Protein drinks – is it all hype?

Published on the 6th Jun, 2013 by Azmina

I’ve been helping Duncan Walker at BBC online with his article on the rise of protein drinks for ordinary people, published today.

If you look at dietary surveys we are actually doing okay for protein and there’s no reason for dietary supplements unless you are in a vulnerable category. But who is vulnerable? milk n fruit

Nutrition and Diet surveys are based on people recording what they eat – if you’ve ever tried to do that, you’ll know how difficult it is to remember every mouthful. And food eaten outside the home, including sandwiches and takeaways, are estimates of portion size rather than accurate weighed measurements. So it’s not a complete picture of what we’re eating.

Protein as we get older…

Protein shakes could be important, or popular, with middle aged people. On average, between the age of 50 and 70, you will lose about 30% of your muscle strength. That’s why we look flabby as we get older! Protein is the nutrient that helps to re-build your muscles. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why there’s this growing attention – we’re an ageing population and 50 is the new 30. We all want to be as active as we once were.

Vegetarians

Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids and there are eight essential amino acids (nine for infants). You get more of these in animal-based protein, so vegetarians need to get enough variety, by food combining – beans with rice, cheese on toast etc – which most vegetarians do very well anyway. However, some research suggests women on vegetarian diets may be low in protein (JE Cade, VJ Burley & DC Greenwood 2004. The UK Women’s Cohort Study: comparison of vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters. Public Health Nutrition, 7, pp 871-878).

Dieters

The main group that probably might be lacking is dieters if they are on a faddy routine, or missing meals. You need protein daily – meal replacement drinks are formulated to provide a nice complement of amino acids. There’s good research behind some of these meal replacement drinks for dieters, and used appropriately they can help you to manage your weight successfully. In the long term, you need to know what to do when you get back to ordinary meals, and this education piece is really important for sustainable behaviour change and for helping you to keep the weight off.

High protein for sports

The current big market is in sports supplements. My quote on BBC online gives my opinion on this:

Protein supplements do have a place used once a day after muscle-building training, but most people – including regular gym goers – would find that milk contains the right combination of protein and carbohydrates for rehydration and repair, says Azmina Govindji of the British Dietetic Association.

The key is a balanced diet, but supplements can be attractive.

“It’s in our nature to look for quick fixes, this is why diets work so well. If you’re promised by the hype and the marketing that this particular shake will help you to build muscle, then these very compelling messages can be quite alluring.” 

For the average person who goes to the gym two or three times a week, eating well is the key – thinking about when and what you’re eating – you’re unlikely to need a specialist protein supplement.

I asked my friend and colleague, Rick Miller, Clinical & Sports Dietitian, for an opinion. ‘Active individuals should in the first instance always try to meet their protein requirements from whole foods. Protein supplements are simply highly processed food and in. some special scenarios (e.g. large amounts of sports training, those with limited diets) additional protein may be needed and a protein shake is a convenient option. Professional advice on whether this is necessary should be sought.’  Good advice Rick!

In the end, nutrition is about balance and people will latch on to something that can provide a quick and easy solution to their problem. They key is to have regular meals based on a variety of nutritious foods. If you’re not eating well, recovering from surgery or are concerned you may not be getting enough protein, taking a protein supplement in appropriate amounts could give you the boost you need – ask a registered dietitian for advice tailored to your needs.

Read the full BBC article here.