But let's start by taking a step back and looking at why protein is important for us. To quote Jamie Oliver "Protein is the building blocks of our bodies. It is absolutely essential for the growth and repair of muscle tissue, as well as building hormones.....protein really is your best friend and should be enjoyed in the right way." OK so that bit we get. Growth, repair, keeping us healthy - that makes sense.
As to the science part, essentially there are complete proteins, which come from meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese and these contain all of the essential amino acids. And there are incomplete proteins, which can be found in beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, cereals, quinoa, oats, tofu, bread, flour and corn. Mixing incomplete protein sources together can provide a source of complete protein. So far so good.
And so what are our protein needs? For women aged 19-50, the optimal amount of protein to aim for is 45g a day. By way of example, 100g Total Greek Yoghurt has 9g protein, 100g cottage cheese has 6.1g, a typical egg has 9g, half a medium sized tin of tuna has 20.3g, an average sized chicken breast has 30g and 100g of smoked salmon has 23.8g.
The claims - When we work out we create small tears in our muscles. As the tears repair, the muscles become bigger. The claim is that protein powders deliver protein to those damaged muscles as quickly as possible post work out, to assist in repairing and re-building the muscle fibres.
The caveat to the post! Now I'm no scientist (and please do feel free to point out where I'm slightly off point) but there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to supplementing your diet with shakes, powders or bars. It's not something that we have to do as a good diet should be able to provide all of our protein needs - but many people choose to supplement their diet in this way and it really is a matter of personal choice.
So, these are the things that I've been mulling over recently....
[This picture came up when I did a search of "mulling it over images". And who am I to argue?]
Brendan Foster at the 1972 Olympics. A 70's style Harry Styles. Sort of.
The cost : These various supplements aren't cheap and if I'm spending those extra pennies on something that claims to deliver, then I would like to be sure that it will deliver.
The ingredients: Now this is where I start to struggle. I just don't like the list of ingredients in some of the various different options. I might be wrong but many of these products look highly processed. I've come across protein cookies which contain palm oil, sugar, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers and flavouring. I've also looked at protein bars, which similarly contain sugar in various different guises, preservatives, thickeners, E numbers and gelatine. As to the protein powders, many contain emulsifiers, flavours, colours and sweeteners. There are some out there with very few ingredients (see below) but in general I was surprised with what I found.
The side effects: This is my biggest worry! It concerns me when people start throwing things down their necks willy nilly just because it seems to be the thing to be doing. The research would seem to be limited but there are suggestions that too much protein can result in osteoporosis and kidney problems. No doubt people would have to consume huge amounts of protein but it's early days yet. Who knows what we will discover down the line? I suppose that the difference between getting protein through food is that your brain tells you when you're full, so overdosing through vast quantities of meat, eggs or fish is probably less likely than taking too much via an extra scoop or two in a shake.
What do others do? Sometimes it's good to take a look at what others do who you trust. Joe Wicks, the Body Coach, advocates the use of protein powder on occasion without a problem. Kayla Istines, another of my favourites, doesn't advocate the use of protein powder personally but instead relies on food sources to keep her protein levels up - and she has an incredible physique. Madeleine Shaw recommends the use of the vegan Sunwarrior protein powder which costs £34.99. In fairness, all that this contains is raw sprouted whole grain rice protein and salt. So maybe for anyone tempted to go down the protein powder route, it's worth taking a closer look.
Sunwarrior protein powder as recommended by Madeleine Shaw
The claims. So do these powders, shakes and bars really do what they say on the tin? Well as ever, where do you start when looking at all of the evidence available? To be honest I'm pretty sceptical about most things that I read as most articles have an agenda.
In a recent Episode (Series 4 Episode 1) of "Trust me I'm a Doctor" the various claims were put to the test. First, it was established that the protein consumed in a protein shake immediately post work out did indeed travel to the muscle. So far so good.
Next an experiment was conducted on a group of 20 volunteers aged 67 to 24 to see whether having a protein shake post work out helped build any more muscle. Both groups took a shake immediately after exercise with one group taking a placebo. Both groups lifted heavy weights three times a week and after eight weeks the results were analysed.
Everyone got stronger by about 30% and all had bigger muscles but there was no difference at all between the two groups and the protein shakes did not provide any benefit. It was concluded that there is a limit to what your body can cope with and as long as you get enough protein in your diet the body will either turn that excess protein into energy, store it as fat, or expel it via urine. No doubt the experiment is open to criticism on many different levels but you have to start somewhere.
Conclusion - Anything that has a positive psychological effect is good with me. Whether it makes you more motivated, gives you greater belief in your ability or just makes you feel stronger and fitter, that's all positive. But it would seem that there are limitations to its effectiveness and we still don't know the long term effect of consuming high levels of protein. Checking the list of ingredients would be high on my list of priorities and I can't imagine going near a protein bar or a protein shake but the powder? Possibly at a push, but it would have to be a very natural one and I would use it judiciously. But in all honesty I would probably rather put the money towards some new running gear because that obviously makes all the difference to one's performance :)
What do you think? If you take protein powder I would be really interested to know how you get on with it and whether you've noticed a difference in any way. And if you don't already take it but you're thinking about it, does this change your view either one way or the other?