Sports Nutrition and the use of protein supplements

Protein powders and sports supplements have a rapidly growing market with more and more people investing in them every day to aid their health and sports performance. Due to the increasingly competitive market, it can often be difficult to know whether you necessarily need protein supplements and what you should be buying.

Why do we need protein?

Protein is a key component to help our body function and is an essential part of body tissues including bones, blood, hormones, and muscle. Protein found in humans is made up of 20 different amino acids. 11 of these are created inside the body and the remaining 9 can only be sourced from our diets, as they cannot be made by the body. These are known as the essential amino acids (2).

Foods that contain all essential amino acids are called ‘complete proteins’ – generally being animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy produce (2). Though there are some sources of complete plant protein, including soya and quinoa.

Protein is important for exercise and training as it is needed to maintain your muscles and protect your body from damage (1).

Do I need protein powder?

With increasing exercise and training, there becomes an increase in protein needs. Sports athletes are encouraged to consume daily protein amounts greater than the amounts recommended for the general population (1). The current consensus of evidence from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that sports athletes should aim for 1.2-2.0g of protein per kg of body weight a day. Those participating in intensified training or have energy restrictions should aim for the higher end of the recommendations (7). 

Many people can meet their body protein requirements through the consumption of a healthy and balanced diet (1). This is because most of the UK population has been found to have a protein intake that is in excess of their requirements whilst consuming their ordinary varied diet (5). The highest protein consumption in the UK comes from meat and meat products and milk and milk products (5). Therefore, the consumption of protein powders or other protein supplements may not be a requirement for every individual to achieve their increased performance needs (4).

Daily protein intake goals should be met with a meal plan that can provide regular times of moderate amounts of high-quality protein across the day and following training sessions. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that meal plans should be planned periodically to allow adaptation to specific training sessions and sports competitions (7). Some people may benefit from using protein powders to help them increase their protein intake as it is a quick and easy way to adapt your diet (4). Athletes with restricted energy intake may require the use of protein supplements for dietary manipulation to help them achieve their protein requirements with minimal effect on their energy restriction (1,7).

Protein supplements are commonly available as shakes, bars and capsules and are often taken before, during or after exercise/training. Further research is required to provide new recommendations on protein supplements and how they can be used to optimise sports nutrition.

Different forms of protein powder

  • Whey protein powder: A combination of milk proteins that are produced as a by-product in the cheese-making process.
  • Casein protein powder: From cow’s milk and is naturally found in milk and cheese products which is digested and absorbed slower than whey.
  • Vega protein powder: Usually made from either soy, pea, hemp or rice protein. Soy, pea and hemp protein are complete proteins

Different forms of whey and casein powder:

Isolates: Produced by an additional filtering process that removes some fat and carbohydrate to further concentrate the protein. Contains 90-95% protein.

Concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat, acid, or enzymes. Contains 60-80% protein.

Hydrolysates: Produced when acid or enzyme structures are heated to break bonds between amino acids. Hydrolysates are absorbed more quickly by your body and muscles.

What are BCAA’s and are they needed?

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of 3 essential amino acids that play an anabolic role in protein synthesis (1). BCAA’s are found abundantly in protein rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs, poultry and dairy, as well as whey and vegan protein supplements.

Studies into liver cirrhosis have found that BCAA’s can reduce the breakdown of protein and increase muscle mass. This can help improve liver health by improving nutritional status to aid in survival.

Studies have also shown that consuming drinks that contain BCAAs after their resistance workout can have a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, this can lead to an increase in muscle growth (3).

BCAA’s have also been found to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle fatigue following sports exercise (6).

Many people are able to get in plenty of BCAA’s naturally through their diet without the need of supplementation. Therefore, extra BCAA supplementation is unlikely to be of any benefit.

Summary

Protein is an essential macronutrient needed for bodily functions and protein requirements become escalated with increasing exercise and sports training demands. Daily protein intake goals should be met with a meal plan that can provide regular times of moderate amounts of high-quality protein across the day and following training sessions.

Sports dietitians can interpret scientific evidence, regarding sports nutrition, and translate it into personal, tailored advice to help you on your health and well-being journey. Get in touch for a consultation with one of our Registered Dietitians if you would like personalised advice on your protein intake and your sports nutrition.

By Elsie Cole, Dietetic student, revised by Reema Patel, Registered Dietitian at Dietitian Fit & Co

References:

  • Gandy, J. (2019) Manual of Dietetic Practice. 6th edn. The British Dietetic Association: West Sussex
  • (3) Geissler, C., and Powers, H. (2017) Human Nutrition. 13th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Jackman, S.R., Witard, O.C., Philp, A., Wallis, G.A., Baar, K., and Tipton, K.D. (2017) ‘Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulated Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Human’. Frontiers in physiology [online] 8 (390). Available from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28638350/> [07 June 22022]
  • Kerksick, C.M., Willborn, C.D., Roberts, M.D., Smith-Ryan, A., Kleiner, S.M., Jäger, R., Collins, R., Cooke, M., Davis, J.N., Galvan, E., Greenwoods, M., Lowrey, L.M., Wildman, R., Antonio, J., and Kreider, R.B. (2018) ‘ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations’. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition [online] 15 (38) available from <htps://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y> [07 June 2022]
  • Public Health England (PHE) (2020) NDNS: results from years 9 to 11 (2016 to 2017 and 2018 to 2019). Results from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme for 2016 to 2017 and 2018 to 2019 for food consumption, nutrient intakes and nutritional status [online] available from <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-9-to-11-2016-to-2017-and-2018-to-2019> [07 June 2022]
  • Shimomura, Y., Inaguma, A., Watanabe, S., Yamamoto, Y., Muramatsu, Y., Bajotta, G., Sato, J., Shimomura, N., Kobayashi, H., Mawatari, K. (2010) ‘Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness’. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism [online] 20 (3), 236-244. Available from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20601741/> [07 June 2022]
  • Thomas, D.T., Erdman, K.A., and Burke, L.M. (2016) ‘Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the America College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance’. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [online] 116 (3), 501-528. Available from <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.205.12.006> [07 June 2022]

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