My mother always told me, "No beta, you cannot take protein powder; you will become bulky and start looking like a man" when I wanted to get on those tasty protein shakes during my teens and early 20s. Yes, I started going to the gym at the ripe age of 17 - thanks to my overly fitness enthusiastic mother, who was sweet enough to lend her trainer to me. Thrice a week, the trainer, also known as "lucky", scheduled weight training at 9 am before my engineering lectures began. The other two days were for cardio - which I never went for cause the cycle or the walker never reached any destination. I did not feel so lucky at the time. Waking up for a workout was painful, and it will always stay that way. But as the saying goes, a man has got to do... oops, a woman's gotta do what a woman has got to do!
Oh, the things I have done to make my demanding mother happy. She has no regard or gratitude for the quiet sacrifices her beloved daughter has made in today's day and age to keep her blood pressure in control and anxiety at bay. To date, my only motivation for a workout, except for my pilates session, is my mom, and because she expects (read demands), I stay fit and healthy. I understand her intention completely, but I have inherited the lazy lucky boxer genes from my father, too - yes, he was a boxer in college and played boxing matches at the now infamous Wilson college in South Mumbai. The only reason my father works out is my mom. Because of her typical Indian emotional dialogue, "What a shame it will be if I am in shape, my young daughter and husband are out of shape, and unfit", the true Leo has spoken. Belonging to a fire sun sign, she is too much for us to handle at times. But we love her; despite all that pushing, expectations and demands of a lioness, we are where we are in life because of this fearless, unapologetic iron lady. Her workouts put us to shame.
I told her one day in 2011 I wished to start a weight loss program and consume Amway Nutrilite protein drinks as a meal replacement (because I am a vegetarian, so is she and most of my family). She denied the request; her reason - "beta, too many chemicals and preservatives, and it's not natural". And I would get all stories of my grandfather, her, my grandmother being hail and hearty without eating meat or taking protein powder supplements or dietary supplements and functioning at an optimum level without any muscle or strength loss. I guess it worked out well for them because back in the day quality of food was higher than what we have access to today. A few months later, despite my mum not allowing it, I ordered the Amway protein powder to accelerate fat loss and muscle growth, and I loved the taste. I did lose some weight too, but I am not sure how much fat content I lost and how much muscle mass I gained.
In 2018 again, I consulted a nutritionist doctor, and she put me on a keto diet along with one scoop of isopure whey protein, double rich chocolate or cookies and cream flavour to drinking post-workout. The keto diet did not last long, just like my determination to try a new diet and stick to it. I, however, continued the protein drink for about a month only because it tasted delicious and helped with my cravings under supervision. For a vegetarian, keto can be quite a torture because your happiness source from food, aka carbohydrates, is completely cut off, and you are gluten-free. Again, my mom was very apprehensive that I am consuming whey protein powder. My dad thought it's all nonsense - because he was a boxer without any protein supplements back in the day and managed to win fights without any external help. Muscle recovery on point, I tell you. When probed for research on this blog as to what was his source of protein to keep up and he says once he week after his practice, he visited a well-known restaurant famous for their baida roti - a preparation made with flour, eggs and choice of meat (chicken or lamb). He juggled between red meat, white meat every week and said it fulfilled his heart's desire of taste and body desire of protein. He converted to vegetarianism in 1991, but his eyes lit up and mouth watered when inquired about his boxing days and diet.
I asked my mother for her protein source back in the 80s, and she told me she never thought about protein as an individual macronutrient that needs to be included. She is one of the highly privileged members of our family who was brought up with two cows living outside her bungalow in a small town of Uttar Pradesh, where she grew up. She very proudly said, "I had daily access to best protein sources such as pure milk, curd, paneer. And the curdled water is known as "whey protein" was kneaded into our roti dough. All this protein powder nonsense has come to India in the last fifteen years".
But I am a millennial and advocate the use of protein powder and protein bars - as I have studied back in school, protein is the building blocks of our body. Some people do require it as a source of optimum nutrition and maintain overall wellness because not everyone is blessed with great genetics, access to high-quality food, high-quality protein, a lavish lifestyle or even time, for that matter.
On that note, let's dive a little deeper into what are protein powders?
Concentrated protein sources derived from plants or animals such as dairy, eggs, rice, or peas are known as protein powder.
The three most common forms of protein powders are:
Protein concentrates: They are produced through extracting protein from whole food using acid, heat or enzymes. Protein concentrates typically supply 60–80% protein and the remaining 20–40% are composed of fat and carbs.
Protein hydrolysates: They are produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — that break bonds between amino acids. Protein hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your muscles and body.
Protein isolates: Protein isolates are prepared by an additional filtering process that removes the excess amount of fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. These powders contain about 90–95% protein.
Hydrolysates seem to raise insulin levels in your body more than other forms, at least in the case of whey protein. These might enhance muscle building capacity post-exercise. Some protein powders are fortified with vitamins and minerals, especially calcium.
However, not all benefit from these powders. If you already have a protein-rich diet, you likely won't see much difference in your life quality because of these powders. Athletes and bodybuilders who regularly lift weights may find that protein powders help maximize muscle gain and fat loss. It also allows individuals who struggle to meet their protein needs via plant-based foods (vegetarians and vegans) to meet their daily protein requirement.
Types of Proteins
Casein protein is found in milk, and it is digested and absorbed much slower than whey protein. It forms a gel on interaction with stomach acids that slow down stomach emptying and delayed absorption of amino acids in the bloodstream. Because of this process, there is a gradual and steady exposure of amino acids to your muscles, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown. One study in overweight men suggested that when calories are restricted, casein might edge over whey protein in improving body composition during resistance training.
Whey protein is derived from milk and is the liquid that separates from curds during the cheesemaking process. It contains protein and lactose - a sugar found in milk. Whey protein concentrate maintains some lactose level; the whey protein isolate version loses most of its lactose content because of the processing. It digests quickly and is rich in branched-chain amino acids, also known as BCAAs.
Leucine (a type of BCAA) plays a significant role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise. When amino acids get digested and absorbed into your bloodstream, they become available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or new muscle creation.
Many research studies reveal that whey protein helps build and maintain muscle mass, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise and increase muscle strength in response to strength training. One study showed that whey protein in young men increased MPS by 31% more than soy protein and 132% more than casein protein.
A recent 10-week research study showed that postmenopausal women had a similar response to resistance training, whether they took a placebo or whey protein. Other studies in overweight, average weight and obese people suggest that whey protein might improve body composition by decreasing fat mass and increasing lean mass.
It is also found that whey protein reduces appetite at least as much as other types of protein. One research study gave lean men four different types of liquid protein meals on various days. The whey-protein meals led to the most significant decrease in appetite and the most considerable calorie intake reduction at the next meal. Few studies suggest that whey protein may also reduce inflammation and improve specific heart health markers in overweight and obese people.
Eggs are among the highest quality protein sources one can consume because they have the highest digestibility corrected amino acid score.
However, egg protein powders are prepared from egg whites instead of whole eggs. Even though the protein quality remains excellent, one may experience less fullness because the high-fat yolks are removed.
Eggs are a complete protein source like all animal products, which means they provide all essential amino acids that humans cannot produce independently. Egg protein ranks second to whey protein in terms of having the highest leucine source - a BCAA that plays a significant role in keeping muscle health intact. However, egg protein is not as widely studied compared to casein protein and whey protein.
In a study, egg protein demonstrated less potential to reduce appetite than casein or pea protein when consumed before a meal. In another research study, female athletes taking egg-white protein experienced similar lean mass and muscle strength as those supplementing with carbs. Egg-white protein can be a good choice for people with dairy allergies who prefer a supplement based on animal protein.
Pea protein powder is trendy amongst the vegetarian and vegan community and those intolerant to eggs and dairy.
It is produced from the yellow split pea - a high-fibre legume with all essential amino acids. It is absorbed slower than whey but faster than casein protein and is rich in BCAAs. It can trigger the feeling of fullness like its dairy protein counterparts, and a few studies showed men who consume pea protein show the same amount of muscle thickness as those who consume whey daily. It is quite a promising source of protein, but more research studies are required to confirm results.
Hemp protein powder is another plant protein available in the market today. Although concerning marijuana, it contains a minute amount of the psychoactive component THC. Hemp is rich in omega-three fatty acids and several essential amino acids. It is not considered a complete protein because it has low amino acid lysine levels and leucine levels.
Brown Rice Protein
Protein powders derived from brown rice are known as brown rice protein. These are usually considered inferior to whey protein to build muscle. Although this rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, its low levels of lysine do not allow it to maintain a complete protein status in itself.
Should you consume protein powders?
Depending on your goals and your bodily needs, you must consult a healthcare nutritionist or a known expert to guide you. You will probably not require an additional protein source in the form of protein powder unless it's for weight gain and your diet does not contain a sufficient amount of protein.
One may also need protein powder intake if:
You are on a hardcore athletic training regime
You recently underwent surgery or health trauma
Your nutrient needs are higher than others because of certain diseases such as cancer, organ failure or wounds
You went through an oral surgery where it is difficult to swallow food
However, it is best to consult an expert and chalk out a plan as per your needs, be it bodybuilding, weight gain, or muscle gain or look lean and aesthetic! The choice is yours!
Use this Protein Calculator to calculate you optimal daily protein intake
Authored by: Padmaja Rai
About the Author: Padmaja is a healthcare consultant and avid fitness enthusiast. She holds a masters' in bio-innovation and rare diseases from University of Pennsylvania. She is a firm believer in ancient Indian holistic healing.