The low-down on protein: should we all be taking supplements?

A protein-enriched diet is key to keeping fit, in and out of the gym

Close-Up Of Protein Powder In Scoop On Table. Getty Images
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While whole, fresh foods are an essential part of a healthy diet, it can be difficult to get all the nutrition you need if you're always busy and on the go. Step in supplements, which can do just that: supplement your diet. One of the most popular supplements is protein powder, which can help meet your daily needs in a quick and easy way. But is it healthy and is it for everyone?

4 reasons you need protein in your diet

Before we explore the best ways to use protein powder, familiarise yourself with four ways in which protein helps in your diet.

Meet gym goals
Feeling weak during your workouts? No matter if you're in the gym to lift weights, go for a run or for a high-intensity conditioning session, protein not only builds muscle, it also helps build strength. Protein is essential when it comes to recovery and reducing muscle fatigue, which can help increase your strength and endurance during workouts. In one study, it was shown that a group given 27.5 grams of protein for 12 weeks before sleeping experienced increases in muscle strength and muscle size after resistance exercise training to a significantly greater extent than the group who received a non-caloric placebo. Consuming a protein shake before bed will help to stimulate your recovery.

KCal nutrition director Lauren Jacobsen
KCal nutrition director Lauren Jacobsen

Maintain a lean, trim body

Protein is the foundation of building lean mass. If you’re following a diet that is low in protein, you will have a hard time keeping a lean look. Low-protein diets will have you looking skinny-fat instead of trim and muscular. In the muscles, certain amino acids and the level of aminos available ensures that the pathways of protein synthesis or muscle building, are able to happen. If your goal is to build even a little bit of muscle or maintain your lean mass, you will need to eat protein. Eating at least 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per half kilogram of body weight per day is a good starting point. This should translate into about 40 per cent of your macronutrients as protein, which is enough to make a full recovery in the gym and stimulate muscle growth. Eat protein from sources such as chicken, lean red meat, whole eggs and egg whites, whey protein, fish and low-fat dairy. You can also include vegan sources of protein such as soy, lentils, legumes, peas, brown rice and quinoa.

High fibre foods in bowls, still life.
Beans, nuts and seeds can replace meat as the main source of protein for vegans 

Speed up the metabolism

A high-protein diet can result in two to three times quicker weight loss versus diets that are high in carbohydrates and of the same caloric value. Protein also helps increase lean muscle mass, which can have a direct effect on your metabolism. Basically the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism. Additionally, high-protein foods have a thermic effect. Protein takes more energy to burn off versus other foods, including carbs. Be sure you’re following a diet that has a calorie deficit and uses a macro breakdown that is at least 40 per cent protein, about 30 per cent or less carbs and 30 per cent or less fat. This balance is enough to help ensure you get enough protein, while also getting enough of the other macronutrients.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - December 30 2012 - A Salmon Ragout contains 278 calories, 7g of fat, 12g of carbs and 35g of protein. It is a slow roasted salmon fillet, cooked with ginger, chives and parsley, served with green beans. It is one of the most popular dishes at the KCal restaurant in Jumierah Lake Towers. (Razan Alzayani / The National)
The perfect meal? At 280 calories, KCal's salmon ragout contains 7g of fat, 12g of carbs and 35g of protein. Photo: Razan Alzayani for The National

Cut hunger pangs

If you’re feeling hungry between meals and craving sugar, you could be experiencing a protein shortage. Protein is a highly satiating ingredient; it has been shown to blunt appetite between meals and reduce food intake. In one study, an increase in protein from 15 to 30 per cent of energy intake produced a sustained decrease in free calorie intake. It’s been suggested that this is the result of increased leptin sensitivity in the central nervous system, which can also result in significant weight loss. Leptin is a key hormonal regulator of hunger. To keep hunger reduced, be sure to eat protein with every meal. A small serving of 20 to 30 grams depending on your needs is plenty to keep the appetite satiated.

So we all need protein, not only fitness-minded gym-goers. While it is essential when it comes to building muscle, that’s not all it does. It also helps to maintain, build and recover the body, not simply from workouts, but also in everyday life. Further, it’s a critical component of the hair, skin and nails. Metabolically it helps drive the transport of nutrients and gives our cells structure and shape.

The lowdown on protein powder

Now that you know why protein is so important, consider how protein powder can help supplement your diet for maximum results. Protein powder is usually extracted from dairy (whey, milk and casein) or plant (soy, pea, brown rice) sources. Other sources may come from eggs or beef. Protein powders can also be organic.

Protein powders are helpful for meeting your daily needs by providing a quick and easy source of protein on the go. They can be incorporated into your favourite recipes to up the protein content; think smoothies, overnight oats, protein bites, bars and even pancakes. Protein shakes can provide between 20 and 30 grams of protein per scoop depending on their content. This is equivalent to the amount in a chicken breast or a small piece of steak. If you're trying to gain and maintain your muscles, protein powder is a great option.

Boost your morning smoothie with protein powder 
Boost your morning smoothie with protein powder 

When purchasing a protein powder, you want a product that’s clean and free from impurities. One way to ensure this is to check if the product is produced in a certified GMP (good manufacturing process) facility. Another common certification for a manufacturing facility is ISO. The product should also undergo third-party quality testing. This checks the content of the product and ensures it is free from contaminants, completely independent of the manufacturer. The quality of the ingredients in the product is also important; protein from organic plant sources will ensure fewer or no pesticides or toxins, while organic dairy protein should be grass-fed and hormone-free.

Lauren Jacobsen is the nutrition director at KCal and specialises in sports nutrition and supplementation