Protein powders were once the stuff of pro athletes and ultra meatheads, but have gone mainstream over the past 10 or so years. I first tried it when I was 15. When I told a personal trainer I’d been seeing with my mom that my goal was to get a 6-pack, he recommended I take 2 scoops of muscle milk powder 1-2 times per day. So mom and I dutifully trekked down to GNC and bought the vanilla flavor. And it was AWFUL. I don’t think I took the recommended dose even once, and I certainly never got said 6 pack. I couldn’t get it to dissolve in anything – not water, not milk, not a smoothie. Only now, looking back with educated eyes, do I see how completely ridiculous it was for this bro to tell a 15 year old athlete to take a mostly unregulated supplement! The industry has gotten much better since then in terms of taste and palatability, but it is still mostly unregulated. It’s not all bad, and it can be a good idea for some people. But before you head down to Vitamin Shoppe, weigh the pros and cons first.
The most popular form of protein seen in supplements is whey. There are several types, which are:
1. Whey Protein Isolate – this is the most pure form of whey protein and the most available to the body for absorption. It is about 90% protein by weight and tends to be the most expensive kind.
2. Whey Protein Concentrate – this is generally 29% – 89% protein by weight. While more affordable than WPI, it also contains a little more fat and lactose.
3. Hydrolyzed Whey Protein – this type of protein is predigested. While on one hand it is easier to absorb, there is some debate about how effective it is compared to un-hydrolyzed protein, and it’s more expensive.
- It can provide a quickly absorbed source of protein. Generally, liquids are digested more quickly than solid foods. So, by “drinking” your protein, your body is absorbing it faster, which is good for rebuilding muscle after a workout.
- It’s convenient. Because it’s much easier to carry around a plastic baggy of powder to mix with water or milk than a tupperware of lean meat and complex carbohydrates (at least I think so).
- It’s a source of added calories. This can be a con, too. But if you’re a guy who is always wanting to gain 20 pounds but just can’t eat all the time, a protein supplement with milk can be a quick, not super filling source of additional kcals.
- It’s expensive. Depending on how good the stuff is, it cost anywhere from $20 – $30 per pound.
- There can be unpleasant stuff in there. The front label will say 100% whey protein. Cool. Until you read the ingredients label, which can include artificial flavors. xantham gum, soybean or other oils, artificial sweeteners, sugar (hint: anything with “dextrose” on the end is a sugar), and other ingredients that may be healthy or may not but unless you have a PhD in chemistry, who knows!
- It’s a source of added calories. I realize this is in the pro section too. Because this is good for some people but not for others. If you are trying to lose weight, you’re better of waiting an extra 20 minutes to get home and make your next meal OR having an apple and some jerky. The food will obviously also have calories, but it’ll make you more full than the protein powder. When you’re trying to lose weight, staving off hunger is a huge help!
- It’s not paleo. Because I don’t care how happy and grass fed the cow is, you cannot tell me you object to processed foods but are totally OK with drinking extracted cow’s milk protein with artificial sweetener and other additives in powder form.
If you feel protein powder is right for you, I recommend finding a brand that has a short ingredients list (I think the brand Neal sells only has 3) and take it once per day following a workout. Take enough to equal about 30 grams of protein. Any more than that and your body won’t use it as efficiently. You’re better off taking 30 grams at one time and eating a nice steak and salad an hour or so later than taking 60 grams of protein in one Blender Bottle. Whey protein is generally the best, and I recommend whey protein isolate, as it’s the most available form.
If you don’t want to take protein powder (I personally always felt it was more of a burden), just make sure you’re still recovering. Bring a snack with protein and carbs like jerky and fruit, chocolate milk, or trail mix for after your workout.