Shake It Or Leave It – Protein Sources Decoded


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My Fabulous Intern Christine Scarcello is back with another blog post about protein. Her post last week generated some questions about what type of protein suppplement is best. Below is her answer. Thanks Christine!

If you’re health or fitness conscious, there’s a good chance you’ve tried a protein shake at least once in your life.  If you are a serious endurance or strength athlete, protein shakes may be a regular supplement to your training or part of your daily routine. Though a lot of athletes will use what works best depending on personal performance goals and taste preferences, there are some basics to know about the different protein supplements out there.

Dr. Martin Gibala stated in research with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute that the timing of protein intake after your workout – rather than the specific mixture of amino acids or type of protein ingested – may be the most important factor for influencing muscle growth. However, many individuals prefer certain forms of protein over others. While this blog post is not meant to persuade you to try one protein source over another, you should be more informed about the different protein formulations when you are done reading. There is an abundance of misinformation about protein and its various forms, so let’s break it down and look at the nitty-gritty details of protein powder supplements.

Whey: Whey protein comes from milk protein as a by-product of making cheese. Whey has a high biological value, which means that it is more easily and quickly absorbed in the body than other forms of protein. The only other protein with higher biological value is a whole egg. Whey protein powder comes in isolated, hydrolyzed, and concentrated formulas. In isolated whey, most of the lactose has been removed from the protein, so this formulation is better for those with lactose-intolerance. Isolate is also 90% protein by weight, though it is heavily processed and loses some of its original bioactive compounds through processing. Hydrolyzed whey is partially pre-digested and can be absorbed in the body very easily. Concentrated whey is the least altered, which means that it contains the highest amount of bioactive compounds (including lactose). Whey is known as a “fast” protein because it is digested and absorbed quickly.

Casein:  Casein is another milk-derived protein, so it also has a high biological value and bioavailability. However, unlike whey, casein is known as a “slow” protein because it takes longer to digest and absorb. With longer digestion times, casein isn’t as quickly utilized as whey is. Why is this important? Casein may be a great source of protein before bed (since it will work while you’re sleeping) or a few hours before a workout during the day, but not in situations when you need a quickly absorbed, digested, and utilized form of protein. Protein should be restored following a workout rather quickly, so casein is not an appropriate post-workout protein source.

Soy: Soy protein is found in soybeans, and is generally not as favored among strength and endurance athletes as whey protein. But before you give up on soy, there are a few interesting facts you should know. Soy contains more glutamine and arginine than whey protein, and is a great protein source for vegans who do not wish to ingest dairy products (like whey and casein). While soy is easy to digest, it does not mix very well and requires more mixing or shaking than the dairy-based powders.  Soy also has many health benefits because it contains antioxidants and can help lower cholesterol, which helps prevent heart disease.

BCAAs:  If proteins are the building blocks that make up muscle, amino acids are the tiny building blocks that make up a protein. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential because our body cannot make them. Three of those nine essential amino acids are the Branched-Chain amino acids (BCAAs), who get their name from their structure, which look like branched chains. The three – leucine, isolucine, and valine – are prominent in muscle development and repair, which spawned the myth that these isolated proteins are more beneficial than any of the others. Protein powders, amino acids pills, and concoctions containing the exclusive BCAAs are expensive and purported to be anti-catabolic and more easily digestible since they are isolated on their own, not contained to a casein or whey component.

Research is mixed as to whether BCAAs are that much better than other forms of protein, and many studies have found that BCAAs are no better than any other form of protein in terms of muscle repair, growth, and performance gains. As long as you’re eating a mixture of protein foods (which provide a variety of different amino acids), specific mixtures and combinations of amino acids do not improve performance any more than a regular, nutritious, protein-rich diet.

Dr. Penny here. Christine did a great job discussing the different protein supplement sources that are on the market. Someone asked if supplements are better than “real food” like chicken. I always advocate food first. However, there are situations where supplements can be used because of issues such as convenience, refrigeration, etc. If you need a “fast” protine after a workout, whey is a great choice. If you are looking for a good genernal protein source, “real food” is great (meats, eggs, dariy, etc.) and is often much cheaper than supplements. Another condsideration is if you are looking to build or maintain lean mass, research has shown that taking in 20 – 30 grams of protein at each meal or snack is all you need. That would be about 3 to 4 ounces of meat. If you are using protein supplements that have more than 30 grams of protein, you are paying for that extra protein to be used as energy or, more likely, stored as fat.

What questions do you have about protein and its sources? Let us know!

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One Response to "Shake It Or Leave It – Protein Sources Decoded"
  1. Greta breakdown, I do find it hard with soy, it has so many benefits but also it downfalls, with people claiming it can cause hormonal imbalance and thyroid problems. But who knows, I think moderation is the key…

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