Get the "Scoop" on Protein Supplements
Updated: Mar 26, 2019
Get the Scoop on Protein Powders
Protein powders are very popular among health-conscious people as they can provide high-quality protein in a concentrated and convenient form. There are numerous types of protein powders made from a wide variety of sources. So many options can make it difficult to determine which one will provide the best results for you. Although not everyone needs protein supplementation, protein powders can help if you perform high-level athletic training or cannot meet your protein needs with food alone. It’s best to choose a protein powder based on your dietary preferences, food tolerances and health and fitness goals.
Protein is a macronutrient found in many foods such as meats, dairy products, nuts, and beans, just to name a few. Proteins are comprised of amino acids, the building blocks of lean body tissue that promote strong muscles, as well as healthy skin, hair, bones, connective tissue and fingernails.
Protein powders are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods. While most health experts agree that your nutritional needs should be met through consumption of whole foods sources, protein supplementation can be convenient in getting those aminos on-the-go. Protein powders are commonly classified as:
Protein concentrates: Produced by extracting protein from whole food using heat and acid or enzymes. These typically supply 60–80% protein, with the remaining 20–40% composed of fat and carbs.
Protein isolates: An additional filtering process removes more fat and carbs, further concentrating the protein. Protein isolate powders contain about 90–95% protein.
Protein hydrolysates: Produced by further heating with acid or enzymes — which breaks the bonds between amino acids — hydrolysates (aka peptides) have a higher bioavailability than concentrates and isolates.
Complete vs incomplete protein: Amino acids that cannot be produced by the body are known essential amino acids. "Complete proteins" contain all nine essential amino acids, whereas "incomplete proteins" contain some, but not all, or significant amounts of the essential amino acids.
Protein powders come from a variety of sources and are available in several formulations. Here is a look at the most common protein powders currently on the market.
1. Whey Protein: is a by-product in the process of turning milk into cheese. Whey is a complete protein that is quickly absorbed by the body and is rich in leucine which plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery after resistance and endurance exercise, making it an excellent post workout supplement when your body craves nutrients to replenish and rebuild. Because whey protein comes from milk, it contains lactose, a milk sugar that many people have difficulty digesting.
2. Casein Protein: is another dairy protein, but is digested and processed much more slowly than whey. Casein slows down stomach empyting and delays your bloodstream’s absorption of amino acids, resulting in a gradual, steadier release of amino acids to your muscles, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown. Because casein is slowly absorbed, it is not regarded ideal as a post-workout supplement. Since casein, like whey, is a by-product of milk, it can cause digestive issues in many people who are sensitive or intolerant to lactose. Casein is a complete protein.
3. Collagen Protein: is a type of protein that our body produces naturally. Collagen has a high concentration of three amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) that are lacking in plant and animal proteins and muscle meat proteins. Our body’s natural collagen production decreases as we age. By consuming collagen, we are getting the amino acids our body needs to properly build collagen, which is the fibrous protein that provides the strength and structure to our body (keeps our skin firm, hair and nails strong, and our bones and joints healthy), and also supports digestive function and immunity and brain health. Collagen powder is made from bones, skin and cartilage of animals and fish, and contains eight of the nine essential amino acids, therefore it is not considered a complete protein.
4. Egg Protein: egg protein powders are typically made from egg whites rather than whole eggs. It is second only to whey as the highest source of leucine, the branch-chain amino acid that plays the largest role in muscle health. Egg protein is one of the most expensive protein supplements. Allergies to eggs are common, but egg protein can be a good choice for people with dairy allergies who prefer a supplement based on animal protein assuming they have no allergies to eggs themselves. Egg protein is a complete protein.
5. Soy Protein: is one of the few plant protein sources that offer all of the essential amino acids. The protein is concentrated or isolated after the soy beans have been hulled and dried into soy flour. Soy powder is commonly used in inexpensive protein powders, and many foods are already full of soy due to it being an extremely low-cost protein as it is most often genetically modified to produce higher crop yields. Also, recent research has shown that soy can have adverse effects on hormone levels.
6. Pea Protein: comes from the yellow split pea, and is a popular choice for vegetarians, vegans, or people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs. Like dairy protein, it is rich in branch-chain amino acids and is absorbed by the body slower than whey but faster than casein. Though isolated pea protein is often considered complete because it can contain the spectrum of essential amino acids, it is deficient in certain amino acids and should not be used as a primary source of dietary protein.
7. Rice Protein: protein powders from brown rice have been around for some time, but they are generally considered inferior to whey protein for building muscle. Brown rice protein is considered a good source of complex carbohydrates, vitamin B, and fiber. It’s also hypoallergenic, meaning it’s easily digestible and therefore almost entirely used by the body, not relieved as waste. Although rice protein contains all of the essential amino acids, it is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein.
8. Hemp Protein: is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity. It is vegan friendly and extremely hypoallergenic. Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only contains trace amounts of the psychoactive component THC. Hemp is rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine.
9. Mixed Plant Proteins: Some protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide your body with all the essential amino acids. Two or more of the following proteins are usually combined: brown rice, pea, hemp, alfalfa, chia seeds, flax seeds, artichoke, quinoa. Due in part to their high fiber content, plant proteins tend to digest slower than animal proteins. Although this may not pose a problem for many people, it can limit the bioavailability needed immediately after a difficult workout.
How much protein should you be getting?
Optimal dietary protein intake is a topic of some dispute among health and medical experts, but it’s generally agreed that a certain amount of diet should be allocated to protein to provide for daily metabolic needs while preserving lean muscle mass. The Primal philosophy and many medical experts advocate consuming 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of lean body mass per day on average—a moderately active person might require 0.7 grams per pound, while a highly active person might require 1 gram per pound. Bodyweight, sex, age, activity, and stress levels influence these needs—you need to be aware that a pattern of excessive protein intake can cause significant metabolic damage. Also, spreading out your intake throughout the day is recommended because your body isn’t able to absorb more than 30 grams at a time.
Protein powders are supplements that are best used together with a healthy diet of nutrient-dense whole foods. As you can see, nutritional benefits of protein supps vary between protein types. Whey and casein protein are great for building muscle. Collagen or a plant-based protein powder may be better if you’re looking to simply maintain health or if you have food sensitivities/allergies; and not to be overlooked, only collagen contains high amounts of the amino acids that support joint and bone health. Pea protein has been a popular choice among those who prefer a plant-based protein powder due to its high content of branch-chain amino acids for muscle building. Advertising and labels can be confusing when determining what product to buy—try testing various sources and quantities of protein powders to help determine what mix works best for you; and look for protein powders with the least number of ingredients on the label to avoid ingesting fillers and other anti-nutrients that are commonly found in many supplements.
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