Episode 51 - What's the best protein powder for triathletes?

What's the best protein powder for triathletes?

Not all protein powders are created equal. But which one is the best for endurance athletes? 

As a Dietitian, I definitely have a food-first philosophy. It is incredibly easy to get enough protein from your diet without the need to supplement. But there are some situations where a protein powder MAY be useful for certain athletes. 

If you’re thinking about using protein powder, the three questions you need to ask yourself are:

  1. Why am I using this?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Is it necessary?

It’s all too easy to get caught up in clever marketing and the popular opinion that supplements are needed for optimal performance! Once you’ve answered these questions, the next step is choosing the best protein powder for you. 

In a very saturated market, what should you look for when buying a protein powder?


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Episode Transcription

Episode 51: What's the best protein powder for triathletes? 


Taryn Richardson  00:00

Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. The show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition! Let's get into it.


Taryn Richardson  00:44

Hello and welcome to this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. We are celebrating a pretty big milestone next week. It marks our 52nd episode. So, one year of podcasting. And I've asked my good friend Stef Hanson, the former chief of Witsup to flip the mic around and interview me on my own podcast. So, we're really going to take you behind the scenes of what it's been like podcasting over the last year and 52 episodes. And what I've learned and where we're going - all my plans for where I want to take this podcast in the next year and beyond. So, definitely tune in to that next week. I actually can't believe we're almost at 52 episodes. It is insane. Keeping up with a weekly drop of an episode, I cannot tell you how much work it is. It seems really simple and easy when you listen to podcasts. But there is a lot of hours and work that goes in behind the scenes to get this thing in your ear every single week.

Taryn Richardson  01:46

In today's episode, I wanted to talk to you about protein powder. I've had a lot of people mention protein powder to me lately, as if it's like the best thing in the world. And they seem really proud that they're using it. And a few questions around what is the best one to use and why. So, I'm going to tackle that for you on the podcast. I'll dive into what I look for and I'll try not to offend supplement companies in the process.

Taryn Richardson  02:16

You know I'm going to say this - but the first thing that I want to mention is that I have a very food first philosophy. It is extremely easy to get enough protein from food without needing to supplement with a protein powder. And as a supplement, that's exactly what it is. It should be a supplement to a balanced diet - in addition to. It shouldn't be used to replace things. We get plenty of protein from the food that we eat. We get protein from all of our meat - so red meat, chicken, fish. We also get protein from all of our dairy products - so milk, cheese, yogurt, custard (sort of).

Taryn Richardson  03:00

You also get protein from eggs, and our vegetarian sources like tofu, tempeh, all of the legumes, nuts, and seeds. All of those are great food options that provide plenty of protein and will meet your needs on a day-to-day basis. Even if you're following a vegetarian or strict vegan diet, you can get enough protein from food. Now, there are a few situations where I might strategically use a protein powder, but only if you can't get it through real food first.

Taryn Richardson  03:31

So, you might want to think about it as a convenience option sometimes, not something that's going to feature every single day. If you're a triathlete and you're busy and you're rushing and you're always on the run, trying to get from one training session to work, trying to get from training to bed in the evenings, then, sometimes it can be useful as a convenience option.

Taryn Richardson  03:55

I will use it strategically also around a strength session where we're trying to maximally stimulate our muscle protein synthesis goals. So, building new muscle and building strength in that muscle. So, I will strategically use it there with some people. I will also sometimes use it to make your recovery meal tick all of the right boxes for you. Now, usually, if you're at home, that's really easy with food food. We don't need a protein powder there. But we might need to use it if you're in a location where food's not feasible or it's not easy or you're traveling or you're at a race or things like that. So, we can use it to our advantage in some situations there.

Taryn Richardson  04:37

I will also sometimes use it with athletes to bump up the protein of a meal that might not necessarily meet someone's target. So, a couple of examples there might be a porridge and you're not looking at doing high protein yoghurt either with it or on the side or you're not having milk in a coffee on the side. So, we'll sometimes use it there. I might also sometimes add it to a smoothie if you're using expensive water - I mean almond milk - as the base.

Taryn Richardson  05:10

But a protein supplement is purely just protein. And I want you to keep that in the back of your mind. When we talk about having things like dairy, which are a good protein source, like a high protein yoghurt, like Chobani, yes, it's providing protein but it's also providing a huge range of other nutrients that you don't get from taking a powder. So, that yoghurt's also going to give you some carbohydrate. It's going to give you some fat. It's also going to give you some calcium and other micronutrients that we need in our diet that you aren't going to get from just a protein powder alone. So keep that in the back of your mind. There's a whole heap of other food chemicals and things in food that we don't get from taking a supplement.

Taryn Richardson  05:57

So, if you can use food first, my preference is to always do that, because there are so many more nutrients that you'll get that's going to help you have a healthier diet overall because you're getting a whole range of other things as well. So, if you are using a protein powder already, or you need to start using one for a particular reason, hey, I'm not saying go out today and buy one if you're not already using one. But if there are some gaps that you need to fill where it could be useful, I'm going to talk you through some of the things that I look for when it comes to protein powder from a dietitian perspective, so that I know what my athletes are taking and what you're putting in your body.

Taryn Richardson  06:40

So, the first thing that I always check on any supplement is if it's third party batch tested. So, something that's Informed Sport or HASTA tested. Now, these are independent companies that will test batches of a particular supplement for banned substances. Now, it doesn't guarantee that there's nothing in there that shouldn't be. But it's an extra layer of confidence that an independent company has batch tested that product - so each round of, say, protein powder - they make a batch and you can see the batch number on a label - that's the printed stamped number that varies every time. They will test one product out of that batch line and scan it for wider prohibited substances. Now, that is something that you should be looking for - for any sort of supplement, pill or potion that you take.

Taryn Richardson  07:34

As an age group athlete, you may get drug tested. The elites have to be really mindful of this because they get drug tested all the time. But as an age grouper, you run the risk that you will get drug tested at some point in your career. But to be honest, I don't want to put something in my body that I don't know is what's in it. I want to be sure that what's written on the label is actually what's inside the product. Now, Australia has a much tighter regulated food industry. If you're in the US, it's a little bit more loose. And I would be even more mindful of supplements in the US because the controls are not as tight as they are here down under. So that's the first thing I would look for.

Taryn Richardson  08:19

The second thing you want to have a look for, is to make sure it contains enough protein per serve. The number of protein powders I've seen that don't even contain anywhere near what you need in a hit is pretty insane. So, what you're looking for is something that contains somewhere between 20 to 30 grams of protein per serve. So, that might be a scoop or two scoops, or half a scoop for some of them as well. So, don't be afraid to adjust the size of your scoop, whether you're doing a half or one or one and a half, to make sure that if you're using that supplement for a particular reason, it's ticking the right boxes.

Taryn Richardson  09:01

More doesn't equal better though with protein. When it comes to protein, our needs are like a cup and we want to fill our cup regularly across the day. If we underfill it that's not ideal. And if we overfill it, things kind of spill out over the edges and become a bit of a waste. So, we don't want to do that either. We know that 20 to 30 grams of protein in a hit is like that sweet spot where we are maximally stimulating muscle protein synthesis. More protein doesn't mean more muscle protein synthesis. We will oxidise it for energy. So, we'll burn it for calories. And the rest we break it down and pee out because we don't have a storage facility for protein in our body. We store fat as fat (unfortunately) and we store carbohydrate as glycogen in our liver and our muscles, but we don't have a storage facility for protein anywhere. So, we would take what we need and then get rid of the rest. So, we kind of make expensive pee if we're really overdoing it with protein. So, another reason why we don't necessarily need to supplement, because we may be overdoing it if we're using a concentrated form like that.

Taryn Richardson  10:07

The third thing I look for when it comes to a protein powder is what type of protein is it? And is it of high biological value? Not all protein sources are created equal. A high biological value means two things. It has all of the nine essential amino acids that our body can't make and we need to get them from our diet. And that ratio of those amino acids is similar to what is needed by our body as well. So, they're typically whey proteins, or any sort of milk based protein powder, and can include egg as well. Both of those sources, because they're animal sources, contain those nine essential amino acids that we need to rely on from the food that we eat.

Taryn Richardson  10:53

Now, if you follow a vegan diet, or a vegetarian and don't have dairy sources, then you can get plant based sources of protein powder. You can get soy as an example. But they are often missing those essential amino acids that we're looking for, and are potentially also in a different ratio to what's required by the body. So, it's a lower biological value. If you can have animal sources, then you can complement that. Say, soy protein with a lactose free milk based cow's milk, if you're lactose intolerant to get that full range of amino acids. But chances are, if you're using a vegan protein powder, like soy, or pea or rice protein, then you probably don't want to have it with cow's milk products anyway, so you might need to look at getting those essential amino acids from somewhere else and having more of it as well. So, you would only use one of those plant based sources of protein powders, if you were vegan, or you had some form of milk protein intolerance.

Taryn Richardson  11:59

If you're lactose intolerant, you should be able to tolerate a whey protein isolate - that one's been filtered down so much that it's purely protein and it doesn't have a lot of carbohydrate in it. And when it comes to that whey or milk, the carbohydrate is lactose. So you should tolerate a whey protein isolate. But something to test out if you are lactarded like me, go to something like a half a scoop first before you go the full hog and then suffer for that later.

Taryn Richardson  12:29

The fourth thing that you should look for when it comes to protein powder is what other random ingredients are in there? What can you see if you have a look at the ingredient list? You should be able to see whatever type of protein source it is. And then what else is in there? Sometimes there's random things like stimulants, thickeners, gums, anticaking agents, weird numbers. There's typically always a sweetener. Because, I don't know if you've ever had straight whey protein isolate - it doesn't taste very nice. So, they are generally all sweetened.

Taryn Richardson  13:04

But again, what type of sweetener is it? If you care about that, then you might want to have a look at the type of sweetener and opt for a non-nutritive sweetener and one that's more natural like stevia. So, it doesn't taste like death but it's not a weird chemical shitstorm either. If you see on a label "proprietary blend" - avoid, avoid, avoid! On anything, not just protein powder. If the company isn't open and honest about what is in it, then I would get out of there - real fast. It makes me not trust them.

Taryn Richardson  13:38

So, have a look at the ingredients if you do have a protein powder. See what's in it. See what the sweetener source is. And the goal here would be 'less is more.' If you're thinking about using a protein powder, there are three questions I want you to ask yourself first. Why am I using this? Like, is there a specific reason or a strategy behind it? Or you're just taking it because the marketing got you - the bro science? Or you feel like you should? Or you think it's healthy? Ask yourself why. And then ask yourself, is that product safe? Has it been third party batch tested by a company like Informed Sport or HASTA? If it hasn't, I'd question it a little bit. And then the third question is, "Is it actually necessary? Can I get what I need at that time from food?" There are plenty of ways to get it from our diet that meet our requirements without having to supplement.

Taryn Richardson  14:39

It's really easy to get caught up in clever marketing. And this bro science popular opinion that protein powders and protein supplements are needed for performance. You don't need protein powder to be a better athlete or to recover faster. You just need to make sure you're ticking off your recovery boxes that are specific to you. And you can easily do that with food. Like I said in the beginning, there may be a few strategic opportunities that I'll use a protein powder. But typically I get people to have food food because there are so many more nutrients in that food item that will never be provided by a supplement or protein powder. Now, I do have a couple of discount codes for protein supplies that I want to share with you.

Taryn Richardson  15:26

Now, upfront I get absolutely nothing for telling you about this. I will never be sponsored or be an ambassador for a supplement company. It's completely against my ethics. So, these are just discount codes that I'm happy to pass on to you that I've asked for from the company because I think they're a good product. So, I'll leave them in the show notes for you. But the first one is VPA. That's a protein powder company in Australia and they do a really good whey protein isolate - that's cost effective and minimal ingredients.

Taryn Richardson  15:58

The other one is Pro4mance, which is another Australian company and they do more of a recovery powder mix which could be useful too, for some people. So, you can use code TNA to get 10% off in the checkout for Pro4mance. They also do some really good gels and sports drink, which I like too (side note).

Taryn Richardson  16:19

So, take home message, do you really need protein powder in your life? And if you do, use some of those steps for what I look for to make sure that the one that you have is right for you and it's providing what you need it to. If you want to talk me through your protein powder or your protein qualms, come and join me for Coffee and Questions. It's coming up again soon. It's on the first Thursday of the month inside the Dietitian Approved Crew Facebook group.

Taryn Richardson  16:46

So, come and bring your protein powder labels there if you want me to check it out and we can troubleshoot it together. I'll pop the link in the show notes for you, too to join that group. But jump on to Facebook. Search for Dietitian Approved Crew and I go live on the first Thursday of every month at 8:30 am Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) - so, Brisbane time - for 30 minutes. It was a lot of fun last month. So, I would love to see you there. I hope that's helped cut through a little bit of the noise when it comes to protein powders. I will see you next week for our one year celebration episode.

Taryn Richardson  17:24

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out to if you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash in the fourth leg - nutrition!


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