“Protein is king.” – Dr. Spencer Nadolsky
It’s no secret that protein is essential for recreational and competitive athletes’ performance and recovery. It is central to building and maintaining muscle tissue, supporting skin, nails, bones, regulating mood, and healing cuts and bruises. Protein supplements are also some of the first that people in my client pool ask about when looking for aid in their fitness journey. Recently, our friends at Precision Nutrition published a comprehensive article on How to Choose a Protein Powder. For those who want to dig really deep, check it out. For those who want a brief rundown, here are three considerations when selecting a protein supplement.
Why supplement with protein?
According to the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), the minimum protein required to avoid deficiency is about 0.8g/kg of body weight each day. That equates to approximately 56g/day for the average sedentary male and 46g/day for the average sedentary female. Most sedentary people who eat the proverbial “average western diet” are not deficient in protein. However, there is a difference between minimal intake and optimal protein intake.
Optimal protein intake is highly dependent on the individual, their body type, and their daily activity levels. A common practice by bodybuilders is to try to eat 1g of protein/1lb of body weight each day. This is usually a decent starting point for most people, but I recommend checking out this calculator from Precision Nutrition for a more personalized starting point.
Going with the above starting point of 1g of protein/1lb of body weight, as a 200lb(ish) man, I need to aim for about 200g of protein per day. This is a doable number, but it’s way more than my minimal needs, according to the DRI. Whole foods are the best protein sources, but that’s a lot of chicken breasts (or thighs), steaks, and fish fillets to eat per day. If only there was some solution to getting in that final serving of protein to fit my optimal needs (melodramatic, distressed voice). Enter: the protein supplement.
Protein Point #1: Amino Acid Profile
All protein, whether plant or animal-based, is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the interlocking blocks that can be designed for different purposes and processes in the body. There are 20 different amino acids, and they can be broken down into three categories:
- Essential (EAAs): Our bodies cannot produce these, so we must get them from food. EAAs are central to building and repairing tissue, hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.
- Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): A sub-category for EAAs, BCAAs, like leucine, are particularly important for stimulating muscle growth and repair.
- Conditionally Essential: The body can produce these on its own, but not always. If it is stressed through illness or extreme exercise activity, production will be paused.
- Non-Essential: The body can produce these on its own.
The category with which we are most concerned is the amount of EAAs within a given protein. Most animal-based protein sources are “complete” proteins because they contain adequate levels of all nine EAAs. Some plant-based sources are “incomplete” because they are missing or do not have adequate levels of one or more EAAs. This is why it is common for plant-based protein supplements to be sold as blends of two or more different complementary types, like rice and pea proteins.
Protein supplements with the best EAA content are whey protein isolate, micellar casein, egg white protein, soy concentrate, and rice/pea protein blends, which are very close to whey in EAA content.
Protein Point #2: Quality
Protein supplement quality has everything to do with not only its source but how it was processed. Whether plant or animal-based, the same three core processing methods are used: concentration, isolation, and hydrolyzation.
Here’s a quick look at each type:
- Concentrates: Protein is extracted from the source through high heat and acids/enzymes. Concentrates are the least processed varieties and yield about 70-80% of protein by weight. The rest is leftover fat, carbs, etc. Concentrates tend to be the cheapest option.
- Isolates: These sources go through extra processing, which further isolates the protein, yielding about 90% protein by weight. Isolates tend to digest faster, due to the lack of extra carbs and fats associated with the protein. Isolates tend to be a little more expensive than concentrates.
- Hydrolysates: Proteins in this range get processed even more to create a shorter peptide. The idea is that this shorter protein-peptide will be digested even faster, so it is immediately available to repair muscle tissue. Hydrosolates are most commonly marketed to those looking to pack on muscle, and of the three is definitely the most expensive. Also, hydrolyzation can make the protein more bitter, so these supplements are usually packed with more sweeteners to mask the taste.
Depending on one’s monthly budget, concentrates and isolates are likely your move. Isolates, in particular, assuming your chosen source is available as an isolate, generally offer a good balance in cost vs. quality. They are nearly devoid of extra carbs and fats, so extra calories aren’t much of a concern. They can also be found at much more reasonable prices compared to hydrolysates.
Protein Point #3: Animal vs. Plant
One of the biggest factors in choosing your supplement will be deciding whether to go with a plant or animal-based supplement. Both options are great and each source will vary in quality, due to the above two points, the source of the protein, and the integrity of the manufacturer.
Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular options for both animal and plant protein supplements:
- Whey Protein: Whey protein is the king of protein supplements. It comes as a concentrate, an isolate, and a hydrosolate. It’s the easiest to digest and is great for a post-workout or meal replacement shake during the day. It is derived from milk, so it might not be an option for those who want/need to avoid dairy.
- Casein: Casein, like whey, is derived from milk. However, it is digested much more slowly than whey, so those looking to build muscle like to ingest it before bed to keep a supply of amino acids flowing while they sleep. Here’s an interesting article by Helen Kolias, PhD that compares both whey and casein. Essentially, one is just as good as the other, it just depends on your intent with supplementation.
- Non-Dairy: Non-dairy options include egg white protein, beef, and collagen. Egg white protein is great for those who have an aversion to dairy products since the amino acid profile is complete. The downside to egg is that it is a common allergen. Beef protein powder is gaining some popularity and is nearly as effective as whey protein, but it is pretty expensive. Collagen powder has gone from being a supplement for skin and hair to being promoted as a protein supplement. More research is needed to determine whether it is actually effective as a protein supplement, but it’s worth noting that both beef and collagen proteins contain an incomplete amino acid profile.
- Soy: Although it gets a bad rap in many nutrition circles, soy is easy to obtain, easy to digest, and complete protein. It has shown similar results to whey protein in protein synthesis and muscle-building and doesn’t seem to actually negatively affect men’s testosterone, like most of us are led to believe. However, it is a common allergen, so keep that in mind.
- Hemp: Hemp protein has gained popularity in recent years. Not only is it high in protein, but it’s also high in omega-3s and fiber. However, it is low in the EAA, lysine, so it’s an incomplete protein. It also tends to be pretty expensive.
- Pea and Rice: These are being lumped together because they are very common, they’re relatively inexpensive, and when blended together, make a complete protein that is very similar in effect to whey. For most people, they are easily digestible.
Likely, the biggest factor in your decision on whether to plant or animal-based will be determined by your nutritional lifestyle. It’s also important to consider possible allergens when choosing a protein supplement.
Protein is a necessary component of all recreational and competitive fitness endeavors. The best sources of protein come from whole foods because they are minimally processed and contain all of the good nutrients that come along with high-quality protein, like fats, carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, it can be difficult to ingest hundreds of grams of protein per day because protein is very satiating, meaning that it keeps you feeling fuller and satisfied longer after eating it. This is when a protein supplement can really help. Supplements are also really convenient for the time when you need something quick, or there aren’t any good options around.
One of my favorite resources when researching protein and other supplements is Labdoor.com. They’re a great resource to see how different companies’ supplements stack-up, in terms of purity of ingredients. I hope you found this helpful. Thanks for reading and please share your favorite protein supplement in the comments. We hope this helps you reach your Ready State!