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Their popularity continues to increase, but are protein shakes really as beneficial as their advertising suggests?
Protein shakes are hugely popular in the UK. Sales of protein shakes have enjoyed a 20% year on year increase in popularity in recent years according to Euromonitor, a company that observes market trends. This makes them the fastest growing supplement in the UK.
People in the UK spent £66m on sports nutrition in 2015 (an increase of 27% from 2013). Another market researcher Mintel noted that more than two in five people in the UK aged 16-24 have consumed sports nutrition products in the past three months 1.
Dr Stuart Gary, from the University of Glasgow’s exercise science and medicine unit, thinks that most of us “already get enough protein in our diet and so any benefits are small or non-existent of additional protein"1.
The body uses protein for healing, growth and building muscle, though if more protein is consumed than the body can use, it will be excreted in your urine. The Food Standards Agency advises that on average 55g of protein is a healthy amount for an adult’s daily needs. Advice from various dieticians differs to this, with some suggesting 1.2-1.5 grams per kilograms of a person’s body weight (e.g. 100-120 grams of protein per day for someone weighting 80kg)1.
Making sense of protein shakes
Protein shakes are usually made from whey protein, although some can also include casein milk, soy, rice, hemp, pea or egg protein. They don’t directly influence your hormones, unlike steroids, which some people use to increase muscle mass alongside training.
There is a baffling array of protein shakes on offer. Some, with descriptions such as “mass gainers” are designed to deliver a large amount of simple carbohydrates straight to your muscles after a workout, when they’re out of energy. The problems come when people don’t realise how protein shakes work, and take them at the wrong time. They might drink such a shake straight after a meal, for instance, and the excess energy gets stored as fat2.
Muscle growth in body building occurs when the small tears in the muscle fibres (created by exercising the muscles) grow back stronger as the body repairs itself. Whey-based protein shakes contain all nine of the essential amino acids that drive the process of repairing muscles 2.
But there are in fact, three kinds of whey based protein: isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate. Concentrate tends to be the cheapest of the three. It contains higher levels of fat and cholesterol than the other two. Isolate has higher protein levels, and lower in allergenic, so it is sometimes preferred by those with lactose intolerance. Hydrolysate is absorbed by the body much more quickly, and is the preferred option for many athletes and professional body builders, but comes with a much higher price tag2.
Many in the sports-supplements industry claim that extra protein allows people to train harder. But Professor Graeme Close from John Moores University thinks there is “a lot of false advice” in the marketing of some.
Close suggests that a more effective way to consume protein is to do so in smaller amounts throughout the day, in order to keep your intake relatively constant. According to him, this is more effective than, for instance, drinking a protein shake after a meal. In a BBC IPlayer documentary looking at the protein shake industry, a young male dentist is challenged to quit taking protein supplements for six weeks and just stick to normal food. At the end of the experiment he actually gained one kg of muscle than before. You can view the whole documentary here.
Of course, neither protein nor well-designed meals will build muscle on their own; it will only work in combination with regular exercise that includes resistance (weight) training.
More advice on nutrition
Here at BMI we offer nutritional therapy, drawing on principles in current biochemical and physiological scientific knowledge. We do this on an individual basis, taking your unique requirements into account and developing a personalised nutrition plan with you.
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