Naturopath Reece Carter explores the good, the bad and the ugly of protein powders.
Not much divides the naturopathic camp quite like the words ‘protein powder’. While some will sing its healthful praises, others – whole food purists, if you will – claim that they are totally unnecessary if dietary intake is adequate, and that they can even be harmful. Both sides of the camp are right to some extent, but as usual the truth lies somewhere in the grey zone.
Let’s start by revisiting nutrition 101. Protein plays plenty of roles in the body beyond just building big biceps. If we pull our attentions away from the gym floor and take a better look at this vital macronutrient, we’ll realise that it is essential for skin and connective tissue integrity, forms the backbone of many of our ‘happy hormone’ neurotransmitters, and balances the troublesome insulin swings that, when left unchecked, contribute to diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Protein can, in fact, help us lose weight as much as it can help build mass!
For me personally, a whey protein isolate is a sure-fire way to curb my food cravings when my normally healthy diet has taken a hit – like after Christmas or a birthday, for example. And if I’m hitting the gym hard, then blitzing it with a banana, whole oats and some almond milk delivers just the right amount of glucose to put my body in anabolic mode, promoting growth and repair.
I imagine by now that there are a few sceptics reading this. There’s been a bit of a revolt against protein lately, especially those made from animal sources. “Broccoli contains more protein than beef anyway!” I hear someone scream at me through their computer screen, having read it on a meme somewhere once. This figure, along with many others bouncing about the internet, are sadly misleading in that they compare the two foods by calorie. If those memes were written in grams – a more useful measure – it would read that 1.2kg broccoli has more protein than one single 250g steak. Now hands up now who eats one-point-two kilos (or around thirteen cups) of broccoli in a single sitting?
The truth is that plant foods are decidedly lower in protein than animal-based ones. If you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet, it takes serious discipline to keep your protein up – huge kudos to you if you’re managing it. For the most part though, those who don’t eat meat tend to be protein-deficient, so why not supplement in the same way you might with your B12, your herbs, or your flower essences? There’s no shame in adding a good quality protein powder to the diet, and you’ll likely see your health improve with it. The same goes for those of us who are highly active and need a boost of aminos for repair.
Notice how I said ‘good quality’? That means it’s time to toss the overpriced, sickly-sweet cookies and cream flavour away (does it ever really taste like cookies and cream anyway?) and choose pure whey protein isolate instead. If you’re vegan, then a brown rice and pea blend gives you the best spectrum of amino acids. Skip the flashy looking tubs that sit in fitness stores, which are usually spiked with maltodextrin that will send your insulin soaring, and probably bloat you along the way. My personal favourite is Bare Blends, which has its home up in beautiful Byron Bay. But if you want my hot tip for ordering affordable, raw protein powders, check out Bulk Nutrients based out of Tassie.
If you’re finding that you still have tummy troubles on a pure protein powder, but are consuming it within normal amounts (about one gram per kilogram of body weight daily, in case you were wondering) then the blame likely doesn’t actually fall on the protein at all. Low stomach acid and digestive insufficiency will leave undigested protein to ferment and cause havoc in the gut. So turn to bitter herbs like gentian to help get you back on track, ready to utilise the bounty of healing amino acids in the powder.
To really appreciate protein powders, we need to let go of the meathead marketing and the misinformed memes that come along with them. When used to correct a deficiency – or as a boost when our bodies need extra – protein powder is a winner. Like everything we put in our bodies though, keep it clean, and use it in moderation.
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