If you have ever set foot in a health store, a gym or read a magazine (particularly one aimed at women) you will have noticed that the diet and fitness industries constantly promote all sorts of 'magic' pills and potions that promise to help you lose weight, burn fat, gain muscle, get stronger, be happier, be more attractive, turn into a sparkly unicorn with magical powers - well maybe not the last one, but you get the idea. Each of these advertisements and the supplements they market target people's insecurities about their bodies and suck them into believing that if they buy these pills and potions they will obtain the body they have always wanted and their life will then be perfect.
In a seemingly endless sea of supplements, there is one which is consistently promoted as being the key to muscle gain and weight/fat loss. That is protein powder. Body builders, bikini/fitness models and athletes all promote one brand or another and credit it with being the key to their physiques and to their success in their chosen field. But what about the average everyday fitness enthusiast - is protein powder really necessary, or is it an expensive bit of hocus pocus?
It is well documented that we need to consume an adequate amount of protein everyday for general health and that in order to build and maintain muscle having a sufficient daily protein intake is key (generally accepted guidelines are 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day for an average person and 1.4-2g of protein per kg of body weight per day for a person who exercises regularly). Most people (whether vegetarian or omnivore), if they are eating a varied and balanced diet, are able to meet their daily protein requirements through food alone without having to resort to using protein powder. On this basis, it is not necessary to include protein powder as part of your diet. However, with that being said, protein powder is an easy way to get some of your daily protein and is much more convenient than carrying around a cooked chicken breast (which contains about the same amount of protein as 1 scoop of protein powder). For this reason, I think that protein powder, while not absolutely necessary, is definitely a helpful tool in a busy fitness bunny's arsenal. It is also versatile, it can be drunk as a shake on its own or it can be mixed into all sorts of things (oats, yoghurt, smoothies, baking). I keep a tub of protein powder in my office drawer so that when I get to work after the gym in the mornings I can have a protein shake with my breakfast and know that my muscles are being adequately refuelled after my workout. This also helps keep me full until lunchtime as protein is satiating.
If you have never looked at using protein powder before, the large number of brands and types available can be quite baffling. Whey protein is generally the most common type but you can also get egg white, soy, casein, brown rice, and pea protein, to name a few. There are also protein powders aimed at men who want to gain "mass" and "size" and protein powders aimed at women who want to get "lean" and "toned". But don't be fooled by the marketing, in reality these are essentially the same product with different packaging and with maybe a few different ingredients or a slightly different ratio of protein : carbohydrates : fat. Personally, I switch between a whey protein powder and a brown rice one depending on what I feel like and I always go for the natural protein powders that have the least amount of ingredients (ones that I can actually understand what they are) and no artificial sweeteners.
If, like me, you decide to use protein powder to help you reach your daily protein requirements, from my perspective, there is one key thing that you should keep in mind - it is a convenient supplement to help you reach your required protein intake for the day but it is not magical. Simply taking protein powder will not cause you to instantly gain muscle or to slim down. Muscle gain or weight/fat loss (depending on your goals) are ultimately the result of a consistently good diet and regular exercise.
Think of your body as being like a cake (who doesn't love cake). The base layer of the cake is your diet - this is the most important factor and will have a large impact on how good the cake is overall, so it must have a good consistency, texture and taste. The icing on the cake is the exercise you do - this should complement the cake and be neither too thin nor too thick. Finally, the sprinkles on the top are supplements such as protein powder - these look nice and add that extra bit of oomph to the cake, but have no real impact on it as a whole. To have an amazing cake overall you need the cake itself, the icing and the sprinkles to work together. If the base layer of the cake is bad, it wont be saved by the icing or the sprinkles no matter how good they are. Essentially, you cannot out exercise or out supplement a bad diet.
To sum up - protein powder is not necessary for most people if they eat a balanced diet, but it is a convenient way to refuel your muscles after a workout and ensure you are reaching your required protein intake for the day. It is not a fix-all and will be of no benefit to you and your body (and a huge waste of money) if your diet is not consistently good and you do not exercise regularly. Whether you choose to use protein powder or not is entirely up to you and your personal preferences and goals. I recommend always doing your research on the kind you are buying (look up any ingredients if you are unsure of what they are) and don't get sucked into the shiny, exciting advertising that goes alongside it - no matter how much you want it to, protein powder (or any supplement for that matter), will not turn you into a sparkly unicorn with magical powers.
Love, health and happiness,