Your body needs a certain amount of protein to stay healthy and if you do a lot of exercise then you will need additional protein in your diet. Protein is one of the most important building-blocks of muscle and if you do not eat enough protein you will find it harder to recover between workouts and you will not gain strength or lean body mass as quickly as you otherwise would.

Most people in the western world do not eat a lot of protein. The average diet is based around inexpensive, easy to grow food sources such as potatoes, corn and rice, with a small serving of meat (for protein) each meal. This sort of diet meets the needs of sedentary people, but may not be enough for an athletic adult. This is why supplementing your food intake is important if you are serious about sport.

What Do Protein Supplements Do?

The amount of protein required per day for the average adult is a hotly debated topic amongst nutrition experts, however experts do agree that athletes need more protein than sedentary people. In the Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Nancy Clark recommends that active adults aim for 0.4-0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight, while adults engaging in strength training should aim for 0.6-0.9g/lb of body weight. Consuming that amount of protein through normal foods alone would be difficult.

Protein supplements not only make it easier for you to hit your daily protein target, they also allow you to have a degree of control over how quickly the protein is released into your body. You can consume fast-acting whey protein immediately after a workout, or take slower-acting casein when you want the proteins to be released more slowly (for example a while before your workout, or when you are going to bed).

Why Use Protein Shakes and Powders

Protein shakes and powders are a convenient way to manage your protein needs and many of them taste almost as good as sugar-laden milk shakes. If you struggle to take enough protein in solid form, then drinks may be a more palatable solution.

Some protein shakes are suitable for use as meal substitutes, making them a good way for busy athletes to stay on top of their nutrition.

Benefits of Protein Supplements

Supplementing your protein intake can improve your strength gains, aid recovery between workouts and help to prevent the loss of lean body mass when you are trying to lose body fat.

Many protein supplements are fortified with other nutritious substances such as branched chain amino acids, probiotics and creatine. All of these things are thought to be beneficial to people leading an active lifestyle.

Disadvantages of Protein Supplements

Protein supplements can be quite calorie dense and if you are trying to lose weight then you will need to pay close attention to the number of calories in any supplements taken. You may want to mix your shakes in water rather than milk to keep the amount of extra calories you take in to a minimum.

Many protein shakes contain extra nutrients, including popular vitamins and iron. If you are taking a multi-vitamin, or other supplements, you could be exceeding the recommended daily allowance for those micronutrients. Read the labels of every supplement that you take carefully and track your nutrition in a calculator such as FitDay to ensure that you are not overdosing on any one nutrient.

It is possible to consume too much protein and doing so may damage your kidneys. However, if you track your intake carefully and drink plenty of water this should not be an issue for you.

Protein supplements are not a substitute for traditional meals. You should try to get as many nutrients as possible from regular food, using supplements only when needed to boost your normal intake.

Whey, Casein, Egg and Soy Protein

There are several different kinds of protein. Whey is the most commonly used supplement. It is a by-product of cheese production and as such is inexpensive and widely available. Whey protein is a good, fast release, general protein.

Casein is a slow release milk-based protein, it is often used as a pre-bed protein shake because the slow-release of the protein is thought to help prevent muscle catabolism.

Egg protein is derived from egg whites. Taking egg protein based supplements may be a good alternative to eating eggs, because the supplement contains less cholesterol. If you are lactose intolerant, then egg protein is a good alternative to whey.

Soy protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids. It is popular with vegans because it is the most protein-rich non-dairy supplement on the market. Some older bodybuilders avoid soy protein because it was previously thought to raise oestrogen levels, but more recent studies by the Americal College of Sports Medicine have found that this is not the case.

Popular Protein Products

You can find protein supplements to suit all sorts of lifestyles, from the Total Protein shake which contains a blend of tapered release proteins, to True Whey Isolate, a high protein, low carb shake aimed at bodybuilders. There are also ready-to-drink protein products such as ONE Promilk, which are more expensive per serving than traditional shakes but offer the convenience factor of not needing to carry a shaker and a serving of protein with you to work every day.

Protein supplementation is a must for any serious strength athlete. It may take a lot of testing and experimentation to find a protein shake that suits your dietary requirements and that has a taste that you like. The good news is that most sellers offer small sample packs in a range of flavours. If you are considering trying a new protein powder, try a sample before you invest in a big tub to make sure that you actually like the flavour. In addition, try mixing shakes in water as well as in skimmed milk and whole milk. The taste and texture of a shake can vary massively depending on what you mix it with.