Protein shakes: scientific pros and cons

Protein shakes are one of the most popular nutritional supplements around. They are drunk to lose weight and increase muscle volume. In general, they are harmless, but not everyone needs them.

Together with an endocrinologist and a trainer, we figure out who should drink protein shakes and how to do it with maximum benefit.

  • What is protein
  • Protein foods
  • Types of protein shakes
  • How and when to take protein
  • Protein harm

Material commented:

  • Alevtina Fedina, therapist, medical director of the Checkme health management service
  • Ekaterina Ivanova, gym trainer, WorldClass fitness club chain

Protein is the main building material for our body. A high-protein diet promotes muscle growth and strength gain, which is why it is popular with athletes. But getting a lot of protein from regular foods all the time is very difficult. In order to make the nutrition of athletes easier and more enjoyable, protein shakes were invented – in Russia they are called simply “proteins”.

Why do you need protein

Muscles, tendons, skin, connective tissues, hair and nails are made of proteins. They are also involved in many other processes in the body, from hormone production and metabolic control to immunity maintenance and fluid regulation.

When we get enough protein, the skin stays firm, the joints remain healthy, and the muscles grow. If there is not enough protein in the diet, even heavy physical activity will not lead to noticeable muscle growth.

A healthy person who does not plan to quickly gain muscle mass and does not engage in hard sports should consume 0.8 g of protein per 1 kg of body weight. They are easy to get by following a regular, balanced diet. Elderly people, pregnant and lactating women need one and a half times more protein.

For athletes who want to build muscle, it is necessary to consume already from 1.5 to 2.2 g of protein per 1 kg. It turns out that a 90 kg athlete needs at least 135 g of protein daily. To do this, he can, for example, eat 100 g of cottage cheese, 300 g of chicken breast and six eggs. Such a diet can be at least a test, if not a real torture. And for vegetarians or vegans, getting this amount of protein from regular food is almost impossible.

Фото: shutterstock

What is protein

In English, protein is protein. This word is not used in Russian. But “protein” refers to shake mixes and other specialty food supplements that are high in protein.

Protein shakes are a source of readily available protein. They have been proven to accelerate the growth of muscle mass during sports. Plus, if you drink them after exercise, your muscles will regenerate faster. Proteins are sold as powders that must be added to milk or water. The most common flavors are vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but today there are a wide variety of other flavors, such as melon, snickers or coffee.

A standard portion is 30 g of the mixture, which is diluted in 150–250 ml of liquid. This cocktail will contain 15–29 g of protein, as well as a small amount of fat and carbohydrates. In addition to powdered shakes, there are other high-protein foods like baked mixes, bars, and even protein chips.

What other foods contain protein

As Alevtina Fedina notes, despite the convenience of protein shakes, the best way to get protein is through regular healthy food.

Natural products – record-holders in protein content include (per 100 g):

  • bird – 27 g;
  • pork – 27 g;
  • beef – 26 g;
  • pumpkin seeds – 25 g;
  • fish – 22 g;
  • seafood – 22 g;
  • red lentils – 18 g;
  • red beans – 16 g;
  • mung bean, chickpeas, black beans – 14 g;
  • buckwheat and whole grain bread – 13 g;
  • quinoa and tofu – 8 g.

What are the proteins

There are several dozen varieties of protein powders. They differ in two ways.

The first is the manufacturing method on which the protein content depends. There are three types here:

  • Concentrates. Produced by extracting protein from food. They usually contain 60-80% of the actual protein, and the remaining 20-40% are fats and carbohydrates. Such mixtures are less convenient for athletes, but they cost less than others.
  • Isolates. More purified protein, where impurities are 5-10%. These powders are great for gaining muscle mass and maintaining weight.
  • Hydrolysates. Here proteins are chemically broken down into smaller chains of amino acids. This protein is absorbed the fastest and is therefore ideal for post-workout use.

The second parameter is the product from which the protein is made.

Whey

This type of protein is made from whey. Such mixtures are considered to be the most effective in influencing muscle growth and accelerating metabolism. Whey protein has the most diverse amino acid profile, which means that it will provide the body with the maximum amount of essential amino acids. In addition, it has the highest bioavailability. “All animal sources of protein are highly valuable in terms of the amino acid profile,” explains Ekaterina Ivanova. “But whey proteins contain relatively more BCAAs, which give a greater metabolic response in the athlete’s body than others.”

Finally, such blends have a neutral taste that allows for delicious cocktails and a high solubility. All these properties make whey protein the most popular, especially among athletes.

In English, this protein is called whey – the word is seen on boxes and cans in sports stores so often that many aspiring athletes mistake it for the name of a supplement brand. Whey protein is not suitable for people with lactose intolerance as it contains very little of it.

Beef

This type of powder is made from beef. In terms of its amino acid profile and absorption rate, it is similar to whey, but it has less bioavailability. In addition, it is lower in leucine, an amino acid that triggers muscle growth. Another problem is the poorer solubility and specific flavor, which manufacturers have to clog with aggressive flavors and sweeteners.

Photo: unsplalsh

Casein

Such proteins are also made from milk, but using a different technology than whey. Casein, the main component of this powder, is the main protein in milk, cottage cheese and cheese. Despite the same raw materials, such cocktails are the exact opposite of whey ones. They are absorbed the longest, as they envelop the stomach, thereby reducing appetite. At the same time, they are the lowest in calories, so they are well suited for losing weight. But for athletes this is not the best option: studies show that the effect of casein protein on muscle protein synthesis is 132% lower than that of whey [3] .

Egg

This is not the most common type of protein. Its effects are poorly understood, but in general it is considered somewhat less effective than whey. The main benefits of egg protein are the lack of lactose.

Egg white contains avidin, which interferes with the absorption of biotin, a B-complex vitamin [4] . From ordinary eggs, we get too little of it for it to really harm. But protein powders made from egg whites contain much more of it. Deficiency of biotin leads to dry skin, depression, drowsiness, problems with the cardiovascular system and cholesterol accumulation.

Vegan

For those who are unable or unwilling to consume animal products, there are plant proteins. The most common varieties are soybean, pea and hemp. In general, they are less effective than non-vegan varieties, so for omnivorous people there is no benefit to plant proteins. But for vegans, these shakes can be a great source of the natural protein they often lack.

For athletes, pea protein is best suited as it is absorbed fairly quickly, albeit slower than whey, and contains a lot of BCAA. One study found it was comparable to serum in terms of its effect on muscle growth.

Hemp protein is still poorly researched, but it is known that it contains many beneficial bioactive compounds that increase immunity, protect the cardiovascular system and reduce oxidative stress.

Soy protein – the only plant protein – contains the entire set of essential amino acids. However, it is the most controversial of all types of protein. For example, American nutritionist Kimberly Snyder does not recommend drinking soy-based protein shakes. But evidence-based science does not find any serious contraindications to such a protein. It is mistakenly believed that soy reduces the amount of testosterone required for rapid muscle growth, and stimulates the production of female sex hormones, but studies refute this  [7] . In addition, soy protein is often made from GMO soy, but scientists have not been able to find any harmful properties here either.

Multi-component proteins

Mixed powders are often found that include both “fast” and “slow” types of protein. This is a relatively versatile shake that can be enjoyed both post-workout and as a high-protein snack.

“Among powder protein supplements, protein hydrolyzate, whey or beef, is the fastest to be absorbed,” says Ekaterina Ivanova. – Further, according to the lengthening of the assimilation time, a mixture of hydrolyzate and isolate, isolate, concentrate follows. If we consider the rate of assimilation, then whey milk proteins are absorbed the fastest, then egg, beef, soy and finally other vegetable proteins. Therefore, more often the choice falls on whey isolates, including in relation to the price. They represent most of the range of protein supplements. “

Gainer

A separate type of protein is a gainer. This is a mixture that, in addition to proteins, also contains carbohydrates. It is a specialized sports nutrition for professional and semi-professional athletes and bodybuilders. If you haven’t heard of it before, then you definitely don’t need it.

“The goal of the gainer is to create a high-calorie meal replacement with a high carbohydrate content, significantly increase the energy value of the diet and, at the same time, relieve the digestive system at least a little,” explains Ekaterina Ivanova. – Only professional athletes face such tasks during prolonged intense loads. In this case, one of the meals is replaced with a gainer, more often before or after training. All other people do not need such cocktails. “

Фото: shutterstock

How and when to take protein

As Alevtina Fedina notes, if you eat a balanced diet, then, most likely, you get a sufficient amount of protein from food, and you do not need protein shakes: “If a person is underweight, then protein can really help. Of course, you first need to consult a doctor, because often people with underweight or anorexia have problems with internal organs and their functions. And the wrong dosage of protein can hurt. “

Ekaterina Ivanova agrees – according to her, it is worth taking proteins only in the case of a proven protein deficiency: “By themselves, proteins are of little use compared to whole foods rich in protein, except that they surpass it in the rate of assimilation, but this is not so important for a healthy person. And excess protein can lead to protein overload and intoxication. “

There are two strategies for taking protein shakes, which, however, are acceptable in combination. First, you can take them in conjunction with sports, before or after training. As Ivanova notes, this should be done only if the athlete has a proven lack of protein, and it is not possible to get enough of it with regular food. In this case, you need to calculate the amount of missing protein and bring it with the help of cocktails to 1.5 g per 1 kg of body weight per day.

According to the specialist, it is necessary to replenish the supply of amino acids, that is, to receive a portion of protein, every five to six hours. Therefore, it is recommended to consume protein an hour or two hours before training, preferably along with other foods, especially those rich in carbohydrates. And the next meal should be planned so that it fits within a five-hour interval. At the same time, as noted by Ivanova, any food should be taken no earlier than 40-60 minutes after training – so it will be easier for the body to adequately and consistently include its own anabolic hormones necessary for muscle growth and recovery.

In addition, protein shakes and other high-protein foods can be used as a snack. Alevtina Fedina admits this practice but does not recommend systematically replacing full breakfast, lunch or dinner with protein shakes: “Any meal will give you much more digestible proteins, fats and carbohydrates. If you do not have time to have a full meal, then it is permissible to grab a protein shake or a bar, but on a regular basis it is absolutely impossible to do that. “

Protein harm

According to Alevtina Fedina, protein is prohibited for diseases of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, as well as for those who are allergic to the components of the protein mixture. People with diabetes and liver disease should only take it with a doctor’s approval.

In general, science is not aware of any serious side effects of protein shakes. When consumed in moderation and under the supervision of a physician and trainer, they are considered harmless.

“Protein can be safe if you choose a quality product and strictly observe dosages, keeping your own health indicators under control,” the doctor continues. “But if you replace them with meals, constantly increase its amount and ignore the examination of the body, then everything can end up with a decrease in kidney function.”

However, there is some scientific evidence for the dangers of protein shakes. The main problem is that their production is almost not regulated in any way in the United States, Russia or Europe. Studies have shown that many powders on the American market contain hazardous heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury, traces of bisphenol-A plastic, pesticides and other contaminants .

In addition, the risks associated with long-term high doses of pure protein are poorly understood. A 2013 study found that long-term intake of protein shakes can damage the kidneys and liver, as well as upset the body’s calcium balance.

“With the uncontrolled use of protein, the kidneys suffer: an increased load reduces their function, inflammation and deterioration of filtration begin. Subsequently, metabolism and electrolyte balance are disturbed, starting with an increase in the content of nitrogenous products, explains Alevtina Fedina. – It ends with poisoning of the body and acidosis. Kidney dysfunction also leads to high blood pressure, which is fraught with the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and often the development of aneurysms. Also, a large amount of protein without proportionate exercise can lead to weight gain. “

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