Some readers may be familiar with the unmistakable sweet and chalky, but not altogether unpleasant taste that comes from protein powder. Whether it’s mixed in with yogurt, shaken up with a smoothie or mixed into soups or oats, there is a distinctive taste that comes from giving your food that extra powdery protein boost.
I find I go through phases of supplementing my protein intake. When I’m training for a particular event or working on my strength training I try to ramp up my protein consumption, be it through food stuffs or supplements.
That said, despite that fact that the marathon is the biggest event I’ve ever trained for, I have to admit that I’ve been slightly less vigilant about taking protein shakes than I might have been. When I moved house I ran out of protein powder and it’s taken a couple of weeks to get myself back to Planet Organic to re-stock.
However, with my long runs now hitting 20 miles and the taper on the horizon, I’m focusing on keeping my body strong and in shape and ensuring my muscles are repairing themselves ready and raring for race day, so protein powder is back on the menu.
Much is written about protein supplementing; often it is given a bad name or regarded as the preserve of bodybuilding gym-bunnies, so let’s go back to the basics:
Protein is an essential nutrient responsible for a number of activities in the body. It is a component of every cell; hair and nails are mostly made of protein and it is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. It is crucial for the regulation and maintenance of the body playing a part in blood clotting, fluid balance, hormone and enzyme production and cell repair.
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a ‘macronutrient’, meaning that the body needs relatively large amounts of it. But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body doesn’t store protein and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply.
There is much debate as to the ideal amount of protein to consume each day, and this does of course vary person to person.
As a general rule, when out of training you should be looking to consume 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight. This will increase when you are doing endurance or resistance training. For optimal recovery during endurance training you should aim for 1.2 to 1.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Training hard will leave your muscles with a deficit of the building blocks they need to recover and if you fail to take on sufficient protein when training your body may break down muscle to use as fuel, which is counter productive when the objective of running is to build and maintain lean muscle mass.
Endurance training with the correct amount of protein will simply facilitate faster recovery and allow you to train harder on workout days by repairing and growing lean muscle mass.
Protein, in and of itself, doesn’t increase muscle mass and there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the use of protein shakes.
People often confuse the actions of protein supplementing with steroids and ‘mass gainers’ – perhaps not altogether unreasonably given the big promises that drive the products’ marketing campaigns. But unlike steroids protein shakes have no direct influence on your hormones, and unlike ‘mass gainers’, which are used as an aid to bulking up, they don’t include large amounts of simple carbohydrates. Rather, protein shakes deliver amino acids to muscle cells, helping them to recover after strenuous workouts.
Like all supplements, protein is best used as part of your overall health and fitness regime: training consistently and at the correct levels, adequate rest periods and a nutritional programme suited to your exercise and fitness goals.
Protein powders are just a food supplement, not a catch-all panacea; don’t expect instant results as soon as you take your first sip of protein shake! While these are a great source of protein they aren’t going to do anything for you that food wouldn’t.
As a vegan, I use protein powders simply out of convenience. Protein shakes are a helpful, convenient solution when your are busy and trying to fit your training sessions and refuelling around work and other priorities. I’m under no illusion that they are a magic wand that will turn my body into a temple overnight (sadly).
I tend to use Sun Warrior and Arbonne proteins which use a mix of pea, rice and help proteins. I’ve also used just hemp protein, from Good Hemp, but this is better with yogurt as it tends to separate out from shakes.
While I’m happy to use protein powders as required, there are also plenty of protein-rich vegan friendly foods round that you can stock up on, here are some of my favourites:
Most grains contain a small amount of protein, but quinoa (technically a seed) is unique in that it contains more than 8g per cup, including all nine essential amino acids that the body needs for growth and repair, but cannot produce on its own.
Nuts are my absolute diet downfall but the good news is that they contain both healthy fats and protein, making them a valuable part of a plant-based diet. But because they are high in calories they have to be enjoyed in moderation, but almonds, cashews, and pistachios all contain 160 calories and 5 or 6g of protein per ounce. Nut butters are also a good way to get protein, just stick to the ones with no added salt and sugar.
Black, white, pinto, heirloom, butter – yum! Beans are a great way to add bulk and texture to most dishes and are also super high in protein. Two cups of kidney beans, for example, contain about 26g.
Hummus and falafel on a chickpea salad? These delicious legumes contain 7.3g of protein in just half a cup and are also high in fibre and low in calories, just keep an eye on how much olive oil is going into your hummus!
Boiled and sprinkled with salt and chilli flakes these tasty little treats contains 8.4g of protein per half cup.
Green leafy veg
Always surprising, but two cups of raw spinach contains 2.1g of protein, and one cup of chopped broccoli contains 8.1g.
Chia seeds are the new popular seedy kids on the block and offer 4.7g in about two tablespoons. However they are expensive so don’t discount the more familiar seeds on offer. Sunflower seed kernels, for example contain the most protein, around 7.3g per quarter cup, followed by sesame seeds and poppy seeds at 5.4g.