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The truth: Why do we need protein?

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.

Why use protein powder?

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.

How is protein made?

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.

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 protein

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 protein

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.

Weight gainer

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.

Diet protein

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.

Plant protein

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 – but 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.

When to drink protein shake?

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.

How much protein?

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 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 about 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.

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Last updated: 15 April 2020

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.

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