The most common supplement that everyone hears about whenever they begin a fitness program or diet plan is protein powder. Protein powder is probably the most commonly used supplement on the market. Like most supplements, protein powders aren't necessary to lose fat or gain lean muscle. Even though protein powders won't cause you to gain muscle or lose body fat by themselves, high-protein dieting can help you gain muscle and lose fat. And one of the ways that you can create a high-protein diet is by the assistance and convenience of protein powders.
If you're counting your macros, then you know that you have a protein goal to reach every day. For help calculating your macros, check out my previous article, Calculating Your Macronutrient Needs. It is recommended that you eat around 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. If you eat all of your protein through whole foods, you may find it a bit challenging to consume that much protein. This is where the convenience of protein powders can help you out. Also, a lot of whole food proteins, like red meat, chicken, or pork are going to come with some amount of fat. So, you'll need to add to your fat goal as you add to your protein goal. However if you're taking a whey protein isolate powder, then you can mostly eliminate the fat and carbs from your protein source. This makes it easier to meet your protein goals without adding to your other macronutrient counts.
There are several other types of protein powders out there like egg, hemp, etc. however in order to avoid an extremely long article, I will just cover the main 4.
The protein powder industry is huge and whenever there is a huge market for a product, there will be devious companies that are only concerned with profit and will do whatever they can to increase their margins. So, be warned that not all protein powders are created equally. In addition, the cost of manufacturing protein powder has gone up exponentially over time. Whey protein, for example, as nearly doubled in manufacturing cost. Therefore many companies saw their huge margins begin to shrink and some came up with a way to produce a cheaper, lower quality protein powder. One of the more common ways that companies can produce low quality protein powder is through a process called amino spiking.
The protein content of food is measured through a method called the Kjeldahl method. It's an internationally recognized method for estimating protein content by determining the amount of nitrogen present in the food. Higher amounts of nitrogen present indicate a higher amount of protein in the food. These devious companies decided to take advantage of this fact and they cut the amount of protein in their powder in half and replaced it with a cheap amino acid that is also nitrogen-rich. Glycine is a popular example of a cheap, nitrogen-rich amino acid that could be used to fill the place of the protein. Glycine is also naturally sweet therefore the protein powder will taste better in addition to being cheaper. Because the amino acid is nitrogen-rich, it causes the Kjedlahl method to report more protein in the food than is actually present, by as much as 200%. Now those companies can list 20g of protein on the nutrition label, when there really may only be 9g of protein with the rest being an amino acid filler. There have since been several lawsuits against some companies about the reported protein content of their protein powder.
How can you tell if a protein powder has been amino spiked? The only guaranteed way to know if your protein powder has been amino spiked is to send it to a lab and have it analyzed. However, there are some reg flags that may indicate that a protein powder has been amino spiked, although these are just possible indicators, not guaranteed indicators. One red flag for amino spiked protein powder is just that it has added amino acids, like BCAAs or glutamine. Some companies even advertise that they add BCAAs or glutamine into their protein powder because most people don't know what amino spiking means, so a company can brag about it as if it's a positive thing! Another red flag is when the serving size in grams doesn't add up to the number of fat, carbs, and protein on the nutrition label. For example, if a serving size for 1 scoop of protein powder is 42 grams, but there is only 20g of protein, 2 carbs, and 1 fat, then that should be a red flag to figure out what is taking up the rest of that serving size and whether or not you want to be putting that in your body. The macros won't always add up to be exactly the same number as the serving size, but they should be fairly close. There are other things in the powder like sweetener, flavor, additives to prevent clumping, etc. that will add to the weight of the serving size but not add to the macro count, so that's why they may not match exactly. But, again, they should be fairly close.
Besides amino spiking, another thing to watch out for is the order of ingredients listed in the protein powder. The ingredients of any product are listed in order of the most used (by weight) to the least used. So, the first ingredient is going to be the primary ingredient in the product and will likely be what most of the product is made from. So, if the first ingredient in your protein powder is something like maltodextrin (which is just a cheap sugar), then that protein powder contains a lot of maltodextrin and probably not a lot of protein. Or if the protein powder claims to have some amazing proprietary blend but it's listed 5th or 6th in the ingredient list, then there's probably a very small amount of that blend in the container and you're getting nearly nothing in each serving.
I know that there has been a lot of info in this article. To summarize things, you don't have to use protein powder in order to gain muscle or lose fat. You can achieve the same results with whole foods. However, many people prefer to supplement their diet with protein powder for the convenience factor and in order to make sure that they meet their daily protein requirements. If you do choose to supplement with protein powders, I recommend whey protein after your workouts and casein protein during the day and before bed. Not all protein powders are created equal. There are some scams that you should be aware of to ensure that you are purchasing the highest quality protein and getting the most bang for your buck.
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