Protein powders – the good, the bad and the ugly
As you lace up your trainers and hit the park for a run or step up your time at the gym, you’ll need to think about adapting your nutritional intake to match the additional work that your body is doing.
Increased training and fitness means working your muscles more, adding tension to your joints and bones, as well as increasing tone and density. And the key to muscle recovery, fatigue prevention and injury is protein.
Made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle in the body, protein is an important food source to ensure healing, tissue repair and stimulate cell growth.
It is traditionally found in meat, fish, milk and eggs but for good sources for vegetarians include pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans), soy products (edamame, tempeh and tofu), nuts and seeds like quinoa.
One of the easiest ways to add more protein to your diet in terms of digestion and absorption is via protein powder.
Studies suggest that a protein supplement is not only effective in kick-starting rapid muscle recovery after exercise but also offsets muscle damage and soreness.
A recent survey found that 49% of consumers in the UK were “very aware” of the benefits of protein, according to the consumer research firm Canadean, and more than half showed an increasing interest for protein supplements and protein-fortified foods.
Protein powder, which you can be quickly throw into smoothies, shakes, soups or add to homemade protein bars, is now part of a health industry that is growing exponentially. By 2017, it is estimated that people around the world will spend £8bn a year on protein shakes and bars.
However with all things there is a vast range of protein powders out there, varying in content, price and quality.
Whey is the most commonly used protein base as it contains all nine essential amino acids, so it’s a very high quality complete protein. The body absorbs the powder quickly, making it a good post-workout supplement. Whey protein also has the highest concentration of glutathione.
Glutathione is one of the body’s most powerful antioxidant (crucial in elimination free radicals), protecting against oxidative stress and inflammation as well as aiding detoxification particularly in the gut, liver and muscles.
This is what makes whey the best recovery protein. It is made from cow’s milk so if you are lactose intolerant or vegan, it is not suitable.
Whey also falls into your 30% acidic, in terms of acid/alkali balance but it can be brought into balance with alkalising greens and fruits in smoothies.
It is worth noting that whey products come from many different sources and are processed in various ways, which can drastically impact the effect that it may have on your body.
Many products come from poor quality non-organic base ingredients, which are then heat processed, via cross-flow filtration, microfiltration, hydrolyzation, ion exchange, thereby denaturing the original proteins. This destroys the beneficial amino acids and creates an acidic, rancid product that is then covered up with flavourings and sweeteners.
To get the best out of your whey protein, choose a product that is a cold-pressed concentrate (not isolate) made from organic grass-fed cows milk, without flavourings as you can add your own. Whole fruits, vegetables, maca powder or raw chocolate are some examples.
Some good whey protein options:
The Organic Protein Company: They offer whey protein that is organic and comes from cows that are free to roam in unpolluted pastures. Their farmers don’t use artificial fertilisers, pesticides, hormones or genetically modified feed.
Pinksun: A goat and sheep’s whey concentrate is now on market. You might prefer it to a cow milk base.
If you feel dairy-based products don’t work for you, there is now a wide range of vegan protein powders that you can choose from.
Here the same rules apply. Pick organic with minimal cold-processing methods and in their purest form without sweeteners and flavours. While they don’t have the glutathione benefits of whey, they generally have more fibre so important for a healthy digestion.
Here are some of my favourites on the market:
Hemp protein is almost 50% protein. It has comparable nutritional values to animal protein sources like meat or eggs. It is also a good source of magnesium and calcium, which support the normal functioning of muscles, and omega-3 for healthy joints.
Pumpkin seed protein powder with chia seeds
A combination of protein from pumpkin seeds and chia seeds is 44% protein. It is rich in phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and minerals including zinc, iron and copper. This powder is also a good source of vitamin K and plant sterols.
Brown rice protein
Raw sprouted brown rice protein is 80% protein and has a similar amino acid balance to whey. It’s therefore a good protein bang for your buck option.
Spirulina is probably the most challenging from a taste perspective. It contains only 20 grams of protein per serving so it needs to be consumed in high quantities to be considered a protein powder. Spirulina itself is 60 to 70% protein and is one of the least processed plant-based super foods
It comes from a blue-green microscopic plant that has existed for 3.6 billion years. Spirulina is rich in health benefiting antioxidants, magnesium, iron, calcium, B vitamins, all helpful in fitness performance and recovery.
Alongside quality vegan protein powders, you may wish to also increase your glutathione production by adding a supplement of N-acetyl-cysteine (a precursor to glutathione), milk thistle (a herb that prevents the breakdown of glutathione) and curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric.
By our Hero & nutritionist Libby Limon – read more about Libby and her nutrition on her page.