Should I be taking a protein supplement regularly? Just after I work out? Or not at all? Which protein powders are best?
I get these questions a lot. Like anything else, it depends on your health and fitness goals and your bio-individuality. In a perfect world, we would be able to get enough high quality protein in our diet without supplementing. And that may be possible for someone who has a great diet of nutrient dense whole foods, isn’t super active, and only looking to maintain body composition. For the rest of us who are looking to improve body composition, have active lifestyles, or have a specific health goal that would benefit from additional protein, we may want to explore supplementing.
Let’s first talk about the roles of protein.
Protein is a macronutrient (along with fats and carbohydrates) and are the building blocks of the body. Our body uses and assembles around 50,000 different proteins to form organs, nerves, muscles, and flesh. When digested, proteins are broken down into amino acids for use in the body. Proteins make up enzymes – managers and catalysts for all biochemical processes, antibodies -proteins that help fight infection, hemoglobin – specialized proteins in the form of red blood cells that carry oxygen, and hormones – proteins that regulate our metabolism and almost every function in the body.
All proteins are combinations of 20 amino acids. 9 are essential, meaning the body cannot produce them so we have to consume them. And 11 are nonessential and can be synthesized by the body.
95% of muscle is made up of amino acids (and 95% of the heart is made up of amino acids).
Let’s break down the different types of protein supplements.
Whey Protein – Whey Protein is the most popular and most studied protein of all the protein supplements available. It is made from milk and is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheese making process. Because it comes from milk, it contains lactose which many people have difficulty digesting. Apart from poor digestibility by some, whey has been shown to provide the most muscle building and maintaining benefits. It is rich in BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) including Leucine which has been found to play a major role in building new muscle and improving recovery.
Whey Protein Concentrate – The processing of whey concentrate removes the water, lactose, ash, and some minerals. In addition, compared to whey isolates whey concentrate typically contains more biologically active components and proteins that make them a more attractive supplement for athletes
Whey Protein Isolates – Whey protein Isolates is an even more processed version of whey protein concentrate, it contains protein concentrates of 90% or higher. During the additional processing whey protein isolates go through, a significant amount of milk fat and lactose is removed. This means that it usually is more tolerant for those who are intolerant to lactose. Although the concentration of protein in this form of whey protein is the highest, it often contains proteins that have become denatured due to the manufacturing process. The denaturation of proteins involves breaking down their structure and losing peptide bonds and reducing the effectiveness of the protein.
Casein Protein – Like whey, casein protein is found in milk. Casein is the major protein found in cow’s milk and comprises of 70-80% of its total protein. Casein is responsible for the white color in milk. Compared to whey, casein is more slowly digested and absorbed. When casein interacts with stomach acid it forms a gel or clot in the stomach which slows down stomach emptying and delays the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream. This provides better nitrogen retention and utilization by the body. For this same reason, casein is one of the most difficult protein to digest, so if there is any dysfunction in digestion, casein protein may not be an ideal protein choice.
Goat whey protein – Quite obviously goat whey protein is made from goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk. The big difference is digestibility. The protein beta-casein in mammal milk has two variants, A1 and A2. Only A1 beta-casein creates beta-casomorphin-7, a naturally occurring opioid peptide and direct histamine releaser that can be a risk factor for heart disease, type 1 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome. Goat’s milk contains mostly A2 beta-casein whereas cow’s milk contains mostly A1 beta-casein. Digestion of A1 Beta-casein has been shown to cause gastrointestinal effects that resemble lactose intolerance. Goat whey protein can be a great alternative for those that don’t tolerate regular whey protein.
My favorite goat whey protein supplements are by Mt. Capra.
Plant protein (pea, soy, hemp, rice, quinoa, chia, flax, etc) – There are many different types of plant protein, and some are much better than other. Most often they are found as a combination of plants in a protein supplement. This is because individual plant species don’t have a complete amino acid profile and to get all of the essential amino acids they need to be combined with other plants.
Plant protein may be difficult for some people to digest because of it’s high fiber and anti-nutrient content. For others it may be a good alternative if you are intolerant to dairy. With plant protein it is especially important to find a high quality organic supplement to avoid toxic pesticide residue that can be found with conventionally grown plants.
It’s probably best for most to avoid soy altogether because it is an allergen for many people, highly sprayed, high in phytic acid (and anti-nutrient that steals minerals) and high in phytoestrogen compounds which can have a detrimental effect of hormone balance. **note: flax seed is even higher in phytoestrogens than soy.
My favorite choice in plant protein is hemp protein.
Collagen Peptides – Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and helps give structure to our hair, skin, nails, bones, ligaments and tendons in our body. Collagen is a protein made up of amino-acids: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine, all of which help our body’s connective tissue, skin, hair, nails, as well as gut health stay as healthy as possible. The high level of these amino acids make collagen different from whey or casein protein. Collagen peptides are dairy free and bioavailable so for most people are very easy to digest and absorb.
There are 3 types of collagen found in the body that are most common (type I, type II, and type III). All three types play critical roles in maintaining health. Type I is the most common and the strongest type. It is found mostly in skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones, but also found in teeth and the fluid that surrounds our cells. Type II is the main type of collagen found in cartilage, but it is also important for eye health. Type III collagen is critical for fibrous tissue in the muscles, intestines, and blood vessels. All three types of collagen or important and come from different sources. Bovine collagen from cows mostly contains type I and type III collagen, while chicken collagen contains mostly type II collagen. Collagen peptides can be a good choice for those looking to only moderately increase protein intake and also receive health benefits.
My favorite collagen peptide supplement is Vital Protein Collagen Peptides.
Amino Acid supplements (BCAAs, EAAs) – BCAAs or Branch Chain Amino Acids are three essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are known for reducing fatigue, enhance exercise performance, and speed up recovery. They have been shown to increase time to fatigue by 17.2%. Because BCAAs are already broken into amino acids they do not need to be broken down by the digestive system and can be absorbed immediately into the bloodstream and used by the muscle. While BCAAs provide some great performance benefits, they don’t directly increase muscle building because they are only 3 of the 9 essential amino acids.
To build muscle your body needs all nine essential amino acids. While BCAAs supplement won’t directly cause muscle protein synthesis, they help protect your muscles against exercise-induced breakdown, and in essence “hold you over” until your post workout meal, which contains hopefully a complete protein of some kind.
Essential Amino Acid supplements contain all of the essential amino acids, and like BCAAs are already broken down into amino acids so they can bypass the digestive system and go directly to the muscle tissue. EAAs give you both the performance boost (from the included BCAAs) and the materials for protein synthesis.
My favorite EAA supplement is Perfect Aminos by Bodyhealth.
Bone Broth protein powder – Bone broth protein powder begins as nutrient rich bone broth and is then dehydrated and concentrated into powder. This powder has the same nutrient profile and benefits as bone broth and is a source of high quality protein high in collagen specific amino acids (proline and glycine). Some of the nutrients included in bone broth protein powder include chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
Because bone broth protein is simply concentrated bone broth, all of its protein comes straight from the broth and not other sources like whey, soy, or egg, making it more digestible and absorbable for most people. This may be a good choice for those looking to supplement a lot of other nutrients along with additional protein.
How to choose.
Choosing the best protein supplement for you depends on a few things: your health goals (Are you looking to build muscle, lose weight, maintain your current fitness level, improve health and nutrient intake, or something else?), your ability to digest dairy or specific plants, your food intolerances, your activity level, and your budget. Now that you know more about the different types of protein supplements available, which benefits they offer, and which factors may make them not right for you, you should be able to choose the best option for you.
As always shoot for highest quality, organic, nonGMO, pasture raise or grass-fed, no sugar, no soy.
If you need help or have questions when deciding which supplement, if any, are right for you and your goals, feel free to reach out and schedule a free 15 minute consultation.