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The simple, no-nonsense guide to protein powders

What is it?

Protein powders are dehydrated versions of various protein sources including whey and casein from milk and soy, rice, hemp and pea protein from plant sources.

Protein powder has been given an unjustified label of only being for bodybuilders and people that want to “bulk up” however instead of seeing protein as a supplement, I would suggest looking at it as a nutritious convenience food instead.

The different types of Protein

Dairy Protein

Whey is the most popular and the best option if you consume dairy. It has an incredibly high-quality amino acid profile, rich in essential amino acids (EAA’s) and is the fastest digesting of them all. Typically drank post-workout due to its fast absorption rate however, as I will discuss, it is not the only time you should drink it.

Casein is a slow releasing protein often recommended to have pre-bed to reduce muscle breakdown whilst you sleep. Whey however, is just as effective if not more so, inhibiting muscle protein breakdown (MPB) by 34% more than casein (Tang et al., 2009). Instead of spending money on a casein powder you will find an abundance of casein in yogurt, skyr and quark, much cheaper whole food options I would go for instead.

Animal based protein

Animal based powders including collagen and beef protein have been on the market for many years and offer an alternative to milk based proteins for those with intolerance.

Both are however lower quality proteins than whey and casein and there is very little evidence and research to suggest they are worth spending money on.

Plant-Based Proteins

There are numerous plant-based protein powders including soy, pea, rice and hemp. The main difference between animal (especially dairy) and most plant proteins is that animal proteins have a complete protein profile (all the jigsaw pieces in the box) whilst plant-based are incomplete (they’re missing pieces to the jigsaw) making plant-based proteins consumed individually less optimal.

Soy protein has a complete protein profile (all the pieces) and is beneficial for muscle growth with research showing it is nearly as effective as whey.

Pea protein is highly digestible and very cheap hence why it is used in many powders and plant-based foods like burgers.

Hemp protein is not the best in terms of performance however it is higher in omega 3 and fibre making it a good option for health focused individuals.

Most often you get blends of different plant-based proteins to form a greater protein profile with them individually having their own pros and cons.

Traditionally plant-based proteins taste like soil however in recent years there has been an increase in options on the market with many better tasting ones to go for.

Who should take it?

Anyone who is healthy and has no specific health condition where protein intake must be kept to a minimum e.g. Phenylketonuria (PKU) can and possibly should use protein.

When I mean anyone, I honestly mean anyone.

The people I would recommend protein powder to the most (besides athletes, weight loss clients and those looking to gain muscle) are the older population (50+ years), more on why I treat grandparents like bodybuilders in a minute.

Protein has numerous benefits to our health and body composition including:

Appetite control – Protein keeps us satiated and full

Weight / Body composition – Higher protein diets have been shown to be highly successful and therefore strongly recommended for weight loss and body composition improvements

Muscle growth – If you want to grow muscle first you have to train, second you have to eat protein and plenty of it

Faster recovery – Protein speeds up recovery after workouts, training sessions and matches

Increased immunity – Protein has been shown to increase immune function

Many people don’t even hit the bare minimum recommended (0.8g/kg bodyweight) which is the amount needed to avoid protein deficient conditions such as kwashiorkor.

As many people struggle to get the minimum amount of protein expected, powdered forms of protein can be very useful indeed.

Why Protein Powder?

Convenient – As stated, many fail to eat enough protein as it is. A portion of protein powder on average yields 20g of protein.

For most that would go a long way towards their daily needs.

Powdered protein can be made and drank in a minute, even bought now in supermarkets and petrol stations. It’s quick, easy, on the go and beneficial to our health.

It’s a perfect snack or protein hit for health-conscious people who are busy at home or work, always on the go or travelling.

High in protein – As stated, each portion yields about 20g which is approximately the same as a small chicken breast, 3 eggs or a small can of tuna. When protein requirements are higher (weight loss and muscle gain being two examples) powdered protein can make life easier.

Low-Calorie – Protein powders, especially whey protein are really low in Calories per portion e.g. 100-120 kcals.

Cheap – Depending on the protein powder you buy; many are less than £1 a portion, sometimes as cheap as 50p a portion. That’s cheaper than a can of tuna or most quality protein sources which provide the same amount of protein.

MPS – To repair or create new muscle a process known as Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) must occur. For the MPS process to be triggered there needs to be a set amount of a certain amino acid (the building blocks protein is made from) called Leucine in the blood. Leucine is found in protein rich foods and is highly concentrated in dairy, meat and fish and less concentrated in plant-based proteins. Powdered whey protein as well as beef or leucine enriched plant-based powders is a great source of leucine, ensuring enough is in the blood for the body to repair and create new muscle.

The reason I highly recommend protein powder to the over 50’s is due to MPS. As we get older our bodies become more resistant to anabolism (growth) via exercise, insulin and essential amino acids. This means we need to do more to get the process started. As we become more resistant, we lose muscle mass, leading to less strength and function. It can lead to sarcopenia which may lead to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, falling and fractures.

I recommend whey protein to older people because there is sufficient leucine in whey protein to stimulate MPS, leading to repair and growth of muscle and slowing the rate of muscle loss, reducing the risk of sarcopenia.

How much to consume?

How much depends on your goal and your weight.

If you are looking for it to supplement general health a standard scoop per portion will suffice.

20-40g (1-2 scoops a day) is probably enough for most people. Getting more of your protein needs per day from powdered proteins may lead to deficiencies in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients we get from whole foods.

If you are looking for optimal MPS to get maximum muscle growth and strength, then you have to be more specific and look at the leucine content of the protein powder.

You should aim to get 2-3g of leucine per meal/shake.

As you can see from the table, Whey protein is the highest in leucine which is why this is seen as the gold standard of protein sources post workout.

Protein recommendations to maximise MPS are 0.25-0.4g/kg bodyweight (Moore et al., 2019) with post-workout protein recommendations by the ISSN is to consume 0.3g/kg bodyweight or 1-2 scoops of protein if you don’t want to do maths.

If you use a plant-based protein powder you may need to increase the portion size to get sufficient leucine in your shake.

When to take it?

You can consume protein at any time however within the first hour after exercising is often highlighted as the key time to consume a protein shake.

You don’t have to have exercised to consume protein shakes though. I highly recommend protein shakes in-between meals, as an on the go breakfast or instead of snacking as it’s high in protein keeping you full, low in calories and tastes sweet, helping to take the edge off a sweet tooth.

Pre-bed shakes are also advised if weight gain or muscle gain are your goals to minimise muscle protein breakdown.

Tolerating Dairy

If you struggle to digest or tolerate dairy then you will likely have an issue with the cheaper, more common form of whey protein, whey concentrate.

I suggest you buy Whey isolate as it is lower in lactose and tends to be friendlier on those with lower tolerance levels. If you struggle with isolate, then you have two options.

1. Stick with it but supplement with lactase enzymes prior to drinking it

2. Go for a plant-based alternative

Which should I use?

Here is a simple summary of which protein powders is best for you.


- Everyone can and probably should use protein powder

- Whey protein is the best form due to the high quality, fast absorbing proteins

- Over 50’s really should supplement with whey

- Its convenient, cheap and makes hitting our protein targets much easier

- Tastes sweet which helps if you have a sweet tooth

- Can be consumed at any time of the day

- Consume within an hour of exercise

- 0.3g/kg bodyweight post workout will optimally stimulate MPS

- Plant-based proteins are lower in leucine and essential amino acids meaning more may need to be consumed for the same effect

- 1-2 scoops a day for general health is sufficient

- Buy whey isolate if you can’t tolerate dairy well



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