A decade ago those browsing the protein section of health food shops or sports centres would be one of two characters – those with big muscles, or those who aspired to build them.
Today, protein supplements have exploded into the world of general wellbeing, right where they belong.
Protein is one of the three main calorie-giving macronutrients along with carbohydrates and fats, it’s also the least-likely source of calories to trigger fat gain.
All of this means that counting grams of protein may be more effective for your goals.
So how does one consume enough protein to do this? By eating food, obviously.
But to get the most out of a fitness-boosting plan without consuming more calories from carbs and fats, you might want to add some protein supps to your regime.
Protein powder can be a valuable tool for building lean, healthy muscle. It could also be your secret weapon for fat loss.
So, it’s fair to say the stuff’s amazing. But how do you use it?
In this article, you’ll find out
- What protein is
- The history of protein powder
- Why you should use it
- How protein powder is made
- 5 types of protein powder
- The benefits of protein powder
- Other ways to use protein powder
- Protein powder FAQs
What is protein powder?
Protein is what’s known as a macronutrient, meaning it’s one of the three essential nutrients we need every day to live and stay healthy.
The other macronutrients besides protein are carbohydrates and fat.
Protein is full of the amino acids needed for muscle growth, which explains its popularity with those seeking to bulk up.1
Protein powders are forms of edible protein which has been finely ground or milled to achieve a powder that can be mixed together with liquid (such as plant milk, dairy milk or water) to achieve a shake, or added to baked goods and even savoury foods.
The protein in protein powder can come from various sources, both plant and animal-based. These include whey and casein (made from milk), beef, egg, soy, hemp, rice and pea protein.
The history of protein
High-protein diets are nothing new: the ancient Greeks knew that athletes fared better on greater intakes of animal-based foods.
The earliest reliable recorded use of whey protein is from around 150AD with physician Galen of Pergamon, who reputedly honed his trade working on wrestlers, patching them up and building their strength to get them back in the arena.
Obviously, the whey he used back then wasn’t the powdered, flavoured versions we use today, but the liquid form produced by cheese-making.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and the first ‘modern’ bodybuilders such as Eugen Sandow – began consuming whey and other tailormade protein concoctions.
Although the advantages of quality protein foods were known from ancient times, nutrition is a young science – the term ‘protein’ was only coined by the Swiss chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1838.
Arguably, though, it wasn’t until the 1980s that protein supplements really took off, with the launch of Met-Rx by Dr Scott Connelly. Met-Rx came in two tubs, ‘Base’ and ‘Plus’, which the consumer mixed together.
Hot on the heels of Met-Rx came EAS by health and lifestyle guru Bill Phillips, and both Met-Rx and EAS put huge effort into aggressive marketing, transforming these powders from niche, hardcore bodybuilding products to serving a more mainstream health and fitness crowd.
The rise of Arnie and Sly Stallone in the media, of course, helped to smooth the acceptance of the bodybuilding lifestyle.
Around the same time, bodybuilding guru Dan Duchaine was talking about the advantages of whey proteins, seeding its domination of the supplement market.
Which protein powder?
There are loads of different products on the market, but the main point of all of them is to supply convenient, easy-to-consume protein with minimal extra calories from carbs and fats.
Whey is a by-product in the process of turning milk into cheese and it’s the most popular protein supplement on the market today.
It’s been shown to promote lean muscle growth. It releases amino acids faster than almost anything else and is quickly absorbed by the body, so can be utilised first thing in the morning and for immediate post-workout recovery.
Casein is the protein in milk with the carbs and fats removed. It offers similar benefits to whey protein but with a different release process.
Because casein digests over a long period of time, it’s thought to be a great choice to take before bed, giving your body more time to metabolise it.
Looking to bulk up? Weight gainer combines protein, often whey, with a mix of high-carbohydrate ingredients that makes it much more calorie-dense than typical protein powders.
It is often used by bodybuilders who are looking to pack on the pounds, or by serious athletes who have difficulty consuming enough calories to offset the large amount they burn through intense training.
If you're looking to slim down, opt for a diet protein, usually whey based but more and more plant-based options are available.
Diet proteins usually contain fewer calories, less fat and less sugar compared to a standard protein powder.
Some also contain extra minerals or supplements to support your goals.
Many plant proteins, such as rice, hemp and pea protein do not contain the full range of amino acids essential to life and muscular recovery.
However, going plant-based for some of your protein intake has plenty of health benefits and of course, is a vital source of sports fuel for active vegans.
Soya protein is one of the few plant protein sources that offer all of the essential amino acids.
What are the benefits of protein powder?
Eating and drinking things that contain protein powder can help you reach your recommended daily amount of protein, supporting fat loss, helping to build muscle and keeping you healthy.2
Eating whole foods is always best for your body.
However, advantages of supplementing a whole foods diet with protein powder include:
- You want to get more protein, but don’t want to take on lots of extra calories from whole food protein sources, for instance nuts
- High quality sources of protein from foods can be expensive. Therefore, it can be more cost-effective to top up your protein intake with powder
- If you have a smaller appetite but want to get more protein, drinking your protein in a shake or eating foods which are fortified with protein powder is easier than forcing yourself to eat larger amounts of food
How to use protein powder in other ways
The most well-known use of protein powder is by mixing it up in a shake. The most basic of protein shakes consist of a scoop of protein powder and water.
Protein powder is almost always flavoured, as it can taste unpleasant on its own. T
o make your protein powder even more palatable, we suggest using a better-tasting liquid than water in your protein shake.
This could be anything from dairy milks, plant milks to fruit and vegetable juices.
Try our Nutritionist Emily Rollason‘s recipe for a breakfast smoothie packed with protein.
Almond butter protein smoothie
- 100ml milk (or almond for vegan/ dairy free alternative)
- 2tbsp Greek yoghurt (or dairy free alternative)
- ½ ripe banana
- 2 dates
- 1 scoop of vanilla whey protein (or dairy free alternative)
- ¼ teaspoon mixed spice
- 1tbsp almond butter
- Handful of ice
How to make an almond butter protein smoothie
Add all of the ingredients into a blender
Whizz until smooth
Pour into your favourite glass
Protein powder can also be used in making raw food protein snacks, such as bars and balls.
Protein balls are so convenient and can be made in your blender at home for a small cost. Simply blend rolled oats, a scoop or two of protein powder and your favourite nut butter in a food processor until smooth.
You can add honey or ground almonds (or other ground nuts) to your liking but remember that the calories can really add up. If your goal is weight loss, then go easy on the added extras.
Shape the mixture into balls (the consistency should be very thick, not too sticky, and easy to mould). Then, place them in the fridge to set for a couple of hours until they are firm and hold their shape.
Baking with protein powder
Protein powder can also be used as a secret ingredient to ramp up the protein in your favourite baked goods.
Pancakes, not usually known for their protein content, can be given a boost by supplementing a little of the flour in the recipe for protein powder.
Looking for protein powder recipes? Check out these for chocolate protein spread, protein cookies and even protein-packed ice lollies.
When to use protein powder
In terms of the time of day or night you should be getting your protein powder, the truth is it doesn’t really matter. As long as your body is getting regular protein, you’ll reap the benefits.
If you have a specific goal, however, you might want to consider that some health and fitness experts recommend the following:
- For weight loss, protein-rich snacks such as yoghurt between meals might help curb your appetite and lead you to eat fewer calories overall.3
- Also for weight loss, eating a protein-rich meal at breakfast time is thought to help some people eat fewer calories throughout the day.4
- For muscle gain, some fitness experts believe that the two hours post-workout is the best time to take your protein powder for maximum muscle gain.5
How much protein should you use per day?
The optimum serving size is another potential issue. Most people will probably want to aim for around 25g to 40g of protein after training, with larger people (or those looking to gain more mass) going to the top end of this range.
That said, again it’s the big picture of your total daily intake that counts.
The NHS recommends a modest amount of protein for optimal health - 55.5g for men and 45g for women. This is based on 0.75g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day for adults.6
However, those who are trying to gain muscle and bulk will require more protein to support their muscle-building.
People looking to up their protein intake for appetite control will also require more.
The exact amount you’ll require depends on various factors unique to you. These include:
- Your weight
- Your height
- Your goals (weight loss, muscle gain etc)
There are online calculators which you can use to work out your protein requirements so that you can get a personalised protein recommendation to align to your specific goals.
Remember, whole foods count towards your protein intake too, so don’t just count the amount of protein you take via powder.
Protein powder FAQs
It’s well known that you can’t just focus on training and working out alone if you want to improve your performance or reach your goals.
The right nutrition is needed for optimal growth and recovery and that's where protein comes in.
The original products were a real cottage industry, made in garages or the back of gyms with buckets and paddles, but today it’s a super high-tech branch of the dairy industry involving cutting-edge processing and filtration technology.
Whey itself is the by-product of the cheese industry, the soluble liquid side of the ‘curds and whey’ equation, which is drained off the solid curds when cheese is manufactured.
This whey was seen as a waste product and sprayed on fields or dumped in waterways, damaging the environment.
But, in one of those happy coincidences, the rise of protein supp use coincided with tougher environmental controls, and the dairy industry was happy to make it available to the rapidly expanding supplement industry.
Whey in its raw form is a mixture of proteins, dairy fat, carbs, vitamins and minerals.
The first whey supplements had relatively low protein content, some lower than 50% protein, but today the most concentrated products are around 85 to 90% protein, with the change due to improvements in manufacturing.
The next debate is timing. People use protein supplements after training as they’re convenient.
While there's some point to the fact they can be quickly digested, which helps support recovery, it’s about consistently using them after workouts that’s most important.
This really depends on the type and brand of protein powder you buy. A good benchmark is between 15g – 20g protein per serving.
The final say
One of three essential nutrients, protein is hugely important for keeping healthy.
There are various different types of protein powder, from whey and casein to diet and plant-based alternatives.
But it isn’t limited to just shakes, protein powder can be used to make nutritious snacks like protein balls or even in baking.
Drew Price is a sports nutritionist researching the metabolic health benefits of dairy proteins at Reading University’s Institute for Nutrition, Food and Health. This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy for Men, the Holland & Barrett magazine.
Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
Last updated: 10 February 2022