Ask Eirik: Which Protein Supplement Should I Use?

supplements-proteinIt’s time for another edition of “Ask Eirik”, the series of blog posts dedicated to answering some of the questions I receive through e-mail. If you have any questions you’d like me to provide my two cents on, feel free to use the contact form. The questions I choose to answer here on the blog are those I feel deserve a lengthy reply and/or that revolve around topics I think a lot of people are interested in. I primarily choose to publish those that cover topics/problems I haven’t already written about, so before you shoot me an e-mail, take the time to use the search function in the sidebar.

In my recent article titled “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Use Whey Protein Supplements” I made the case that using whey protein supplements is a bad idea if you’re looking to achieve great health. Since then I’ve gotten quite a bit of questions – such as the one below which I received through e-mail a couple of days ago – regarding what protein supplements to use instead. Since this is clearly something a lot of people wonder about, I thought it was appropriate to put up a short post discussing this issue.

Hello,

Which protein supplement would you recommend for an after workout supplement?

Thank you.

Jaime.

Hi Jaime,

My short answer to your question is that I recommend that you stay away from protein supplements altogether.

If you haven’t done so already, I suggest that you read the recent blog post in which I discuss the adverse health effects of using whey protein supplements. Although the main focus of that post is on whey protein, many of the things I touch on also apply to other types of protein supplements, including plant-based products.

The reason I chose to focus on whey protein for that article isn’t that supplements that contain this collection of globular proteins are necessarily much worse than other protein supplements, but because whey protein is the main component of the most popular protein supplements that are on the market today. Furthermore, there’s a lot more scientific research on whey protein than on most other proteins that are commonly used in supplements.

In that article, besides discussing the general problems with whey protein supplementation, I also go into what the scientific literature tells us about protein supplementation pre- and post-workout. You may be surprised to learn that the scientific evidence doesn’t support the idea that consuming a post-workout protein shake enhances strength- and hypertrophy-related adaptations to strength training.

The most important thing is that you consume enough protein throughout the day (3-5 balanced, protein-rich meals/day is usually a good fit for strength trainees), not that you time your protein intake in or around your workouts. Actually, given what we know about the negative health effects of using protein supplements, I’ll argue that a post-workout protein shake may do you – including your recovery and athletic performance – more harm than good.

A lot of gym goers and athletes would benefit from including more high-quality protein in their diet. That being said, more isn’t necessarily better. You don’t need as much protein as many bodybuilders and “fitness experts” would have you believe. As I’ve pointed out in my posts on protein intake and strength training, if there are any benefits to going higher than approximately 1.8-2.0 g/protein/kg/day, they appear to be small (for most lifters).

What many articles and books in this area fail to mention is that the human body has its own mechanisms for regulating protein intake. Several studies have indicated that humans, as well as many other animal species, prioritize protein when regulating food intake. This idea is known as the protein-leverage hypothesis. For example, in studies where participants are divided into two groups and instructed to eat either a high-protein diet (e.g., 25% of total calories from protein) or low-protein diet (e.g., 10% of total calories from protein), the participants in the high protein group typically end up consuming fewer total calories. One of the proposed explanations for this difference in energy intake is that the participants in the low protein group take in more food because they’re striving to reach a targeted protein intake.

Rather than focusing on exactly how many grams of protein you’re taking in each day or timing your protein intake in and/or around your workouts, I recommend that you just listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry, and stick to real food. If you crave protein, consume protein. This may sound like an overly simplistic strategy, but when it comes to protein consumption, it’s usually a very effective one; as long as you eat a high-quality diet, are healthy, and know how to listen to the signals your body is sending you.

Being a former gym junkie, I know it can be difficult to get enough high-quality protein from real food, particularly if you have a busy life and hectic work schedule. That being said, it’s far from impossible; it just takes a bit more effort in terms of meal planning and preparation.

The bottom line is that my advice is to stay away from protein supplements and instead get all of your protein from real food. This doesn’t have to be a time-consuming effort. The key is to make larger batches of food and have some tuna, cooked eggs, nuts, boxes of food, etc. available for when you’re on-the-go.

I hope this helps!

– Eirik

Picture: Creative Commons picture by seklhan. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Hi Eric.
    I have a question that I would appreciate your input on.
    I want to get my fecal matter tested and also vitamin and mineral content of my blood.
    I subscribe to eating a diet that promotes good gut bacteria but I will only ever know if I am following the right diet once I get the right tests done.
    I am serious about my health but I need the right information .

    Thankyou for all the great information you put out there.
    Best regards
    Trayl

    • Hi trayl!

      I think your questions touch on something a lot of people wonder about, so instead of putting up answers here in the comment section I’ll most likely cover these topics in a future edition of “Ask Eirik”.

  2. Great advice!

    Have a question though. The presumption of “listening to the body” is that the body’s homeostatic ability is intact and functioning properly. However that is not always the case.

    If we’re eating ancestrally, how long would you reckon the body’s compositional homeostatic ability would continue to function optimally?

    It certainly would decline as we age as evidenced by older individuals’ propensity towards fat storage.

    Is there an age where it starts to decline sharply and are there modifying factors we could take control of to mitigate such a decline?

    Thanks!

    • You touch on something very important here, Sam.

      A lot of people these days eat a refined, processed diet, struggle with junk food and sugar cravings, and have a dysbiotic gut microbiota. Telling these individuals to “listen to their body” is certainly not very good advice. This is why I make it clear in the article that not everyone is able to use the signals their body is sending them as a guide for determining how much protein they should eat.

      As for your questions, it’s difficult to give you good answers, since there are so many factors involved and a lot of interindividual variation. I think increasing levels of chronic inflammation, which leads to reduced leptin and insulin sensitivity, among other things, can help explain why a lot of people gain weight as they get older. Among hunter-gatherers and healthy traditional people, overweight tends to be rare even among the elderly.

      The most important things you can do to achieve good health today are also the things that will help you arrive at healthy ageing. This includes adhering to a Paleo-inspired lifestyle, taking steps to lower inflammation, and enhancing microbiome diversity, among other things.

  3. Hi Eric.
    Great answer thankyou.
    What you say makes sense and I think relies on common sense and listening to our bodies.
    Ever since I introduced beans fermented food yogurt etc my sleep is deep and energy levels absolutely buzzing.

    Just when I thought good health was all about cutting carbs and increasing good
    fats I stumbled on your site and a whole new world of health has opened up.

    Thankyou for sharing your passion and expert knowledge.
    Best wishes
    Trayl

    • Thanks for the positive feedback trayl. I’m happy to hear my articles have proven useful.

      I’ll most likely cover your questions more thoroughly in a future post.

  4. I agree that ideally we would get our protein needs from foods and not use supplements. For myself, I cannot eat eggs for the time being (which used to be one of my main protein sources) and I do not really enjoy eating a lot of meat so I make a smoothie daily and include 1/2-1 scoop of high quality plant based protein powder. As a personal trainer, this is also handy since I can easily bring it with me to the gym and drink it between clients. And since I prepare almost all of the rest of the food I eat, using a protein powder is a compromise I am willing to make. I figure if that is the ‘worst’ thing I am consuming, I can be ok with that 🙂

    But I do agree that the idea that the general population needs to be using protein supplements has gotten a bit carried away – I cringe a little when I see people at the gym drinking their pre and post-workout shakes in between sets of bicep curls…

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