If you’re an avid gym goer (or even if you’re not), it’s likely that, at some point, you have heard an earful about protein supplements. Western civilization is notorious for supplementing diet with what is quick and easy, and there are countless companies that hone in on this idea – and mean to capitalize on it.
So, with all the choices we have available to us, what the heck do we pick? What’s good? What’s not-so-good? Do we even need to supplement our diets with protein? Below is a quick guide on the basics of protein supplementation and how it pertains to you.
Protein – who needs it?
Well, we ALL need protein! Protein is an extremely important player in the ecosystem that is our body. Protein helps maintain and repair our body’s muscle and organ tissues. Our hair, skin – almost everything in our bodies are made up of this macronutrient. Not only does protein contribute to the structural integrity of our makeup, it also helps build hormones and enzymes – all of which regulate important bodily processes.
How much do we need?
People who are looking to magnify the magical healing power of protein (i.e. the repair and recovery functions) are usually the same who are looking to use protein as a supplement in their diet. So, how much do we need? Is there ever a thing as too much?
The Institute of Medicine states,
That the average person needs .8 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Here in the States, that translates into .8g protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight.
They go on to say that, if you’re putting your body through more stress (e.g. heavy lifting, endurance training), that you may need 1.4g to 2g of protein per kg of body weight. This additional protein is needed to replenish the protein that may be used as fuel for the body during strenuous activity. Protein’s primary function is not to provide the body with energy, but it will do so if your body isn’t getting enough energy from carbohydrates and fat.
Where do we get it?
When we think of protein, we think of meat. And for good reason – meat provides an excellent source of protein! Animal products supply an easily digestible form of protein, which makes these sources the most popular. They’re also complete proteins.
Vegetable sources of protein (e.g. rice, wheat) can also be great sources of protein, however, they often lack all of the amino acids needed to make a complete protein. If you’re looking to get protein from only vegetarian sources, it’s wise to investigate which protein sources complement each other. For example, rice and beans, together, will make a complete protein source, as does a good ‘ol peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Types of protein supplements
We have many different types of protein supplement sources available to us. Shakes, bars, powders, pills – the list goes on. So, what type of protein supplement is best?
That depends on you. What are you trying to accomplish? What kind of a calorie budget are you working with? Are you a vegetarian? Vegan? Here’s the breakdown on protein sources.
Many consider whey protein the best source of protein. Whey protein is a liquid derived from the production of cheese. Whey is easily digestible, and absorbs faster than some other forms of protein.
One thing to watch with whey protein, however, is the side effects that may occur after digesting it. If you’re sensitive to lactose, you may experience bloating, gas, cramps, and headaches.
Whey protein commonly comes in two forms – whey isolate and whey concentrate.
Whey isolate is a purer form of protein than whey concentrate. Whey isolate also contains less lactose, which is good news for lactose intolerant people.
Whey concentrate is cheaper, but contains more fat and carbohydrates. In other words, it’s not as pure as whey isolate. Carbs and fats add calories that you don’t necessarily want. Whey concentrate is still a great source of protein – you just need to decide if you are okay with taking in some carbs and fats with that protein source.
Whey proteins are commonly associated with muscle synthesis, as opposed to the prevention of muscle breakdown.
Simply put, casein is milk protein. The molecular structure of casein is a little harder to crack, and the result is slower digestion and absorption of protein by the body. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Slower digestion is great for those who are looking to suppress their appetite.
If whey protein is a sprint, casein is a long-distance run. The same amount of work is put in (i.e. the same amount of protein), just at different rates. Casein works better to prevent muscle breakdown, as opposed to whey, which is known to build muscle. Ideally, it would be best to consume whey and casein simultaneously.
This type of protein is also very good for the lactose intolerant. It is an animal based protein, so it contains complete proteins, which also makes it an excellent source. Egg protein is quickly and thoroughly absorbed by the body, which makes it a gold standard for other protein sources in comparison.
If you’re looking to supplement your diet with egg protein, the egg whites are the part of the egg that contains virtually all of the protein you’re looking for.
This protein source is commonly highlighted among vegetarian and vegan eaters. It is a complete protein source that comes from soybeans. Like whey protein, soy protein comes in a few different forms.
Soy isolate is considered one of the most pure forms of soy protein. Similar to whey protein, soy isolate is stripped of most extra carbohydrates, which leaves the consumer less prone to digestive troubles.
Soy concentrate contains a lower percentage of protein, but is very easily digestible.
Other plant proteins
Lately, there have been an increasing number of manufacturers that are using pea protein in their supplements. Legumes are an excellent source of plant protein, and this type of protein may be beneficial for vegetarians or vegans who have sensitivities to soy. Pea protein has been said to produce little to no allergic reaction. It’s easily digestible, and it contains glutamine, which helps prevent muscle breakdown.
Rice protein is also a friendly alternative to people who may have allergies to gluten (a protein found in wheat products). Rice protein contains the amino acids that are lacking in pea protein (and vice versa), making these two a great mix.
Too much protein
Protein supplements are a great way to get an extra edge if need be. It is important to remember that protein supplements are just that – supplements – and they’re not meant to replace meals. As with any vitamin, mineral, or macronutrient, it is best to get your nutrition through actual food (I find it is more delicious, too). Most people actually do get enough protein, and there IS such a thing as consuming too much of it.
Extra protein does not always equal extra muscle. Just like any other macronutrient, if you take in too much protein, it will be converted to and stored as fat. Taking in too much protein can cause dehydration, and is also hard on your kidneys. Be mindful of what you put into your body, and if you have any specific questions, make sure to ask a registered dietitian.