We get asked about protein supplements all the time in the Sleekgeek Health Revolution Facebook Group, so I’ve put together this guide to explain things from our perspective here at Sleekgeek.
I hope that you find it helpful in cutting through all the hype and marketing that typically surrounds protein supplements so that you can get down to the real-world benefits and everyday use.
Feel free to jump right to the bottom for our specific brand recommendations – but please do read on for full context and insight.
A quick word on responsibility and doing your research: One of the best things you can do when it comes to supplements of any kind is to look them up on Examine.com.
They are a great resource for independent and unbiased information on supplementation and nutrition to help you cut through all of the hyped-up marketing and commercial interest out there so that you can focus on what really works and avoid wasting your money.
At Sleekgeek, we frequently refer to Examine.com’s Supplement Stack Guides (this is a paid product though) for concise and easy-to-follow information on which supplements are the most effective for common health and wellness issues.
First, what is a protein supplement?
A protein supplement (also commonly referred to as a protein shake, protein drink, or protein powder) is a dietary supplement that contains a high amount of protein.
It usually comes in a powdered form, ready to be mixed with water, milk, dairy-free alternatives, and so on to create a protein shake.
But, it can also be added to things like oats (yum!) or used to make high-protein meals like protein pancakes, protein muffins, protein ice cream, protein bars, protein yoghurt, and so on.
These can be fun ways to supplement real food with an extra kick of protein! I’ll see if I can put some recipes together for you sometime, but in the meantime, ProteinPow is an excellent source of protein supplement-based baking and cooking recipes.
Protein supplements can come from a variety of different food sources such as egg, milk (whey, casein), rice, hemp, pea, soy, beef, etc, and in some cases may be a blend of several different types.
Some protein supplements can be fortified with ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre, or additional carbohydrates and fats.
Furthermore, most protein supplements also have added sweeteners, flavourants, colourants, thickeners, and so on added to improve their taste, appearance, and texture.
Are protein supplements useful?
Before you read further, I want to make it clear that protein supplements are absolutely not necessary or compulsory to lose weight, gain muscle or be healthy. Anyone that tells you otherwise is likely just trying to make money off of you.
Consuming a protein shake or protein supplement will not magically make the weight fall off, add 10kgs of muscle, or make you super duper healthy overnight.
In fact, getting your protein from whole food sources (see our list of 40+ healthy protein-dense foods) is likely to be more beneficial and protein supplements should be seen as exactly that – a supplement – to an existing healthy diet.
However, there are many great reasons why one might choose to use a protein supplement:
- Increased Protein Intake: Without adequate protein intake our bodies can’t function well at all, so protein supplements are useful if you are struggling to get enough protein from whole foods throughout the day. The minimum recommended protein intake is around 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day, but ideally should be closer to 1-2g of protein per kg of body weight per day.
- Convenience: Protein supplements also offer a large amount of convenience, portability, versatility, and a generally enjoyable taste which may encourage people to use protein supplements even if whole food protein intake is not a huge difficulty. That is OK, especially since sustainability and enjoyment of a nutrition plan are key for long-term success.
- Weight Loss: While many people associate protein supplements with bodybuilding and sports, they can actually be extremely helpful for weight loss and healthy weight maintenance too. Protein supplements can be a very effective way to lose or maintain weight by offering a convenient and low-calorie option that makes it easier to stay on track with your nutrition while helping you keep your calorie intake appropriate and in balance.
In fact, eating enough protein with every meal is actually a core nutritional habit in our Sleekgeek Coaching Program because it helps you automatically make healthier choices, keeps you fuller and more satisfied for longer, and helps you to retain valuable lean muscle mass while losing weight.
Both Elan and I (Eric) choose to use protein supplements here at Sleekgeek for all of the reasons I listed above.
What do we look for in a protein supplement?
At Sleekgeek we prefer to look for protein supplements that are high in protein but low in calories, low in carbs, and low in fats.
- Most people struggle to consume enough good-quality protein or they find that if their meal does not contain enough protein then they don’t feel as full and satisfied afterwards. So, a protein supplement that is actually high in protein (20+ grams of protein per serving) is the first thing that we look for.
- Next, most people struggle with overeating calories. This makes weight maintenance and weight loss more difficult. Therefore, a protein shake that is low in calories is the second thing that I look for. If a protein shake is mostly pure protein (without added carbs and fats), then naturally, it’s calorie count should be fairly low (there are 4 calories per gram of protein). Although, if one is wanting to put on weight then one can look for a protein shake that is higher in calories where it contains additional ingredients to bulk it up – or you can simply double up on your serving size.
- Finally, most people find it almost too easy to overeat on carb-dense and fat-dense foods as these tend to be extremely palatable, easy to eat, cheap, and available in abundance. Therefore, I think that it’s rather counter-productive to supplement with a protein supplement that has more than a couple of grams of carbs or fats in it. Ideally, I look for a protein supplement that is low in carbs and fats, although again, if you are trying to put on weight then you will likely want to look for the opposite.
What about Meal Replacements?
Meal replacements (and mass gainers) are typically protein supplements that have additional carbohydrates and fats added to the product in order to bulk up the calorie content and provide a more “nutritionally balanced” supplement.
The problem with most meal replacements is that they are usually filled with cheap high-sugar and unhealthy fat filler ingredients. Definitely not the optimal choices for a healthy diet.
However, if you ARE wanting an actual meal replacement, which I do from time to time too, then I’ve got some great alternative options for you:
1) Make a homemade version:
There is no reason why you cannot take your chosen low-calorie, low-carb and low-fat protein supplement and add in some healthier carb-dense and fat-dense foods to blend up into a delicious protein smoothie.
For example, two versions that I like are:
- Strawberry flavoured protein powder + mixed berries + rolled oats + walnuts.
- Chocolate flavoured protein powder + spinach + banana + peanut butter.
Using the Sleekgeek Healthy Meal Template (such as shown above) you can come up with hundreds of different protein + veg/carb + fat variations to create a healthy, whole food-based meal replacement.
This provides a much healthier alternative to more commercial options that use cheap and unhealthy filler ingredients.
You can even blend some veggies into your smoothie, like spinach or lettuce or cucumber and it won’t alter the taste much at all. Adding spinach to your chocolate whey protein may seem really weird, but if it’s blended in properly you will hardly notice it, I promise.
2) Eat the ingredients separately:
Alternatively, instead of needing a blender to make a meal replacement or mass gainer, you can absolutely eat additional ingredients separately too.
For example, you can grab a piece of fruit like an apple and a small handful of nuts or some avocado and a carrot or two to eat alongside your regular protein supplement.
In fact, this is probably an even better choice for making a smoothie as you can usually eat more substantial and fibrous foods that wouldn’t usually blend well in a smoothie. Stomach content and eating foods with high volume can play a big role in making you feel full and satisfied after a meal.
What about added ingredients?
At Sleekgeek we are big on getting people to eat whole, minimally processed foods over more processed food-products with lots of added and artificial ingredients.
However, protein supplements are perhaps the one exception that we do make to this preference.
Unfortunately, most protein supplements on the market will contain a fair number of added ingredients to improve their palatability and appeal. This is quite fair, as unflavoured protein supplements taste terrible and most people choose protein supplements for their convenience and portability, making time-consuming homemade flavouring and sweetening out of the question.
If you absolutely do wish to avoid all artificial ingredients, then an unflavoured protein supplement is still a viable option.
You can add your own natural flavourings and sweeteners with things like cocoa powder, vanilla extra, fruit, honey, peanut butter, and so on. Keep in mind that most natural sweeteners like fruit or honey will likely bump up the sugar and calorie content, while something like peanut butter can pack a punch in calories. Still, this is definitely worth experimenting with as the extra effort and a bit of experimentation can produce some great personalised flavours and give you a bit of extra nutrition.
Elan and I personally don’t worry too much about the added flavourings and sweeteners in our protein supplements.
Why? Because we feel that the benefit of a tasty protein supplement to get the extra and convenient protein in outweighs the side effects of a small amount of artificial ingredients in our otherwise extremely minimally processed and whole food diets.
This is a personal choice and we like to focus more on the overall big picture.
When should you take a protein supplement?
Very specific nutrient timing (such as the “anabolic window” after a workout and whether or not you should eat first thing in the morning / late at night / every 2 hours) has received a lot of hype in the past, but the latest research shows that it doesn’t really matter all that much as long as you are getting a decent amount of protein throughout the day.
So to answer this question, unless you are an elite athlete or competitive bodybuilder, I wouldn’t waste too much time and energy worrying about it.
I do personally like to drink a protein shake before a hard workout if I haven’t eaten recently as it gives me a bit more fuel for the workout while being rapidly digested, but it’s a luxury and absolutely not necessary.
My primary criteria for when I have a protein supplement is when I need something that is quick and convenient. So typically a snack while I’m on the go, as part of a super fast breakfast in the morning, or just a little something to supplement any meal that is lacking in protein.
What type of protein supplement?
As mentioned in the beginning, there are different types of protein powders out there.
I won’t dive into the individual details of each type of protein powder out there as Authority Nutrition has done a great job at outlining the pros and cons of each for you in their article The 7 Best Types of Protein Powder.
A quick summary of their article yields the following information:
- Whey protein is quickly digested, providing a rapid rise in amino acids that may help increase muscle mass and strength. It may also reduce appetite and promote fat loss.
- Casein protein is a slow-digesting dairy protein that may reduce muscle protein breakdown and promote muscle mass growth and fat loss during calorie restriction.
- Egg white protein contains high-quality protein that is easily digested and absorbed. A few studies have looked at its effects on muscle mass, weight loss and appetite.
- Pea protein has limited studies available but has been shown to promote fullness and increase muscle growth as effectively as animal-based protein sources.
- Hemp protein has a high omega-3 fatty acid content and seems to be easily digested by the body. However, it is low in the essential amino acids lysine and leucine.
- Brown rice protein has early research that suggests it may have beneficial effects on body composition. However, it is low in the essential amino acid lysine.
- Mixed plant protein contains a mixture of plant-based proteins such as brown rice, pea, hemp, alfalfa, chia, flax, artichoke, and quinoa. Adding enzymes to these plant protein mixtures has been shown to increase the digestion and absorption of their proteins.
Casein tends to be thicker and slower digesting. It’s typically favoured for at night before bed by many bodybuilders and athletes to give their muscles sustained nutrition throughout the night to use for recovery, however, most everyday people do not need to go to this length. Casein protein is also frequently chosen to make some kinds of “protein desserts” like a protein mousse or protein pudding due to its thickness.
Beef and egg-based protein supplements are natural choices if you follow the Paleo Diet, the Sleekgeek REBOOT, or similar, but it will come at a premium price.
If you are vegan/vegetarian then your best bet would be a mixed plant-based protein supplement that has a blend of multiple different plant-based sources so that you get a complete amino acid profile. The evidence on soy seems to be controversial, while hemp has some unique benefits such as higher fibre content and it’s unique omega-3 content (which can also be a negative in that it will be higher in calories).
Elan and I personally prefer a whey isolate protein supplement as not only does it usually meet our needs for being high in protein while also being low in calories, low in carbs, and low in fats, it’s also usually a decent choice over a whey concentrate or whey blend for those who don’t tolerate dairy very well.