Protein powders – do they work?


We weigh up the pros and cons of boosting your protein intake with supplements.

No great shakes?


No longer just for bodybuilders, commercial protein supplement powders and bars fill shelves in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food stores. But do you really need a special supplement, or should a healthy diet suffice?

There are four main groups targeted by protein supplement marketing. We weigh up the usefulness of supplements for each of these groups so you can decide whether they might be helpful, or just a waste of money:

  • Athletes who want to build more muscle and recover quickly from exercise.
  • People on weight-loss diets, looking at protein to help keep hunger at bay, and also make sure they don't lose muscle as well as fat.
  • Older people who may not eat enough protein to prevent losing muscle, and may therefore struggle with day to day activities and ultimately independent living.
  • Vegans looking for easy protein.

We've also looked at a range of widely available brands for tips on better buys.

Protein for athletes

  • People who exercise heavily tend to have a greater appetite and they usually get enough protein from normal food, without the need for a special high-protein diet or supplements.

Protein supplements are often targeted at active people – everyone from weekend warriors and gym junkies to elite athletes. While it's true that athletes have higher protein needs than less active people, it's debatable whether they really need a supplement.

Muscle growth and repair

Working your muscles hard breaks them down, and when you rest and recover, your body gets to work rebuilding them. To do this it uses amino acids, the building blocks that make up protein.

The recommended amount of protein per day for athletes ranges from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight.

How much and when?

After working out, muscles are receptive to making use of protein, so eating protein shortly after training gives the maximum benefit. The optimal amount of protein for a post-workout snack is thought to be about 20–30 grams.

There's much debate about how long this muscle-synthesis window of opportunity is – some experts say it's as little as 30 minutes, but it's likely 1–4 hours. Muscle repair and growth continues over 24 hours, so you can continue to reap the benefits from subsequent meals.

Whey to go

Whey protein found in milk is considered an ideal protein choice because it's high in the key muscle-building amino acid called leucine, and is digested quickly, so it's available when the body's ability to make muscle tissue is at its peak. It's also cheap, and readily available as a waste product in the cheese-making process. Vegan supplements, made from soy, pea and/or rice protein, are increasingly popular.

Real food's good too

Protein supplements aimed at recovery should contain a mix of protein and carbohydrates, and can be a convenient option, especially if you're travelling or your next meal is a long way off. But milk, yoghurt, smoothies and breakfast cereal with milk are also recommended.

Maybe skip the low-carb post-workout?

When you work out, your body uses glycogen, a glucose-based form of energy stored in muscles and liver. Having some sugar, honey, maple syrup or other simple carbohydrates after exercise helps restore glycogen. Simple carbs also cause an increase in insulin levels in the blood, which increases the uptake of amino acids and further boosts muscle growth. So consider having these products, rather than 'low-carb' alternatives.

Added extras

Supplements aimed at bodybuilders and sports people sometimes contain added extras like certain vitamins and minerals, as well as creatine and legal stimulants such as caffeine. But they may also contain unexpected – and undisclosed – ingredients such as  prohibited stimulants, steroids, diuretics and heavy metals.

Bottom line

People who exercise heavily tend to have a greater appetite and they usually get enough protein from normal food, without the need for a special high-protein diet or supplements.

That said, for serious athletes it might be convenient to have commercial protein supplements like drink powders and bars on hand post-workout. Supplements can also help ensure athletes who are reducing food intake to meet weight requirements get enough protein.

Protein for weight loss

  • Most Australians get plenty of protein in their diet and don't need protein supplements to achieve weight loss.

Another major target market for protein supplements is people trying to lose weight. Visit a pharmacy, health food store or supermarket and you'll find a huge range of protein powders, bars and snacks claiming to help with weight loss.

And it's true – protein can help.

  • Protein helps keep you feeling fuller for longer.
  • Kilojoule for kilojoule, it requires more energy than fat or carbohydrate to process and store in the body.
  • Having adequate protein when reducing kilojoule intake also helps reduce the loss of muscle tissue, especially when combined with resistance training.

Weight loss protein supplements are low-carb, and sweetened with intense sweeteners such as stevia or sucralose.

Supplements as meal replacements

Some protein supplements designed for weight loss contain added vitamins and minerals and can be used as a meal replacement. If this is what you're looking for, check the label – it should say whether it's suitable as a meal replacement, or if it's merely a supplementary drink or snack.

Fat-burning ingredients

If you're looking for that extra weight loss edge, will fat-burning or thermogenic ingredients help? Unfortunately it seems that so-called thermogenic ingredients (those that tend to increase heat in the body) such as L-carnitine, green tea extract or caffeine, won't do much for weight loss above and beyond exercise and sensible eating.

But do you really need special supplements?

Most Australians get plenty of protein in their diet and don't need protein supplements to achieve weight loss. A diet featuring vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein is consistently linked with successful weight control. Try replacing high-sugar or high-fat manufactured snack foods with whole foods such as plain yoghurt, a handful of nuts and seeds or a hard-boiled egg.

Protein for middle aged and older people

  • For some people – especially frail elderly people who have little interest in eating – supplements could be the best option. Your doctor can give you a referral to a dietitian, and you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate.

Nutrient needs in adults change with age, and it's increasingly recognised that elderly – and also possibly middle-aged – people need more protein than younger adults. Because of changes in your metabolism, you need a larger 'dose' of protein to stimulate the muscle building process. Inadequate protein is linked with loss of bone mass (osteopenia and osteoporosis) and muscle wastage (sarcopenia), and also affects immunity and wound healing.

How much do middle-aged and older adults need?

The Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand recommend 0.75 g/kg for adult women and 0.84 g/kg for adult men. At 70, however, this increases to around 1 gram (1.07 grams per kilogram for men and 0.94g per kilogram for women).

But it's likely the optimal protein intake for adults over 50 may be higher than the current recommendations, with research suggesting that levels of 1 to 1.3g/kg would meet the protein needs of middle aged and older adults while avoiding issues of too much protein, such as kidney and liver problems, and loss of calcium.

However, just as protein needs of older adults increase, the amount of food eaten tends to decrease: less physical activity and changes in taste and smell reduce appetite, food may be harder to chew and swallow, and cooking habits may also change, especially for those living alone. Unless a conscious effort is made to ensure there's adequate protein, people may not get enough to meet their needs.

Marketers have cottoned on to this, and are promoting protein powders as a way for older people to ensure they're getting enough.

Added nutrients, added complexity

Some added nutrients may interfere with medications commonly taken by older people. Potassium, for example, interferes with ACE inhibitors (taken for blood pressure and heart failure), while vitamin K interferes with warfarin (a blood thinner). Other nutrients including iron, calcium and magnesium may interfere with certain antibiotics, thyroid medication, osteoporosis medication and/or other drugs if taken at the same time, so the advice is to take them several hours apart.

It's important to talk to your doctor when taking any supplements in addition to prescription medication.

Healthy ageing and sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is the loss of the amount and strength of muscle as we age. Starting from middle age, it accelerates at around 70 years of age.

Loss of muscle strength can impact heavily on quality of life, affecting mobility, increasing the risk of falls and fractures and making it difficult to perform daily activities – dressing, personal care, household tasks, shopping and so on. It's also linked with diabetes, because muscle plays an important role in blood glucose regulation.

However, it isn't inevitable and it is reversible – a program of strength training combined with adequate protein means you can successfully maintain and rebuild muscle mass.

Bottom line for 50-plus

Taking protein supplements isn't as effective as eating whole foods high in protein, because there are other nutritional benefits in whole foods that you don't get from protein alone. Most people get enough protein from a balanced diet.

However, for some people – especially frail elderly people who have little interest in eating – supplements could be the best option. Your doctor can give you a referral to a dietitian, and you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate.

Do vegans need a protein supplement?

  • It's perfectly possible to get enough protein from a well-planned plant-based diet, but some vegans find protein supplements an easy and convenient way to get essential amino acids.

While vegetarians are well-served by eggs and dairy protein, which contain essential amino acids, vegans rely on protein from plant sources – soy products, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. It's perfectly possible to get enough protein from a well-planned plant-based diet, but some vegans find protein supplements an easy and convenient way to get a decent protein hit containing all the essential amino acids.

They may be particularly useful for athletes needing larger than usual amounts of protein, people just starting out on their vegan adventure who haven't got the 'well-planned' aspect of diet down pat, and people on the go who don't get a lot of choice about what they're eating throughout the day.

Vegan protein supplements are often made from soy, which contains all the essential amino acids, or pea and rice protein which together contain good amounts of the essential amino acids.

What to buy

  • We looked at products readily available in supermarkets and pharmacies and came up with product suggestions based on the cost per gram of protein. Most range in cost from around 4 cents to 10 cents per gram, which works out at 80 cents to $2 for a 20 gram serve (actual recommended serving sizes vary according to product, but 20 grams is the minimum amount recommended to be effective).

We looked at products readily available in supermarkets and pharmacies and came up with product suggestions based on the cost per gram of protein. Most range in cost from around 4 cents to 10 cents per gram, which works out at 80 cents to $2 for a 20 gram serve (actual recommended serving sizes vary according to product, but 20 grams is the minimum amount recommended to be effective).

Buying products online may better suit those with niche requirements or a need for larger quantities than a typical user. And of course you may need to taste a few different ones to see which you like best.

Low-carb plus artificial sweetener

Many of the widely available protein supplements contain artificial sweeteners, in particular stevia (which is claimed to be natural) and sucralose. This means you can get lots of sweet, flavoured protein for very little energy.

An example is Vital Strength 100% Premium Whey (3.6 cents per gram of protein), which is the cheapest product we found. It's sweetened with sucralose, comes in chocolate, vanilla and banana flavour, and can be found at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Unflavoured and unsweetened – a versatile option

You can also buy plain whey or vegan protein, with no flavours or sweeteners. This is a very versatile option, as you can add it to sweet and savoury foods and drinks: smoothies, shakes, soups and baked products. It also means you can choose the type and amount of sweeteners you prefer, whether sugar, honey, fruit or artificial sweeteners.

An economical example is Coles Unflavoured Whey Protein Concentrate (4.5 cents per gram of protein).

Older adults

While older adults could use any of the products above, there are supplements that may be better suited to some people because they contain added nutrients, more energy and don't need special blending or shaking equipment – simply add milk or water and stir with a spoon. But be sure to discuss your options with your doctor or dietitian to find the most appropriate product – if any – for your needs.

An economical example is Sustagen Hospital Formula Active (4.5 cents per gram of protein), which is readily available at supermarkets and pharmacies (in larger containers).


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