The protein shake industry is booming but you’re wasting your money

When it comes to the world of sports nutrition, business is booming with a global market expected to reach $3.1 billion by 2013. Sports drinks play a big part in the industry’s success, none more so than protein drinks.

Men, women and now it seems, teenagers seem hooked on the stuff. All presumably buying in to the well-marketed view that they miraculously stimulate muscle growth in a Popeye-slugging-back-the-spinach kind of way. I was astonished, concerned and a little annoyed, when my 16-year-old nephew told me that boys regularly keep them in school lockers, guzzling them back at lunch time instead of a normal meal, in the hope that they will emerge with rippling six-packs and bulging biceps.

Whether you’re a school-boy or well-heeled city-boy (they are predominantly bought by young, sporty men), and whether you’re buying them to slurp back after a session in the gym or supplement meals, you are almost undoubtedly wasting your money.

I’ve said this over and again to would-be Schwarzeneggers and women hoping to emulate the pop star Madonna’s excessive muscle definition. But I seem to be speaking in a vacuum. Once somebody buys into these products, often on the advice of a fitness instructor, it is infuriatingly hard to change their minds, even if you present them with the science to back it up.

So, if you won’t listen to me, how about hearing it from people who spend their lives focusing on the metabolic responses of muscles to exercise and nutrition?

Dr Oliver Witard and Professor Kevin Tipton of the School of Sports Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland study just that and in the latest edition of NHD, the UK magazine of the British Dietetic Association they make things pretty clear.

As they elegantly argue, it is not necessary to ingest very large amounts of protein during strength training. Muscle size and strength can be increased on a relatively low protein intake of between 1.2 and 1.6g per kilogram of body weight.

To give these numbers a sense of perspective, this means a 70kg man (approximately 11-stone) would need between 84g and 112g of protein a day.

It’s really not hard to notch up 122g of protein in a day. Two Weetabix with milk and a banana for breakfast, a cereal bar and a latte mid-morning, a tuna salad sandwich and fromage frais and an apple for lunch, a small bag of peanuts and a cup of tea mid-afternoon and a spaghetti Bolognese and apple crumble and custard for dinner, would do it easily.

And not only would this satisfy his protein needs, it would also provide around 2500 calories, the average energy needs for a man this size as well as many of the vitamins and minerals he requires each day.

A larger man, eating more to maintain his weight, would by default increase his protein intakes through larger servings of each of the meals mentioned.

Having explained the above to protein-shake junkies they often try to trump me with, ‘what you don’t understand is that you have to eat protein within an hour of training, otherwise protein doesn’t build muscle. That’s why I need my shakes.’

Not true either say our Stirling University experts. There is no known ‘best time’ in relation to exercise and ingesting nutrients to encourage the greatest muscle gains.

Which leads me to the conclusion that ultimately, athletes and us ordinary folk who are just doing our best to get and stay fit should most of all be encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet with calories and protein to match our daily needs.

If you eat enough calories, this should fully and easily support the increased protein needs of training.

Consuming very large amounts of protein will not necessarily maximise muscle growth and replacing protein foods (like eggs, meat, fish, tofu, Quorn and pulses for example), with protein supplements will not lead to better muscle-building results, whatever the packaging tells you.

The good news is that high intakes of protein should not do sporty people any harm, although it’s worth saying that if you supplement meals with shakes you may be missing out on important things like carbohydrates, which give your muscles the energy to work out in the first place. You may also skip meals and therefore not be getting the optimum level of other nutrients or enjoying mealtimes.

So here’s a final thought if you’re still not convinced. With the money you spend on protein shakes you could take up a new sports class once a week, which is the one thing that actually might help you to build muscles where you want them and keep you healthy for the future, something protein shakes can’t and shouldn’t promise.