When I go into my local health food store, there’s one corner that’s always been a bit of a mystery to me – the shelves packed with dozens of white plastic tubs filled with powdered protein supplements. In the changing room at the gym, however, there are plenty who sing their praises, explaining that they simply add a scoop of powder to milk or to a smoothie, work out and then build extra muscle.
With their popularity reaching way beyond bodybuilders and professional athletes, now seems like a good time to look at the evidence around protein powders.
Some people use a protein drink as a snack between meals or even use it instead of a meal if they’ve not got time to eat. People eating a vegan diet sometimes use the supplements to up their protein intake if they feel they’re not getting enough. And there are hundreds of new food products in supermarkets – from cereal bars to ice cream and chocolate – which signal their protein-containing credentials in bold letters.
There’s a range of strengths available, with the highest doses aimed at bodybuilders. The powder might come from an animal source such as eggs or milk, or from plants. For example, protein from peas, potatoes, rice and soybeans can all be extracted and powdered, sometimes with added flavourings to make them taste good.
Protein is big business. But how many of us really need any extra?
There’s no doubt that protein is an essential part of the diet. We need it to build and repair muscles, to help our bones stay strong, to maintain the immune system and to keep our brains, hearts and skin doing what we need them do.
You might also like:
Foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, fish, lentils, meat, soya, nuts and seeds are all rich in protein and the majority of adults in high-income countries do get at least the daily amount of protein recommended by health authorities.
In a meta-analysis of 49 studies, the average protein intake from people’s diets at the start of the research was more than 75% greater than the US and Canadian recommendations, for example. There are some scientists in the field such as Stuart Phillips from McMaster University in Canada who argue that the recommended levels might not be high enough for everyone.
One of the difficulties is knowing how much you as an individual might need. The answer depends on your age, health and exercise routine, so the standard recommendation may not apply to you. Some older people, for example, find they don’t have much appetite which can lead them to eat so little that they don’t get enough protein from their diet. And if you’re a professional endurance athlete you more need more protein than the average adult.