FOR the modern fitness enthusiast, protein supplements seem to be a diet essential.
But is getting protein from a bottle as good as protein from whole foods?
An evolving fixation on protein
Protein powders originally came into existence to help body builders and athletes recover from intense workouts. Instead of sitting down and consuming a protein-rich meal to repair their fatigued muscles, they could get a quick fix straight from a shake.
In no time, fitness became a marketable commodity and savvy advertisers steered the evolution of protein powders from an athlete's supplement to an exercise essential, making people think you can buy a chiselled body out of a bottle or tub.
According to the latest ABS health survey, 99% of Australians meet their protein requirements (which is around 0.5-1g per kilo of body weight). This is because protein is readily available in food.
Think about it: someone who weighs 70kg would need around 70 grams of protein a day. An average chicken breast has 40g of protein, a cod fish has 30g, tofu has 15g, and just 2 eggs give you roughly 12g. Then there are nuts, whole grains and legumes.
Too much of a good thing
Whether it's a powdered form, a breakfast substitute for someone in a hurry, or an alternative to a snack, most protein supplements are considered safe, however there's some question regarding their side effects, such as constipation, bloating or, in worst case, kidney strain and nutritional deficiencies.
Who needs protein supplements?
Special populations that require additional nutrition, such as athletes, body builders, vegetarians, pregnant women or people recovering from surgery, might benefit from supplementation, however for general health and well-being a balanced diet is all that's necessary.
Associate professor Helen O'Connor from the School of Exercise and Sports Science, Sydney University agrees: "In almost all instances in healthy people, even in elite athletes who are hell-bent on building muscle, it is completely feasible to get enough protein out of food. For someone who is exercising to stay fit and lose some body fat, a better option may be to look as much as possible to food sources - they could have a carton of yogurt, a glass of skim milk or half a sandwich.”
Accredited Sports Dietitian at the Victorian Institute of Sports, Kylie Andrew says that protein supplements can be a practical and convenient option.
"There are some benefits to be gained by consuming protein (around 10-20g) immediately after resistance exercise, and sometimes we just don't have a yogurt at the ready or it is impractical to cook a steak, so a protein drink comes in handy.”
What about weight loss?
Increasing protein modestly in a diet that includes slow-releasing carbs is one of the most successful methods for weight loss as it helps curb appetite and can be followed in the long term.
However if you are adding powders, drinks or protein snack bars throughout the day and don't adjust portions at your next meal, then you'll be adding extra calories that can be stored as fat.
The key is to remember that the clue is in the name - they "supplement” a balanced diet and never replace it. When you get protein from whole foods, you are getting other bioactive ingredients and fibre that can't be duplicated in a supplement.
Kathleen Alleaume is a nutrition and exercise scientist and founder of The Right Balance.