Protein Supplementation – what’s in it, how much should I take and when?
Protein powder and bars are the biggest selling supplements in the supplement industry, you’ve probably seen the (misleadingly) named varieties – Anabolic Extreme, Super Mass, Protein Powder for muscles-on-muscles – in supermarkets, health food shops and just about anywhere else. The problem is, a lot of people misunderstand what the supplement even is and have no idea how much they should actually be taking, and its not all their fault, the way its marketed and the dosages stated by the companies are misleading and generally designed to get the maximum number of people buying the stuff, and using more of it!
WHAT IS IT?
Protein is a structural component of all the cells in your body, it is made up of chains of amino acids.
As a macro-nutrient, protein is essential in the body for muscle contraction (actin and myosin are both proteins), cellular respiration (producing energy – we get 4 k/cal per g of protein*), to create anti-bodies to fight against disease, for blood pressure maintenance and for growth and repair of tissues.
* Although we can use it for energy, carbohydrates and fats are utilised first as they are more readily available.
In terms of usage, its the amino acids we specifically want, of which eight are essential (meaning they need to be included in our diet as our body cannot make them).
HOW MUCH DO I NEED
The majority of people who eat a healthy diet will get the minimum amount of protein they require (for healthy function) – about 0.8g per kg of bodyweight per day according to the Institute of Medicine. This amount will come naturally from anything that walks, swims or flies (and through combinations of lenitls beans etc.).
The amount of protein you need increases the more you exercise, with a rough amount being between 1.0 and 2.0g per kg of bodyweight for both strength and endurance athletes, with endurance athletes being nearer the 2.0g end of the scale due to them being more likely to use protein for energy production. Additionally in strength and power athletes the more trained they are or the more muscle mass they have means they may need more, but still only in the 2.0g per kg per day range.
In terms of taking too much protein, there is no real risk, especially through the use of supplements. The reported risks include:
– Kidney damage (not backed up by science and no other proof)
– Nitrogen intoxication (not backed up by science and no other proof)
– Increase in coronary heart disease (CHD) has been noticed but this is down to the source of protein (high levels of fat)
– Wasting money – taking in too much protein can increase protein synthesis, but also causes the body to use protein (before carbs and fats) as a energy source, resulting in wastage (of protein and hard earned cash!)
Research says the optimal amount per intake (pre/post workout and in meals) is 18-20g.
Three main types;
- Whey – Water soluble, easy to mix, rapid digestion
- Casein – Water insoluble,coagulates in the gut and is digested slowly
- Egg Albumin (Egg whites)
Whey protein tends to be the most popular variety, mainly down to the three points listed above. It also has a rich amino acid profile that covers the whole spectrum (including the three branched chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine).
Whey is left over when milk coagulates and contains everything that is soluble from milk. It is a 5% solution of lactose in water, with some minerals and lactalbumin. It is removed after cheese is processed.
There are four types of whey protein powder:
- Ion exchanged whey protein
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Hydrolysed whey protein concentrate
Ion exchanged whey protein goes through a process called, you guessed it, ion exchange. This is where there is an addition of acidic chemicals and separation of protein by an electrical charge. Companies do this as it is only about 20% of the cost of micro filtration (a better, more expensive alternative I’ll cover shortly) and has the same effect of removing bacteria. However, the process also denatures certain proteins, including ones that aid with immunity, digestive capability, calcium absorption and satiety (feeling full) and the protein lactalbumin.
Whey protein concentrate is made in with three main stages. Pasteurisation is where the solution is heated to 72 degrees celsius for 15-30 seconds in order to kill of any bacteria (good or bad). Ultra filtration (similar to micro filtration) is a process where the solution is driven at high pressure and heat (40-50 degrees) though molecular ‘sieves’ in order to remove or concentrate different components. The size of the ‘sieve’ membranes are about four times smaller in ultra filtration than in micro filtration, meaning its better, and gives a finer and smoother powder. Finally evaporation is used to boil off the water.
The key parts in making whey protein isolate are, diafiltration, which uses ultrafiltration membranes to remove or lower the concentration of salts, fats and other solvents from the proteins. Added water ‘dilutes’ the solvents for removal leaving the protein behind. Microfiltration is then used – similar to ultra filtration – to clarify whey proteins and remove bacteria. Finally spray drying is used, which is the process by which the concentrated whey liquid is sprayed as a mist into a tower at temperatures from 80-175 degrees celsius to convert it into whey powder.
Hydrolysed whey protein concentrate is made, along with other methods (ultra filtration, drying), by using enzyme treatment. This treatment begins to pre-digest the proteins into smaller peptide bonds in order to aid digestion. This creates a bitter taste meaning most companies won’t have more than 20% hydrolysed protein.
There is also one other term to look out for – Cold processed whey. This term (although it is fairly loose) means that lower temperatures are used (40 degrees) during micro/ultra filtration and spray drying is often avoided and freeze drying is used instead. This stops some of the protein from being denatured and makes it easier to digest.
So what to look for when you’re shopping for a whey protein supplement?
- Pure whey protein with no fillers (artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate, colourings and flavourings)
- Cold processed
- Contain whey protein concentrate, isolate or is hydrolysed (to aid digestion)
- DO NOT go for ion exchange
WHEN SHOULD I TAKE IT?
Taking 18-20g of protein post exercise has been shown to slow down protein degradation and slightly increase protein synthesis.
Taken ❤ hours post exercise protein synthesis is at a 120% increase, <24 hours post exercise it is at a 80% increase and <48 hours post exercise it is at a 40%. Protein supplementation increases these numbers slightly, but the main benefit is the decrease in degradation so the protein can be used for longer resulting in maximal gains.
Additionally, taking the supplement soon after exercise can increase strength and muscle cross sectional area as opposed to taking is >2 hours after.
Taking 18-20g of protein pre-exercise (when combined with a carbohydrate) can increase protein synthesis, increase blood flow and help maintain a positive nitrogen balance (a marker of atrophy – muscle wastage – when negative).
Wow, so that was a fairly long (understatement) post, but hopefully its covered most areas and has cleared up a few things!