The Newbie Guide to Protein

Pete Ross

Photo by Joseph Greve on Unsplash

So you’ve decided to go on a health kick. You’ve thrown out all your junk food, joined a gym, and now you’re wondering what other changes you might need to make. Since you’re exercising, you totally need to start drinking protein shakes, right? It’s a natural human trait, to start a new thing with enthusiasm, and rather than getting the basics right, you look at people who are years ahead of you and want to do what they’re doing. It seems intuitive, that if someone so much better than you is doing something, then you should just do it. It doesn’t really work that way though, especially in this case.

The reason I wanted to write about protein is that I see so much BS out there online — some of it from health professionals. See, if you’re a dietician who does only low intensity exercise, you’re looking at things like this from a purely academic perspective, which is why we see stupid advice like drinking chocolate milk instead of whey protein. On the other hand, you have people who will do something just because a fit person tells them to, regardless of whether it’s right or not. I’ve been using protein shakes for a long time now over a 20 year career in 3 different sports, so I feel like I can offer some pretty decent advice on the subject.

The first question you need to answer when it comes to this is…

Do I actually need a protein shake?

The thing about protein powder is that it’s a supplement to your diet. All it contains is protein — it’s not some kind of magic juice that is going to make your muscles blow up and turn you jacked in a few weeks (that kind of magic juice is called steroids). So before you run off to the supplement store to buy a tub of Muscle Milk, you need to calculate your protein requirements. If you’re a sedentary cubicle jockey, then you need one gram per kilo of bodyweight to maintain muscle mass. So if you’re 80 kilos, that means you need 80 grams of protein. Let’s say you join a gym and want to get jacked. Now your protein requirements are going to go up, because you’re damaging your muscle tissue during your workout, and you need to repair that damage. So depending on a few different factors, your requirements now go up to 1.5–2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight.

You’ve got to be honest with yourself as well regarding the activity you’re doing and the requirements around that:

  • Spin class? You don’t need much more protein than baseline. Maybe bump up to 1.25g per kilo bodyweight.
  • Bodybuilding, you need that 2g per kilo bodyweight amount of protein.
  • F45 or similar exercise regime? Same as a spin class above.
  • Powerlifting, strongman or crossfit? You’re pushing your body and muscles to the limit, so you need that whole 2x.
  • Running? Judging by how many serious runners I see that look like corpses, they could stand to eat more in general. Go for 1.25x.

With protein, it’s always better to go for a little more than you need. It’s not going to make you fat and will likely help you feel a lot better, so if you’re in doubt, bump your protein up and see what effect it has.

None of the above necessarily means that you need a protein shake — that all depends on how easy or difficult it is for you to fulfill those protein requirements. When you’re 90+ kilograms, it starts to get difficult and inconvenient to eat that much protein from whole foods. Make no mistake, getting your protein from a whole food source such as a piece of meat is far more preferable to a shake, because it has a heap of nutrients that a shake doesn’t. The two strongest men in the world, Hapfor Bjornssen and Brian Shaw both eschew protein shakes in favour of solid food, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good for you.

But most of us living in the real world have jobs and responsibilities, and that’s where the protein shake really comes into its own. You might get most of your protein requirements from breakfast, lunch and dinner, but need that extra dose mid afternoon to hit your number. Or you might be on the road a lot with work, or any number of situations where it’s just more convenience to down your protein quickly in liquid form. That’s what a protein shake is useful for. It’s also useful when you already have to eat a lot of meat, and you just want a simple, tasty way to top up the amount of protein you’re eating.

So what protein should I get?

Here is where the rubber meets the road, because there is a lot of snake oil out there in the supplements world, and most people get sucked in by it. Let’s look at the different types and see what’s good and what’s a waste of money.

WPI — Whey protein isolate. We start here at the best choice. That’s because this is pure protein. In every serve, you can expect 25–28g of protein, with maybe 3 grams of carbs and a gram or two of fat. It absorbs well and causes minimal gut issues (for people that usually have gut issues) because it’s just protein.

WPC — Whey protein concentrate. Still a good choice. It’s cheaper than WPI, because it’s gone through one less filtration and thus you have a little less protein and a bit more carbs and fat. You’re still looking at 20+ grams per serve of protein, so it’s definitely a good choice when pairing with milk because you’re going to get your 30 grams of protein in one hit.

Hydrolysed WPI — This stuff is expensive, because it’s WPI that’s gone through a further process to make it easier and faster to digest. Thing is, no one needs that. WPI gets absorbed very quickly, and for both body composition and performance you’re looking at total protein intake, not a BS “post workout window”. You’re just throwing money away on an unnecessary, worse tasting product. Steer clear of this one and save your $$.

Casein — A decent choice, but very different to whey. It’s slower absorbing, but again, we’re looking for total protein intake, not speed of digestion. This is what the super serious muscle heads drink before bed, so they’ve still got protein digesting as they sleep. Whey protein digests in under an hour, whereas casein takes 3–4 hours to digest. If you’re a newbie, we’re getting into the weeds a bit too much with this stuff. Start with whey, and if you’re still serious in 12 months, revisit the subject.

Soy— This stuff is junk. Sorry vegans, but it’s true. There’s a concept regarding nutrients called “bioavailability”, which is your body’s ability to get what it needs out of those nutrients. Look at where soy fits on that list. You’re paying a slightly cheaper price for protein that’s half as effective. Not a good choice, stay away. Any protein that’s marketed to women or that you find in the supermarket and is cheap is likely to contain this stuff. Read the labels carefully. This is just in regards to bioavailability. Soy is questionable for a whole host of reasons and something I’d stay away from.

Pea & Rice — There’s a reason I put these two together, rather than separately. When mixed, they make up a complete amino acid profile and boost bioavailability than in isolation of each other. Have either on their own, and you’re missing half the picture and wasting your time and money. If you’re vegan and absolutely don’t drink whey, then this is probably your best option to getting protein that’s decently bioavailable. The issue? It can be pretty damn expensive, but it seems that the price is starting to come down due to competition and greater demand for it.

Hemp — Sorry, don’t know enough about it, but from some of the reading I’ve done, it’s on the same level of soy with regards to bioavailability, although without many of the drawbacks.

The Vegan Question

I know the vegans are out there getting annoyed because I’ve pretty much written off non-animal based protein products. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s because they generally suck in comparison. There are no two ways about it, the best quality protein that your body can effectively use comes from animal based products. Don’t start with the “Arnold Schwarzenegger recommends people eat less meat or go vegetarian” stuff either. Arnold didn’t get to his size by eating vegetables, and all those jacked “vegan” bodybuilders out there? They got jacked before they went vegan, and they stay jacked with steroids.

Do I need grass fed whey?

No, you absolutely don’t. The whole point of eating grass fed meat is so you get a good omega 3:6 ratio in the fat, in addition to all the vitamins it contains. A protein shake is just protein, so you’re not getting any of that anyway. It’s a marketing gimmick meant to make it look more pure and better for you.

How do I choose a protein powder?

This is a lot more difficult than it seems, because it’s very easy to be scammed. I’ve been scammed twice — one was a relatively new company who said their prices were cheap because they were internet based without any overheads. Actually, it was cheap because it was plain old milk powder with flavouring. The second time was when I got wholesale New Zealand grass fed whey and took it to a lab to get tested — it had less than half the amino acids it claimed on the label. Being wholesale, they supplied to a lot of major brands. Buyer beware.

So how do you choose then? Here are my recommendations:

  • Stay away from any protein marketed to women — they assume you don’t know what you’re looking for, so they fill it with soy protein and other fillers.
  • Go for brands that have been around a long time. Brands that pop up can often be doing dodgy things (I found that out the hard way), and will disappear just as quickly as they appeared.
  • Don’t go for something really cheap. You’ll notice something when it comes to each kind of protein — there’s an average price that most of the brands hover around. If someone is offering a really cheap protein (that isn’t on sale) in comparison to the others, then beware. They may be trying to establish themselves and get repeat customers, sure, but there’s a good chance that you’re not getting the real deal.
  • Don’t go for anything/get sold on something other than what you want. Stay away from mass gainers, meal replacements etc. Just get pure WPI/WPC/Pea etc. You don’t want any other junk in there.

Two more things:

  • Don’t try and use whey to replace a proper meal. It’s not that filling and it’s not designed for that. Remember, it’s a supplement.
  • Don’t think you have to take it within 30 minutes of a workout. The research proved a long time ago that the “post workout window” was a bunch of BS.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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