Protein benefits and the role of protein supplementation: What is right for you?

Protein benefits and the role of protein supplementation: What is right for you?

Protein is exceptionally important! It is an essential macronutrient and is critical for countless processes within the body. Consuming protein in the form of protein powder can therefore be a particularly useful tool, especially for those who exercise and train regularly, or those that have dietary restrictions that might limit their ability to meet an appropriate protein goal. Therefore, protein and amino acids are at the core of our products PFORM Active and PFORM Restore.

Supplementation of protein in the post-training period may assist optimisation of recovery and subsequent performance (1). But with so many different options, how do you know which one to choose?

This article is to help you to be able to make an informed decision regarding protein powder! It covers: the role of protein, protein intake, the benefits of protein, what to look for in a protein powder, different protein powder sources and whether protein powder is for you!

The role of protein

Protein is critical. Protein has a structural role within the body – for example, to make cells, tissues, muscles and bones. Protein has a functional role within the body – enabling all of the different processes and reactions to take place in the body, for example muscular contraction and the production of energy.

Examples of the different roles of protein:

  • Growth and maintenance of cells and tissues: any muscle or tissue growth/repair breaks down protein and requires more protein
  • Structure of the body: for example, the protein collagen is a critical part of bone, tendons, ligaments and skin
  • Reactions and processes: require proteins known as enzymes – think muscular contraction, energy generation and digestion
  • Generates energy: it can be metabolised to generate energy (ATP)
  • Acts as a chemical messenger: proteins are hormones, for example human growth hormone which stimulates the growth of tissues
  • Involved in fluid balance: helps to maintain the fluid balance between the blood and tissue
  • Part of the immune system: forms substances called antibodies which helps protect the body
  • Transports and stores nutrients: for example, the substance haemoglobin which transports oxygen in the blood, is a protein

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids that are critical in muscle protein synthesis. Protein is critical not only for the maintenance, building, recovery and repair of muscle tissue, but for general health – from bone health, to cognitive health to immune health.

Protein intake

Recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 0.8 g/kg/day (2). However, for someone who is active, a dietary protein intake of 1.2-2 g/kg/day is recommended to support any metabolic adaptation, repair and remodelling (3). Requirements will fluctuate based on training status and will vary considerably depending on the individual.

Groups of individuals who may benefit from higher protein intakes:

  • Athletes and exercisers: 1.8g/kg bodyweight may maximise muscle protein synthesis (4) and even 2-3g /kg/bodyweight has been indicated to benefit athletes (5).
  • Injuries: 1.5g kg bodyweight has been recommended (6) to rebuild damaged tissue.
  • Weight loss: 1.6 g protein/kg bodyweight (7) to 2.3 g/kg bodyweight (8) may be beneficial for more fat loss, whilst preserving lean body mass.
  • Seniors: those who are older and more active may benefit from more protein – to improve physical performance without necessarily increasing muscle mass (9)

The benefits of protein

Increased muscle mass

Protein supplementation positively impacts muscle mass and assists with the gains (10, 11, 12). Resistance training upregulates specific factors involved in muscle growth (mTOR) (13) and consuming protein post workout enhances this factor (mTOR) (14). So if you’re looking to up the muscle mass – resistance training + post workout protein = maximal muscle gains!

Better muscle mass retention

Not looking to gain muscle but simply want to retain lean muscle? Protein intake is key. Cutting calories whilst keeping protein levels higher enables better retention of lean muscle mass than cutting calories whilst keeping protein at a lower level (15). Increasing protein intake to approximately 35% of macronutrient intake vs 15% is significantly superior for maintenance of lean body mass in athletes during short-term weight loss (16).

Better strength and performance

Protein supplementation may translate into better strength and performance results (10,11,12). Benefits in anaerobic power and strength performance is found in resistance trained individuals who consume a protein supplement (17). Also, the effects of post-resistance training protein supplementation may result in even greater performance gains for those with previous resistance training experience (18).

The benefits of protein supplementation for performance are not restricted to strength and/or anaerobic based athletes either –significant improvements in performance for endurance athletes, are also associated with protein supplementation (19). Intense or prolonged bouts of endurance exercise utilises considerable quantities of amino acids, specifically leucine and therefore protein supplementation, with a focus on leucine may benefit the endurance athlete. Consuming a form of BCAA in specific, during endurance exercise has been shown to improve performance (20) and delay central fatigue (21).

Better recovery

Training requires energy and involves the breakdown of muscle fibres – adequate energy and protein intake is critical for the body to adapt from training and become stronger (1). Whilst carbs and fats provide energy, protein provides energy and the building blocks necessary to rebuild those muscle fibres, repair damaged muscle tissue and build new lean tissue! Ensuring adequate protein intake, along with overall calorie determines an athlete’s recovery.

Experimental evidence shows that muscle protein synthesis is optimised in response to exercise by consuming high quality protein, including the essential amino acids, in the early recovery phase (0-2 hours post exercise) (3). Post total-body resistance training, consumption of a protein supplement results in lower rates of whole-body protein breakdown (17). Consuming a protein supplement may be beneficial in preventing decreases in muscle performance and improving delayed onset of muscle soreness (22,23). Also, marathon runners receiving protein supplements show significantly lower biomarkers of damage and stress than those who didn’t receive protein supplementation (24).

For any athlete embarking on a lower carb diet /keto, protein supplementation post training may be especially valuable in the recovery process, improving glycogen replenishment and decreasing symptoms of muscular damage (25). Additionally, taking a protein-based beverage post work out assists with the rehydration process (26) a critical component of the recovery process.

It’s also important to note that higher protein requirements are recommended for individuals with any injury – in order to rebuild the lost or damaged tissue (27). A diet high in protein and rich in micronutrients promotes wound healing (28) and consuming BCAA may improve markers of immune health (20).

Body composition

If you’re looking to either reduce body fat levels or keep them low, whilst maintaining and/or building muscle, then protein is the answer. Protein has the highest thermic effect, which means that it costs the most energy to digest. If you’re looking to expend more energy whilst keeping calorie intake the same, simply increase your proportion of protein! Unlike increasing calories from the other macros, increasing calories from protein may increase overall energy expenditure (29). However, this isn’t permission to have unlimited excess calories from protein! But upping intake of protein may benefit a specific body composition – such as bodybuilding (30).

Reduced appetite and increased satiety: protein is the most satiating macronutrient – eating a higher proportion of protein within the diet results in less hunger and greater fullness (31,32). Increased protein intake may be beneficial during weight loss/cutting periods for athletes, by reducing appetite whilst retaining lean body mass (33).

What to look for in a protein powder?

Protein quality

This is especially important for anyone interested in how their protein powder can assist with muscle retention, growth and/or recovery. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids of which there are different categories:

  • Essential amino acids (EAA): amino acids that the body cannot synthesise itself and must be gained through the diet.
  • Non-essential amino acids: amino acids that the body can synthesise itself.
  • Conditionally essential amino acids: amino acids that the body can make but isn’t always able to make – it is dependent upon the status of the body and its priorities i.e. whether you are training hard, sick or undernourished.
  • Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA): a subcategory of EAA, specifically leucine, isoleucine and valine that are particularly important for initiating muscle protein synthesis.

Protein quality is a measure of a protein source’s ability to provide adequate quantities of the EAA required for protein synthesis (34). A complete protein source includes sufficient sources of all of the nine different EAA, whereas an incomplete protein source is lacking or low in EAA. Some plant proteins are incomplete protein sources – they lack or are low in specific amino acids and therefore may be lower in protein quality.

Hence, the creation of blended plant proteins! For example, a pea/rice blend has a full EAA profile and is therefore a higher protein quality, hence why we used a 70% pea and 30% rice protein blend in PFORM Restore. Protein quality may have an effect on short- and long-term adaptations to exercise (1).

For those of you concerned with muscular retention/gains and the muscle protein synthesis process, the BCAA leucine is especially important. Leucine is necessary for initiating muscle protein synthesis – this is critical for both the adaptive and recovery processes following training sessions (35). Protein supplementation with higher contents of leucine, in combination with resistance training stimulates muscle protein synthesis to the greatest degree (36). In PFORM Restore we supplemented the organic pea and rice protein blend with an additional 500mg of leucine.

Whey-based vs plant-based protein powder

Animal based protein powders are usually highly bioavailable and contain all EAA. However, approximately 68% of the population have some degree of lactose intolerance (37), which may result in impaired absorption of protein as well as experiencing digestive discomfort – a bloated stomach, cramps/pains, or feeling sick are examples of lactose intolerance (38). Plant proteins, such as rice and pea protein are hypoallergenic, meaning that potential allergenic sources are eliminated, so theoretically, less issues for the gut!

Additionally, individuals may wish to choose a plant-based protein powder based on personal preferences – such as environmental and/or ethical opinions. Ultimately whether you choose animal or plant-based protein is down to your physiology and personal preference. In PFORM Restore, we wanted to replicate the amino acid profile in whey protein but instead by using plant-based powders.

Intolerances / sensitivities

Allergies/intolerances/sensitivities to eggs and/or dairy, translates to a plant-based protein powder being the better option for many. Soy is also a common allergen, therefore a plant-based option of pea/rice may we feel is preferential. Additionally, added ingredients, such as bulkers, fillers and sweeteners may be a source of intolerances/sensitivities and this was another reason to ensure that we formulated a product free from such compounds.

Added ingredients

Protein powders can have a variety of ingredients added to them. Sweeteners are a frequent one, from which there can be many different types. Sugar based sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, molasses and agave; artificial sweeteners: sucralose, aspartame, saccharin; sugar alcohols: sorbitol, maltitol and erythritol; “natural” sweeteners: stevia and monk fruit. Refined sugars such as sucrose and high-fructose syrup are less common in protein powder. Sugar alcohols may not be advisable for people who are sensitive to digestive upsets (39). Both sugars and artificial sweeteners have associated detrimental effects on health (40,41,42). Obviously if anyone wants to avoid sugar for health and/or keto/low carb reasons, then be aware of it, as well as some sweeteners that can take you out of ketosis.

Protein powders frequently have thickening agents added (examples are guar gum/ xanthan gum, dextrin, inulin) and emulsifiers (such as carrageenan, lecithin). Although small amounts of thickening agents and emulsifiers are indicated to be safe (43), there is growing research to indicate that they may impact gut and metabolic health (44). Research on the impact of these types of added ingredients is still relatively new – if you are considering including these types of added ingredients, be aware of how much you are having of them and check how far down the ingredient list they are. Anything that’s stated at the beginning of the ingredient list, there will be more of and less is at the end.

Different protein sources

Whey protein

Pros: a complete protein that includes full range of amino acids; is absorbed and digested quickly; contains the highest proportion of BCAAs; contains highest content of leucine.

Cons: Higher risk of allergy, sensitivity or intolerance reaction to dairy protein or lactose. Also, as we become more aware of the impact of animal-based foods on our environment, we should endeavour to find options that help to lower the intake and demand for these food products.

Casein protein

Pros: complete protein that includes full range of amino acids; more slowly absorbed than whey which may be beneficial for overnight periods.

Cons: Same concerns as whey protein.

Soy protein

Pros: complete protein source; may produce similar gains in strength and lean body mass as whey (in combination with resistance training) (45).

Cons: soy protein is a common allergen so may want to be avoided if that is suspected to be causing symptoms or contributing to an imbalanced immune system (46). Soy has received controversial attention regarding hormonal health, but research indicates that it is not harmful to male or female hormonal health (47,48).

Pea protein

Pros: good plant-based source of BCAA; rich in amino acid lysine; highly digestible; hypo-allergenic. Pea protein may be the superior plant protein due to its content of lysine which may contribute to the activation of the muscle synthesis signalling pathway (49). It surpasses and/or matches the effects of whey protein supplementation. Supplementation of pea protein in combination with resistance training may promote greater increases of muscle thickness than whey supplementation (50). Pea protein supplementation performs equally well as whey protein supplementation for body composition, force production, performance and strength (51).

Cons: incomplete protein – low in essential amino acid methionine (52)

Rice protein

Pros: hypo-allergenic and almost a complete protein. A comparison of rice and whey protein supplementation in conjunction with resistance exercise shows them to both improve lean body mass, muscle mass, strength and power equally well (53).

Cons: incomplete protein – low in amino acid lysine, hence why it is good when combined with pea protein (52).

Hemp protein

Pros: high in fibre, high source of omega-3 fats.

Cons: incomplete protein – low in amino acid lysine; overall lowest protein content per average scoop of protein powder.

Blends – pea / rice blend:

The combination of two plant-based proteins facilitates a robust amino acid profile whilst remaining plant based and/or avoiding risk of food intolerances/sensitives. To replicate the effects of whey protein, whilst keeping it hypoallergenic and plant based, add some leucine to the pea/rice blend.

Pros: complete protein sources which complement one another; hypoallergenic; both shown to perform equally well to whey for muscle mass, strength, body composition and performance (51, 53)

Cons: slightly lower in protein than some other plant-based options, so you have to consume a larger amount of powder compared to whey protein for the same amount of protein.

Do you need protein powder?

Although protein powder isn’t essential, meeting your protein requirements is. Sometimes it can be challenging to consume adequate protein depending on individual requirements, training volume, body size and daily life. As well as having greater protein requirements, athletes training multiple times a day have fewer opportunities to consume recovery meals and ensuring protein intake within a window following training may promote recovery and future performance (1).

Times when protein powder supplementation may be especially helpful:

Meal replacement

Combining protein powder with some vegetables, a tasty fat source such as brazil nuts and blending with some water/plant-based milk is a quick and easy way of getting a delicious and nutrient dense meal in. Think whole foods meets fast foods. There are plenty of other blender-based meals using similar ingredients which can provide a variety of quick and tasty meals whilst ensuring that you hit your protein requirements – think soups, waffles, pancakes, muffins, cookies, oatmeal, mug cakes etc.

Muscle gain

If you’re looking to gain muscle, then ensuring adequate protein and calories following your workout is key. A protein shake is a no fuss and tasty way to get this in whilst knowing exactly what you’re eating/drinking in comparison to a store-bought protein bar/drink. Additionally, if you’re switching your macros around to include more carbs then you can easily be in control of this with your own shakes – try adding a source of fruit, like a banana in your shake. Try this delicious plant-based protein shake post next training session: pea/rice protein mix with added leucine, plant-based milk and pre frozen mango and banana with some sprinkled coconut flakes for some crunch on the top – you will get a delicious thick and creamy pudding that contributes to some serious gains.

Weight loss

Protein shakes are great for weight loss too. Upping your ratio of protein intake is a useful tool to retain lean muscle and starve off hunger. You can add lower sugar containing fruits like berries for a little sweetness and also add low calorie but fibrous vegetables to the shake as well to fill you up further and provide additional benefit from the fibre.

Recovery / athletic performance

Ensuring overall calorie and macronutrient intakes are met is essential for optimising athletic recovery (3) and a protein shake is a simple, no fuss solution to ensure that you meet your recovery needs. Taking a protein shake post training ensures you can replenish the body with the adequate nutrients and calories it requires.

A post-workout protein shake may improve both recovery (17, 24) and future performance (22,23). Also, a protein shake in the post workout window may be particularly important for certain individuals – for example, individuals who compete at a high level within athletics, pro bodybuilders, very lean individuals, or those who are engaging in more than one exercise/activity session a day or longer sessions.

Take aways

Meeting protein requirements is critical regardless of your goal: gaining muscle, losing weight, retaining muscle, improving strength and performance and enhancing recovery.

Protein powder may be a useful tool to meet your goals: whether it’s for convenience or you are training multiple times a day then protein powder can be a handy way to meet your calorie and macro requirements. Depending on the individual, taken in the post exercise window, may optimise the recovery and performance.

When choosing a protein powder consider protein quality, BCAA and leucine content and any added ingredients: the beauty of making your own protein shake is that you get to choose what is in it! So, choose a protein powder that suits you – what works for your body and personal preferences!

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This article was written by Steve Grant.
You can read more of Steve’s articles and learn about his specialist areas and experiences using the link below.
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