Protein supplementation - weighing the benefits of protein powders

Blog Post

Date: 5 December 2017

The sports nutrition category has more to offer than one may think. It’s not just a growing area in community pharmacy, sports nutrition is evolving. Consumers are no longer just reaching for sports nutrition products to assist with exercise and recovery. They are also consuming them to achieve optimum health, top up energy levels, and supplement diet plans.

Each year, Australian’s fork out a whopping $8.5 billion on gym memberships, sports equipment and the latest fitness trends. Sports nutrition has expanded past attracting only extreme body builders and gym fanatics. It now heavily appeals to dieters, and everyday health and active lifestyle consumers. The reality is, sports nutrition is transforming into what can be called ‘active nutrition’.

No supplement is more widely consumed than protein powders. Product knowledge and awareness is vital in assisting customers who walk into the pharmacy looking for advice around using protein powder for supplementation. Before we can recommend the appropriate products, we need to go back to basics. Understand the needs of the customer, why they are wanting protein supplementation and how we can best help them achieve their health or fitness goal with or without a supplement.

Powering muscle growth

Proteins are made up of amino acids, small building blocks necessary for synthesising muscle, generating tissue and muscle repair, and regulating appetite and cravings. Fundamentally, protein provides the body with the necessary foundation needed to build muscle tissue quicker and more efficiently. Protein powders come in several forms with the most common being whey, although casein, soy, egg, hemp, rice, and pea are also available.  

Athletes from all walks of life embrace the assumption that more protein is better. With protein it’s not about consuming more - it’s about consuming smart. Protein is most effective if it’s used in specific amounts at specific times and if it’s tailored to a person’s regime, metabolism, general health and bodyweight.

The Australian Institute of Sport advocate that to gain muscle mass effectively, a positive energy balance of at least 2000-4000 kilojoules per day is required. This requires a general increase in dietary intake.  However, carbohydrate is the first nutrient to focus on, since muscle must be fuelled to do the training to stimulate muscles to grow.  It is also important for users trying to gain muscle mass to meet their increased protein needs, but huge protein intakes are not required.  In most cases, a high-energy diet that provides 1.2-2g of protein per kilogram of body mass will ensure that protein needs are met.

For protein supplement users, it’s important to note that protein supplements are not a magic muscle pill. Unlike using steroids, they don’t have direct influence on body hormones that help promote muscle growth. They are purely nutritional. Protein supplementation in powder form is designed for user convenience. It works well for those who are time poor or need an immediate source of protein and are unable to prepare a high protein meal right after a workout. There are easily prepared with milk, juice, or water.

Protein supplementation is best used as part of an overall health and fitness plan. The following situations are examples of when protein supplementation could be considered beneficial.

  • Growing teenagers: need more protein to fuel their workouts because their bodies are still growing and will use more protein in general.
  • Building muscle: users who are new to the workout world and their goal is to build muscle.
  • Increasing workouts: the body will require more protein to assist with muscle growth & recovery.
  • Recovering from injury: users with sporting injuries frequently need more protein to assist with healing and repair.
  • Lifestyle choices: people who pursue a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle eliminate a number of common protein sources for their diet, including meat, chicken, and fish and sometimes dairy and eggs. Protein supplementation is recommended for those individuals.
Type of Protein Summary
  • Complete protein source/provides all essential amino acids
  • Fastest digesting protein
  • Great source for post-work out
  • Can reduce appetite and keep you feeling full longer
  • Most popular type of protein powder
  • Many brand and flavour options
  • Derived from milk (not suitable for those who are lactose intolerant)
  • Blends easily
  • Slowest digesting protein
  • Usually not recommended as a post-workout source of protein since it’s digested slower
  • Complete protein source/provides all essential amino acids
  • Derived from milk (the same process used to derive whey and therefore also not suitable for those who are lactose intolerant)
  • Higher calcium content than whey but no additional nutritional benefits
  • Plant based supplement that is gaining popularity
  • Rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids
  • It is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine
  • Well digested plant protein source
  • Could be a reasonable alternative for those with strict dietary requirements (vegans, vegetarians, dairy and egg intolerance)
  • Derived from soybean
  • Affordable
  • Doesn’t contain dairy therefore making is a decent substitute for those who are lactose intolerant
  • On par with other protein sources, but no additional health benefits
  • Offers a decent amino acid profile
  • Doesn’t always taste as good
Pea/Rice Protein
  • Rice & pea proteins are incomplete protein sources on their own, but when combined form a complete protein source
  • This would be a good option for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are lactose intolerant or have allergies to egg
  • Though pea and rice protein powders show promise, more high quality research is needed to support their role as an adequate protein supplement
  • Well-known for being an excellent source of high-quality protein
  • Complete protein source
  • Can reduce appetite and keep you full longer
  • Easily digested and absorbed

When should protein supplementation be taken?

There is growing research supporting the notion that protein taken in the morning gives a feeling of fullness and reduces appetite snacking. This can help with weight loss.  Another positive factor to having a protein powder in the morning is that it can support strength and muscle mass. Catabolism is common among athletes and fitness fanatics. The reaction is caused by excessive training coupled with a lack of adequate nutrition, especially protein. It results in numerous undesirable side effects in the body, such as extreme fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and sleeplessness. To simplify, being in a catabolic state for a prolonged period of time can result in major muscle loss and overall decrease in health. Having a protein shake in the morning can increase muscle mass and strength and prevents the body from going into a catabolic state.

Taking protein before training (pre-workout) offers more effective workouts. This is because many proteins contain high levels of branched chain amino acids which help maintain muscle glycogen stores. Glycogen provides energy to the body – more glycogen means more energy. A pre-workout snack of a protein shake combined with a complex carbohydrate such as brown rice can give the energy needed to go harder during workouts.

The benefits of a post-workout protein hit for muscle growth and/or recovery are well documented. Eating a carbohydrate-rich, moderate-protein snack or drinking a protein shake immediately after training may help to optimise gains in muscle mass by increasing production of anabolic hormones (growth hormones), reducing protein breakdown and supplying amino acids for protein synthesis.

Balance and check

Consuming too much protein can be a problem as it puts excess pressure on the kidneys and increases the amount of calcium excreted in the urine, risking bone health in the long-term. It should also be noted that protein powders are developed with a list of other additions including carbohydrates, performance-enhancing ingredients, fat metabolisers, and the usual vitamins and minerals.  There are also a whole host of other ingredients including additives such as vegetable gums, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavours and indigestible fibre (inulin), some of which commonly cause symptoms like bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhoea.

To shake or not to shake

For the average person, it’s fine to increase your protein intake moderately if you're looking for weight loss or building some muscle mass but there's no need to overdo it. To put it simply, it is possible and achievable to get enough protein through diet alone. But if it is a must, the most suitable protein shake is one that provides both protein and carbohydrates.


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Page last updated on: 30 January 2018