No matter where you go, youre sure to see some sort of advertisement for protein shakes. In 2017 it was estimated that the supplement industry was worth around £8bn.
Over the last few years there has been a huge spike in usage, with big-money marketing and social media campaigns featuring public figures such as Kim Kardashian and Ronaldo extolling the virtues of protein powders.
But regulation is so poor within this field that the public are often fed a bunch of misinformation – fake promises of quick results. There are dozens of types of shakes on the market, so how do we know which ones to take, or if we should be taking them at all?
Protein is an essential macro nutrient, and one that our body needs. Its important for muscle growth/breakdown and recovery. It also plays a role in nerve function, muscle contraction and the immune system.
We encourage our clients to get the majority of their protein from food; chicken, eggs, fish, nuts, pulses. Only when trying to consume a particularly high amount of protein – people who are trying to build muscle or recover from over-exertion, for example – would we recommend using protein supplements.
People often ask me which is the best shake to build muscle, or to help lose weight. Of course, there is no magic shake. The ripped abs and bikini girls on the packaging didnt get that way because they started drinking Ultra Mega Muscle Shake. It takes years of training and nutrition to get a physique like that.
I sometimes feel like a stuck record saying this, but building muscle or losing weight ultimately comes down to calorie consumption. If youre over-eating, then necking a shake will only make you put on more weight – its just more calories going into your system.
The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) recommends consuming 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, so a 12 stone person would have to eat the equivalent of six eggs or two and a half chicken breasts to hit the minimum threshold. If youre looking to build muscle, or if youre exercising regularly and need to boost your recovery times, Id recommend increasing that to between 1.8-2.4g per kg of bodyweight.
This sounds like a lot, but after years being demonised, the current scientific thinking on eggs is that you can essentially eat as many as you like with no increased risk of heart disease or stroke, so if you can shovel down half a dozen throughout the day, youll be well on your way. No matter what your goals are, theres no need to exceed 2.4g/kg of protein, as the body simply cant use it.
Some companies claim that if you drink their shakes, you will lose weight. They will often get you to skip at least one main meal and replace with a shake. Again, theres no magic to this, youre just consuming fewer calories.
Replacing a lunch at Pret or Itsu with a “weight loss” shake could create around a reduction of 350 calories or more. Over a few weeks, you will lose weight, especially if you stick to this and not overeat somewhere else. For some people, this is a great strategy for weight loss. Protein also affects satiety levels so will keep you fuller for longer, helping fight cravings for high-calorie snacks.
Other companies, however, will sell a magic weight loss shake and ask you to replace all your meals with their magic formula, which is sometimes as little as 500 calories a day. This is not healthy. You may well achieve dramatic weight loss, but its neither enjoyable nor sustainable, with the likelihood of putting the weight back on after resuming normal food is incredibly high.
Also beware of picking the wrong shake off the shelf; some of the weight-gain shakes can have more calories than a king-size Mars Bar, which wont do you any good at all if youre trying to slim down.
Generally speaking, to build muscle, you need to eat more, fuelling your muscles to help aid growth. Protein shakes that advertise huge muscle growth have simply got more calories in them. Its important to pay attention to the label, which will tell you whats included. Many companies will combine the powder with a blend of oats, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Others – usually available through specialist stores – will add additional supplementation like creatine to help promote muscle growth.
Some people find it hard to consume more food to put on weight, especially those who spend eight or more hours behind a desk or travel a lot, which is where protein shakes come in handy, and, of course, they also contribute to that 2g/kg protein target. So go for high-calorie and/or high-protein shakes rather than just picking the most expensive one on the shelf.
What if I'm vegan?
Vegans and vegetarians sometimes find it difficult to consume enough protein, especially if they are looking to bulk up. There are a number of protein formulas available that are perfect, using ingredients including soy, pea and hemp.
Are there any side effects?
Unless youre dairy intolerant, theyre generally safe. Those with dairy tolerances should obviously avoid whey, which is one of the most common forms of powdered protein. High doses of protein can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, tiredness and sometimes a headache.
There are pros and cons. They have helped some of my clients achieve their goals, but they are always a small factor in a much bigger lifestyle change. Ignore anything that claims to offer outrageous benefits or quick fixes, always read the ingredients, and make sure you enjoy the taste; Ive never understood people drinking shakes when they find the taste disgusting.
The most important thing is to understand what, and how much, you are consuming each day and use supplements wisely.
• Harry Thomas is co-founder of City gym No.1 Fitness. To book a session or for more information contact 020 7403 6660 or visit no1fitness.co.uk