Protein powder is a powdered form of protein that comes from plants, eggs or milk

Basics about protein powders that you should know

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Amid news of Indian protein supplements being mislabelled, nutritionists help us decode the basics

Sunil M, an architect from Bengaluru, does strength training and kickboxing for three to four hours everyday. He fortifies himself for the strenuous workout by consuming protein powder – a practice he has been following for the last 14-15 years. “If you aren’t consuming enough macros naturally, protein powders are an easy way to achieve your targets,” he says noting that “muscle gain, good skin and good hair” have been a few benefits he has gained from protein powders. Today, like Sunil, a large number of people who regularly hit the gym or engage in some form of workout, rely on protein powders to meet their body’s protein requirements. This applies even more with vegetarians who fear that they may not be getting the essential macronutrient from their regular meals. 

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However, a new study published in the journal Medicine, found that a whopping 70% of the 36 protein supplements tested in India had inaccurate protein information. Not only did the brands contain only half the protein they advertised, 14 percent of the samples even consisted of fungal aflatoxins with 8% showing traces of pesticide residue. In this scenario, Lounge spoke to a few nutritionists to get answers to some of the most common questions about protein powders. 

What is protein powder?
“Protein powder is a powdered form of protein that comes from plants (soybeans, peas, rice, potatoes, or hemp), eggs, or milk (casein or whey protein). it may also include other ingredients such as added sugars, artificial flavouring, thickeners, vitamins, and minerals,” says Shruti Gupta, a BANT registered nutritional therapist in functional medicine from Bengaluru. 

What should one look for while buying protein powder?
According to Bengaluru-based Gauravi Vinay, an ACSM certified clinical nutritionist, the mistake most people make is not knowing what they are looking for. They end up getting a product that isn’t low in carbs and fat, she says. “If you are specifically looking for a protein powder, you want it to be mostly protein. A single serve, which is usually 30-40 gms of powder, must contain more than 20 gms of protein and less than 5 gms carbs and 5 gms fat,” explains Vinay. A powder that meets this criteria will ensure that you won’t get anything other than a protein supplement. “Some products may even be meal replacement shakes or mass gainers that are being marketed as a protein powder,” she adds. 

“In India, a majority of supplements available in the market are fake. People are tempted to buy cheaper brands without realising that they contain ingredients that can cause side-effects in the long run,” says Sunil, concurring with the report. While he rues that there isn’t any standard way to determine the quality protein powders in the market, his advice is to rely on experience and consultations with experts.” If you have friends in the fitness industry who can supply you with genuine protein powders, there’s nothing better,” he says. 

How much protein powder should one consume in a day? And when?
Protein is necessary for muscle repair and growth. For this reason, most people consume protein supplements in the form of shakes along with their workouts. Having a protein shake 15-60 minutes after workout helps the muscles absorb protein faster for recovery and building, says Thilaga B, health coach and founder of Be Fit with Nutrition Bites, an online nutrition clinic headquartered in Bengaluru.

It is not recommended to have more than 30-40 gms of protein powder a day. It is also crucial to increase water intake to ensure proper digestion and absorption of the protein powder. “It can be mixed with milk if you are looking to build muscle. To reduce calorie intake, mix it with water,” Thilaga says.  

A recent study led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, found that consuming over 22 percent of dietary calories from protein could increase the risk of atherosclerosis — a condition in which arteries harden due to the build-up of plaque. This is another reason why you ought to be careful of your overall protein/protein powder intake. 

Can women consume it?
“The protein requirement for women is around 48 grams per day. This can be fulfilled through whole foods like legumes, eggs and grains. For instance, a cup of brown rice has more than five grams of protein and a fist-sized broccoli has three grams of protein,” says Gupta. While she feels that protein powders may be helpful for women, they must be consumed only under the supervision of a nutritional therapist, especially for those with conditions like lactose intolerance. 

Do protein powders offer additional benefits? 
As much as supplement companies might market the advantages of their products, there is generally no advantage for choosing a supplement over food, says Vinay. “If you don’t prefer having protein powder, there is no reason to feel pressured to consume it,” she says. If your total protein intake is adequate and contains a variety of protein sources from food, you are good. “Protein powders may be extremely convenient but the added micronutrients that you get from protein-rich foods are extremely significant when compared to the ones you get from protein supplements unless they are fortified,” Vinay notes.

Deepa Natarajan Lobo is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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