from the food than he did the supplements!
Who can benefit from protein supplements?
There are key groups of people who can particularly benefit from protein supplements, but this is on an individual basis. In my experience it can be beneficial for vegan athletes, athletes who are making weight, those with extremely high training loads or have very poor appetites to use protein supplements strategically. Protein supplements are quick and convenient, which can be useful for someone who is time poor, doesn’t have cooking facilities or a fridge available to keep foods cold.
It’s not a hard and fast rule though and is something as a sports dietitian I would consider on an individual basis looking at a wider context of diet, lifestyle and preferences.
Who doesn’t benefit from protein supplements?
If the protein you get from a shake or eat in one single meal is more than the amount your body actually needs to heal, repair or grow muscle or can digest at that time point, it’s going to end up being flushed down the loo and wasted.
The timing of when you eat protein is important. Most people tend to eat heaps of protein in the evening and fairly little at breakfast or throughout the rest of the day. Eat too much at one meal and don’t spread it out throughout the day adequately and you’ll completely miss the benefits.
Going back to the BBC documentary I found it a bit ironic that despite Ali gaining more muscle from natural protein when he timed it better throughout the day – he still went back to the supplements after the trial finished!!! All because he perceived it to be easier to take a protein supplement than eating more regularly and consistently. Even though it meant he wasn’t going to get the result he was looking for.
Protein supplements versus foods
Most of the time, it is possible to get more protein from natural food sources in a much more satisfying way than through a shake. You can make smoothies at home naturally with Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese that provide similar, if not more protein in a tastier format than most commercial protein supplements. This is my go-to ‘protein’ smoothie using ingredients you’d normally find in the fridge.
To get approx 25g of protein naturally from animal-based food you could eat:
- 4 eggs
- 100g tuna
- 250g cottage cheese
- 250g Greek / Skyr yoghurt
- 100g beef
- 100g salmon
- 100g chicken
- 100g ham
Plant-based sources of protein like beans, nuts and seeds typically contain higher amounts of carbohydrates, fats and fibre. In my experience it can be more difficult for vegan athletes, or those with dairy intolerance/allergies to get enough protein from natural sources without adding a lot of extra carbohydrate, fat or fibre to the diet. Trust me, there’s a physical limit of how many beans and legumes you can eat without experiencing some gastrointestinal discomfort! Which is where supplements can become useful.
To get approx 25g of protein naturally from plant-based foods you could eat:
- 200g tofu
- 2 cups of cooked beans
- 2 cups of cooked lentils
- 130g of mixed nuts
- 5 Tablespoons of peanut butter
- 3 cups of soy milk
- 3 cups of cooked quinoa
While there’s definitely a place for protein supplements, at the end of the day the clue is in the word – they’re a supplement. Designed to complement a balanced nutritious diet. Not replace it.
Most of the time you can get more protein from real food in a much tastier manner as well! Which would always be my go to reccomendation.