The power of powders: What’s in protein shakes & why troops say they’re worth the money

Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Steve Jawback drinks protein shakes and amino acid supplements to charge through his power workout and keep his 5-foot-9-inch frame fit at 11 percent body fat.

“Lt. D” at Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan downs three shakes each day, switching between Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Chocolate and BNRG Proto Whey Mocha Flavor instead of eating the fried, processed or sugary fare at the chow hall.

And Navy wife Amy Rodney, who underwent gastric bypass surgery 16 months ago, prefers Target’s Market Pantry Vanilla Protein Performance Shakes. According to Rodney, they are easy on her restricted stomach, packing a protein punch in liquid form.

Proteins are a required nutrient for cell generation and muscle repair. Made up of amino acids — some that only can be obtained by diet — everyone needs protein, from meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds or fruit.

But athletes — and troops with active, physical jobs — require more than the daily recommended allowance. While most nutritionists believe the average person can get the necessary amount of protein through diet alone, many service members, endurance athletes and weightlifters swear by the convenience and workout-bolstering benefits of protein supplements in powders and shakes.

“I prefer to get my protein from actual meat sources and not a powder, but for convenience reasons, I have a shake after a workout to refuel my body,” said Marine Sgt. Tyler Chittick of Boulder, Colo. “When I was with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, the work schedule and chow hall could hardly supply enough clean foods and good nutrition.”

Are they legit? 

Protein supplements contain one of four types of protein or a combination: whey, casein, soy or egg white. Whey and casein both come from milk, with whey considered “fast-acting” — made up of all 20 amino acids including three branch-chained amino acids that can be oxidized by muscles during exercise — and casein, absorbed by the body more slowly for building muscle and satiating hunger.

Soy often is favored by vegans and those with dairy allergies, with a slow absorption rate similar to casein and effective in muscle repair.

Egg white protein, popular with those who are lactose intolerant, is absorbed quickly and efficiently, with about 25 grams of protein in a single serving.

Which source you choose largely should depend on what you believe you need it for, said Navy Cmdr. Connie Scott, with the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center.

Scott said casein often is consumed after a workout or before bed for long-term muscle repair. Some athletes consume whey proteins and smoothies immediately after they work out, she said, feeding nutrients to their tired and worn muscles.

“My favorite post-workout treat is low-fat chocolate milk. Twenty percent of that has whey protein in it, it tastes good, and it’s cheaper,” she said.

The amount of protein a person needs also depends on weight and activity level. A sedentary person needs between 0.36 grams and 0.46 grams per pound per day; an endurance athlete, between 0.55 grams and 0.64 grams per pound; and a strength athlete, 0.5 grams to 0.8 grams per pound.

Jawback, a 208-pound weightlifter, needs roughly 104 to 166 grams of protein a day — the equivalent of three six-ounce chicken breasts, three New York strip steaks or 17 eggs.

His favorite protein powder, Dymatize Elite XT Rich Chocolate, contains 21 grams of protein per serving and 129 calories, roughly the same amount as a chicken breast, but with 5 milligrams of cholesterol instead of the chicken’s 24 mg.

“It gradually feeds your body,” Jawback said. “For a guy in his earlier 40s, I will tell you I’m a lot stronger than kids half my age.”

While most nutritionists believe that people — even elite athletes — can derive most of their nutrition from food, studies have shown that it’s a challenge to get all of the recommended allowances of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and stay within recommended calorie limits.

“While a perfect diet could provide all of your nutrition, people aren’t eating the perfect diet,” said Duffy MacKay, a naturopath and vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs with the industry trade group Council for Responsible Nutrition. “You have to be very conscientious, very focused on it, and therefore supplementation has its place.”

MacKay said potential protein supplement users should examine their diets and determine whether there are shortcomings. If you find yourself protein deficient, “a shake or powder is a great way to go.”

“You need to be looking at the mess hall for the items you can trust [such as] a hard-boiled egg, an over-easy egg, or some beans to put on a salad,” MacKay said.

“If you want to add 20 grams of protein via a shake or powder — I’m a cyclist, I’m active — sometimes getting up in the morning and making a smoothie is the easiest thing to do for breakfast. A couple of scoops of whey protein, some yogurt, bananas and away I go,” he said.

The warnings

Given the vast selection, shopping for a protein powder can be a challenge.

The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center tells sailors and Marines to look for products by manufacturers that have met third-party verification programs such as validation from U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International and Informed Choice.

Even then, consumers should be aware of disparities among supplements and hidden ingredients. A 2010 Consumer Reports study tested 15 powders and found that every product had at least one sample that contained a heavy metal — either arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury — or a combination.

MacKay cautions against rushing to judge supplements for their heavy metal content or contaminants.

“What’s not talked about in our overall nutrition arena is if you look at the milk you drink, the fish you eat, the lettuce you eat, there are always trace amounts of metals. They are in our environment,” MacKay said.

While protein is an essential building block for cells and tissue, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing, Scott and MacKay said.

Excess protein is excreted in urine, and too much can put a strain on kidneys. Consuming protein powders or shakes in large amounts also can have side effects such as bloating and gas.

“These are things you probably don’t want when you are out exercising, or out in public,” Scott said.

Patricia Kime is the health reporter for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

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Your favorite shakes

In an informal survey of readers’ favorite protein boosters, several brands had more than a few fans. The top three powders were:

1. Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard “It might cost between $30 to $100 month, but it is worth it to put something healthy into your body than the same nasty DFAC food,” a forward-deployed Army lieutenant wrote OFFduty.

2. Dymatize Nutrition Elite XT Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Steve Jawback says he likes the multiple protein sources in this powder — both egg and milk. “It’s slow release, so it gradually feeds your body,” he said.

3. Advocare Muscle Gain Protein Shake Sold by independent distributors such as Marine wife Anastasia Rogers, Muscle Gain is popular for its taste as well as its 25 grams of “easily digestible protein.” “It’s tested, safe and super yummy,” Rogers said.