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Maneuvering the world of protein supplements

Proteins are necessary for the proper functioning of muscles, tissues and organs. They create the building blocks for a variety of enzymes and hormones that play an important role in maintaining normal functioning. This includes, but is not limited to, managing appetite and maintaining muscle mass.

So really it is no secret that protein is an important macronutrient for both men and women. Yet, for some reason protein talk is almost always centered around men. The protein supplement industry in particular is all but dominated by men, making it a daunting task for women to choose a protein supplement that is right for them.

Is a Protein Supplement Necessary?

Protein is abundant in both animal products such as red meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs, as well as plant-based products such as nuts, seeds, tofu and legumes. And protein supplements are exactly that; a supplement, therefore they should not be considered necessary unless the patient is consuming an inadequate amount through their usual diet. The recommended daily intake (RDI) is set at 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, and for most it is easy to achieve through normal dietary intake.

Although it is best to encourage patients to meet protein requirements through the consumption of whole real foods, protein powders can be a convenient option to boost protein intake for some demographics of women.

Who Might Benefit from a Protein Supplement?


Research has consistently demonstrated that including a source of protein with meals contributes to greater feelings of satiety when compared to both carbohydrate-rich foods and foods high in fat.2 Protein consumption can trigger a hormonal response, which includes a reduction in ghrelin production, a hormone that promotes feelings of hunger, as well as increases in plasma PYY and GLP-1, which are appetite suppressors.

The benefits of high protein have been translated into weight management research, with a 2012 meta-analysis demonstrating that elevated intakes, specifically between 1.07–1.60g per kg of body weight, led to greater body weight reductions when compared to a standard protein diet. These results were consistent in both situations where caloric intake was controlled as well as situations where caloric intake was ad libitum.4As such, protein supplements could be considered for women who are interested in options that may assist them during their weight management journey.


While the current RDI is sufficient to meet the dietary protein needs of healthy adults, studies have demonstrated it is inadequate for highly active demographics.5 According to internationally recognised organisations, the protein requirement for physically active women is more likely between 1.2–2.0 g/kg/d.

In these demographics women may often struggle to consume adequate amounts of protein through whole foods, whether that is due to suppressed appetite, limited time postexercise or other personal issues. In these situations, the use of a protein supplement may be a practical option.


Certain pathophysiological conditions such as physical injury, burns, COPD, HIV/AIDS, cancer and sepsis can cause an overall metabolic response that results in a loss in lean body mass.7 These outcomes are amplified by these patients experiencing higher energy requirements simultaneously with lower energy expenditure and nutritional intake.

Similarly, the aging population typically experience a loss in lean mass due to a dramatic decrease in food intake. Compared with younger adults, on average older adults eat slower, are less hungry, consume smaller meals, and have lower energy intakes.

For these demographics of women muscle wasting is likely and it has been suggested that greater dietary protein intakes may be warranted, making protein supplements a reasonable option to consider.

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Things to Consider when Recommending a Protein Supplement

While encouraging patients to speak with an Accredited Practising Dietitian, and perhaps more specifically an Accredited Sports Dietitian, can be of immense help to establish whether the use of a protein supplement is necessary, there are some general recommendations health professionals can provide.


Perhaps the most important thing patients should understand is that protein supplements are not regulated in the same way as pharmaceuticals and many have been shown to contain elevated levels of heavy metals including lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and BPA.10 Although there is yet to be peer-reviewed scientific evidence to prove that the detected levels present a health risk, patients should still be steered towards products that have been third-party tested for quality, accuracy and purity. Women competing in competitions should take this a step further and choose a supplement that has been tested for banned substances.

Other than overall safety, it is best to recommend protein powders with fewer ingredients and limited added sugars and artificial sweeteners.


Bovine milk protein is made up of 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein, which are the two most widely recognised animal-based protein supplements. Whey protein describes the watery portion of milk while casein accounts for the remaining portion, with whey absorbed rapidly and casein absorbed at a slower rate.

Animal based protein tends to be more beneficial for lean mass than plant-based proteins. Therefore, it can be recommended for women who have an interest in manipulating their lean mass. Due to its slow absorption, casein can be recommended to take before long periods of not eating, such as before bed but overall whey protein is typically the most appropriate protein supplement to recommend. It comes in 3 forms; concentrates, isolates and hydrolysates.

Concentrates are typically 70-80% protein by weight, with small amounts of lactose and fat. In general, they are the most affordable option.12 Concentrates can be recommended for women who are unintentionally losing weight or lean mass.

Isolates are usually 90% protein by weight, they are further processed to have negligible amounts of lactose and fat. Isolates may be more tolerable for lactose intolerant patients and can also be recommended to women seeking weight management options and highly active women who are seeking muscle growth.

Hydrolysates are derivatives of concentrates or isolates, containing shorter peptides that are intended to be more rapidly absorbed. Due to their specialised design, these supplements are typically the most expensive yet research has been conflicting on their efficacy.


Plant based protein powders are derived from plant sources including rice, hemp, soy, quinoa and pea. Since many plant-based proteins contain incomplete amino acid profiles, many supplements on the market will contain a mixture of several sources in order to create a complete protein source. Yet this isn’t entirely necessary. While it was previously believed that consuming complete proteins at each meal was essential, recent research has determined that a variety of proteins throughout the day is sufficient.

Therefore, as long as the remainder of their diet is diverse, plant-based protein supplements are an excellent recommendation for vegan and vegetarian patients as well as patients with dairy allergies. Plant-protein also tends to be less calorie-dense than animal sources and therefore can be a good recommendation to women seeking weight management options.


Supplements will often be marketed as providing leucine, which is an aminoacid naturally high in foods such as the whey protein portion of milk and red meat.13 It has been well established that leucine is necessary in promoting muscle protein synthesis and therefore patients seeking muscle hypertrophy should be advised to choose a supplement that contains ~2-3g of leucine per serving.

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