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23rd October 2019

What’s the fuss about protein shakes?

Are protein shakes necessary, or can you get enough protein from a balanced diet? And, importantly, are there any adverse effects?
What’s the fuss about protein shakes?
Protein Shakes photo: Derick McKinney @Unsplash

Protein shakes are everywhere, and the trend seems to be increasing every year with recent data indicating that the global whey protein market value is likely to reach USD 9 billion by 2021 (and was USD 7.7 billion in 2016).

Although it is widely accepted that people with different fitness goals may want to add protein powders to their diets, currently there don’t seem to be any well-grounded studies that provide a reasonable explanation for the rapidly increasing numbers of protein supplement consumption.

The question is, why do we need protein supplements when we can easily obtain the necessary amount from our diet? Is the protein in our diet sufficient?

Firstly, it’s important to understand what proteins actually are. Proteins are one of the three main groups of macromolecules in all living organisms with various roles; these include immune function, enzymatic function, signal transmission, transport as well as being a structural component of muscles and tissues. All proteins are built of essential amino acids (EAAs) and non-essential amino acids (NEAAs), the difference being that NEAAs can be synthesized in the body whereas the EAAs must be obtained from our diet.

Protein powders are made from natural protein sources such as whey, soy, and casein. Whey protein – made from milk – is the most popular option  because it contains all nine of the EAAs and is water-soluble making it easy to make a protein shake. On the other hand, soy protein is widely consumed by vegans but only contains some of the EAAs and does not fully dissolve in water.

So, are there any benefits to drinking a protein shake? Reaching the recommended daily protein intake can sometimes be challenging, particularly for professional and non-professional athletes whose recommended intake is up to twice as much as that of less-active individuals. A number of studies have previously demonstrated that consumption of protein supplements increases the performance of both resistance and endurance athletes, and contributes to the optimal nitrogen balance in their bodies. Other occasions which might require increased amounts of protein consumption include building muscles, starting a new fitness program or making it more intense, recovering from sports injuries, or changes in eating habits such as going vegetarian or vegan. As well as in situations when individuals have impaired appetites, or require additional calories for various reasons. However, in some cases protein shakes are used as a way to control appetite in an attempt to lose weight.

Keep in mind that you can also achieve these goals by consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods packed with many other minerals and micronutrients alongside the necessary proteins. The recommended daily intake is dependent on body weight, you need 0.75 g per kg of body weight. While building a pound of muscle requires between 10 and 15 g of extra protein, some of the powders contain up to 80 g of protein per portion which is way above the dietary recommendations. Additionally, the growing demand for protein supplements in the market increases the risks of potentially illegal products which may contain dangerous ingredients that could cause kidney failure, seizures and heart problems (check Clean Label Project for more information). Therefore, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK has officially warned people to be wary when buying such products.

As can be seen, the protein shakes have their pros and cons just like almost everything. Therefore, each individual’s answer to the question ‘Do I need protein shakes?’ will be different according to their own needs, lifestyle, and even genes. No matter what your answer is, don’t forget that moderation is the key and that nothing can ever replace the health benefits of a balanced diet with a whole variety of nutrients.

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