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Protein powders and premixed shakes abound – but do you really need them? Naturopath Teresa Mitchell-Paterson tells you what you need to know.

Without question, protein is essential: your body demands it for growth, healing, reproduction, and a healthy immune system. It also staves off hunger pangs and cravings for sweet, starchy comfort foods. However, the amount of protein we need is surprisingly small: Australian women aged 19 to 70 years require a mere 46 grams daily, rising to 57 grams after age 70. Pregnant women need 60 grams, rising to 67 grams during lactation. For men, the requirement is 64 grams – roughly the amount present in a 100-gram steak or 200 grams of natural yogurt – rising to 81 grams at age 70.

The vast majority of people should be able to obtain sufficient protein from their food – and certainly protein deficiency is rare in Australia. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods are all excellent sources and contain complete proteins, meaning all nine essential amino acids are present. The exception may be those following a vegan diet. High-quality, plant-based protein powders, which can be purchased from wholefood suppliers such as Honest to Goodness (www.goodness.com.au), can fill the gap. They include: pea (from sprouted yellow split peas), rice (sprouted brown rice), hemp (hemp seeds), soy (unless certified organic, it may be genetically modified), or fusion (a combination of pea, globe artichoke, sprouted amaranth and sprouted pea protein, www.plantfusion.com.au).

Speed weight loss?

The combination of a slightly higher intake of protein and low-GI carbohydrates has been shown to help with weight loss and keep hunger at bay, while being a relatively easy eating regimen to stick with over the long term. The drawback with using protein powders to boost protein intake is the additional kilojoules that will be stored as fat if the powders are taken in addition to normal meals and snacks, rather than replacing them.

Protein supplements may benefit athletes as their requirements tend to be much higher: elite endurance athletes need 1.5 grams per kilogram of lean body weight; footballers require 1.7 grams; while moderate-intensity athletes exercising four or five times a week for 45 to 60 minutes need 1.2 grams. Non-vegans can choose from a range of powders including whey, casein, egg white, or albumen.

Whey powder, the most popular protein supplement, comes in three forms: concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate. Isolates are more expensive as they undergo additional processing, something that may cause the loss of some of the health-promoting compounds present in a concentrate. On the plus side, the amount of protein per serving is higher. Whey isolates, and particularly hydrolysates, are more rapidly absorbed than concentrates and for this reason are usually taken immediately after a workout. A concentrate is absorbed at a moderate rate and is typically used between meals.

Casein takes longer to digest than a concentrate or isolate. Athletes and bodybuilders often use this form of protein as their final meal before sleep, as it provides a continual flow of amino acids throughout the night. Egg protein is not absorbed as rapidly as whey protein. It can be taken before a workout to provide essential amino acids the muscles need for performance, or immediately after for recovery. A major issue with these powders is that they’ll produce a reaction in those who are allergic or sensitive to dairy foods and eggs.

Dairy protein powders may be enhanced with creatine, fat metabolisers, and various vitamins and minerals. Less desirable are additives used to add flavour or texture, so scrutinise the ingredient panel, including the kilojoule content, as this can be pretty hefty. So can the price tag: protein powders tend to come at a higher cost than eating protein-rich foods. Bear in mind that more is not better when it comes to protein: excess intake can place additional pressure on the kidneys and increase calcium excretion through the urine, which may affect bone health. Finally, protein powders should enhance – but never replace – a nutrient-rich diet loaded with plant foods.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc (CompMed), MHSc (HumNut), AdvDipNat, is a member of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society. www.atms.com.au