Associate protein powders with meatheads, or just, men? Think again…

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Aching after your workout session? Reaching for chocolate, carbs or coffee to maintain form during the daily grind? Protein is vital for everything from muscle repair to maintaining balanced blood sugar, and up to 20% of our daily calorie intake should be derived from this essential nutrient, so if you’re flagging or crashing, it could be that you’re not getting your fill. We all know that an organic, free range chicken breast or bowl of lentils will likely sort us out, but you’re not always in the mood for a roast after a run, and there’s occasionally not the time or opportunity to refuel at vital moments. Short of packing a steak in your sports bag, protein powders can provide a satiating, healing and energising boost, but would you, or do you, go there? Forget everything you think you know about protein shakes and get a know a few experts in the market. No gym bravado or thick necks here, we promise.

We’ll begin with chocolate (ALWAYS a good start), or more specifically, ‘raw Peruvian cacao’, which is the flavour of Welleco’s  The Super Elixir™ Nourishing Protein , £48, created by nutrition and oxidative stress specialist Dr Simone Laubscher in partnership with Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson. First things first, Elle is about as far from The Hulk as you could get, so that in itself is reassuring to women who fear that including a protein powder in their diet could make them ‘bulk up’. Secondly, while especially appealing to women, it’s suitable for just about everybody, given that its plant based, wheat free, dairy free, egg free, nut free and soya free. There are also no hormones lurking here, as Dr Laubscher clarifies:

"When it comes to supplements, most whey protein powders are derived from non-organic cow's milk which contains oestrogen.”

Imbalanced hormones probably aren’t want you want from your daily smoothie, but apparently hormone shakes are particularly detrimental to men, as Dr Laubscher explains:

“Oestrogen is a female hormone, and too much of this in the male diet can have adverse effects such as reduced libido and increased abdominal body fat”.

So it could be of some benefit that your boyfriend takes after ‘The Body’ too. Moving on from what’s not in it, the genuinely very delicious powder harnesses its power from pea and brown rice protein, and includes all nine essential amino acids in its formula to keep your building blocks strong (the body can’t make these so you need to be getting them from food). Also included in the mix are concentration enhancing B vitamins, digestion supporting pro and prebiotics plus fibre, craving reducing chromium, vitamin D3 for bone health and magnesium for optimum muscle recovery, not to mention  better sleep . I could go on (anti-ageing acai makes an appearance), but basically this protein powder sets itself apart from many on the market as it’s made for women, by women, doesn’t taste artificial, is tailored to our concerns and needs and looks VERY chic indeed on your countertop. Not that I’m shallow, but those huge vats of protein powder stacked in health food shops are unappealing in themselves, and that’s before you’ve read the label, or put in the hours with the kettlebells before your can carry them home.

Another range of protein powders formulated by a female expert in her field are  Strong Nutrients  (also beautifully packaged), created by trainer and nutritionist  Zana Morris . I quizzed her on the topic of women and protein powders, who might need them, and whether she ever encounters protein powder resistance…

“Consuming protein powder is simply a way to help ensure adequate protein intake in your diet. Protein is essential for building the entire structure of your body, from skin, nails and hair, enzymes that break down food, as well as more obvious, it is essential for firm muscle tone and strong bones.”

“They may have been associated with bodybuilders and men trying to bulk up, but in reality they are simply food, and a way to ensure adequate nourishment to match your lifestyle.”

“I’ve never found them a hard sell. I work with clients looking for a particular outcome. We look at lifestyle, goals and current nutrition. A very active client will need more protein in their diet to maintain energy, firm shape and feel more balanced (a lack of protein can lead to serious cravings for sugar!). My goal is to simply ensure the client is taking enough, whether that is through fresh food, or with the aid of a  casein shake .”

Zana emphasises that not all protein is made equal, and that it’s not a case of different protein powders for men and women, but the quality of the protein itself:

“All protein breaks down into amino acids, the building blocks of the entire body. Assuming the source is healthy (e.g. organic and not heavily processed), the only real question to ask, is what is the NPU of the protein (Net Protein Utilisation), i.e. how readily can your body make use of it. Protein in fish or meat for example has a very high NPU. It is more readily available to be utilised by your body than, for example, protein from hemp. Casein, which is a dairy protein, also has a very high NPU.” (so not all dairy is full of hormones, FYI)

Clearly, a scoop every few hours isn’t the protein path to tread. Take your physical activity levels and lunch habits into account to when deciding on appropriate amounts…

“Regular high intensity workouts will require good quality protein to help you recover. Not enough could lead to serious cravings, which is when most of us turn to sugar! One serving a of a protein powder a day, on top of small amounts of good quality protein at each meal, should be enough. That said, if you find you skip meals, or grab a sandwich for lunch, (which can then lead to craving something sweet at 4pm) then you may need more. A shake instead of a sandwich if need be, for example, can really make a difference to keeping your insulin stable; helping you avoid energy slumps as well as eliminating afternoon urges for sugar.”

“That said, if you eat good quality, highly absorbed forms of protein regularly throughout the day, and are only exercising moderately, you may not need any extra protein at all!”

Watch out for the perfect windows to whip out a protein powder too:

“You could make one as a light breakfast or lunch, especially if the alternative would have been cereal or bread based. Alternatively, have one around mid afternoon when there can be a tendency to reach for something sweet. It will keep hunger at bay and energy stable until you are ready for your evening meal.”

Activity is the most important factor to consider in how much and how often you consume a protein powder, but Zana reasons that age does come into play:

“From the age of 30 we lose 1/2 lb of firm tissue from our bodies, each year, every year. A combination of the right exercise and quality of protein play a vital role in recovering this. A 75 year old, doing high intensity training, will thrive on extra protein, as they will recover strength in their bones, muscle tissue and even organs.

Don’t go nuts thinking that powdered protein is the elixir of life, however. That moderation thing crops up everywhere:

“We don’t need excessive protein. Like all food sources, too much of it, especially if you’re not exercising, can mean that our body may have difficulty processing it and it can convert to fat. If you have a history of kidney issues too much could also cause a strain on your kidneys.”

If we’re being wary, it’s also important to check that your protein powder is what it says it is, i.e, good quality protein.  Strong  and  Welleco  are well respected in the market, having won health awards and undergone meticulous development by certified nutritional experts, and another to add to the high quality trolley are supplements made by  Neat Nutrition , as founders and former professional sportsmen Leo Forster and Charlie Turner prioritise provenance, natural ingredients and a total lack of BS (we assume they’ve come across quite a bit in the past). Charlie suggests carrying out a little BS investigations of your own before ingesting a protein powder willy nilly:

“Check if the ingredient profile is clean and all-natural, or is it loaded with artificial sweeteners, fillers, colours, and other additives? The key ‘rogue’ ingredients to look out for artificial sweeteners such as; dextrose, fructose and sucrose."

“Check the yield of your protein.i.e. if you have a 30g scoop, how much is actually protein? For example,  Neat’s Whey Protein , £34, has 24g of protein in a 30g scoop, giving an 80% yield. Generally anything above 70-75% is considered good. If you’re only getting a yield of 50%, ask the question ‘what is in the other 50% doing and why would I need it’?”

If you’re still on the fence regarding trying one, a final word from Charlie should establish why, at times, a protein powder can be a real pro:

“We would never advocate cutting out all traditional proteins (meat, fish etc.) with a shake, we love them too much to do that ourselves! The most critical factor that puts protein powder miles ahead of other of eating a high protein meal is the speed which you can digest it. Whey Protein, for example,  digests very quickly comparative to other protein sources. In less than 30 minutes it can fast-track a good portion of amino acids to your muscles.”

For anyone who’s ever experienced  DOMS , the muscle easing powers of a quick protein hit will be well known sweet relief. Give it a go, and let us know how you get on below…

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