Protein is an essential nutrient. Not only does it serve as a foundational component of body tissue, it also packs a powerful punch as a fuel source. Protein can be derived from whole food sources or supplements, though it’s interesting to note that not all protein is created equal, so being educated on your protein options will definitely give you a nutritional edge as far as health and fitness goals go.
It is true that physical performance largely depends on muscle function and the strength of muscle. Given that protein and its building blocks, amino acids, are the primary constituents that help muscles to repair, maintain and grow, it is this knowledge that backs up the rationale behind the use of protein supplementation – stimulation of muscle growth and repair, and the enhancement of the way in which we utilize the energy provided to our muscles. The correlation between food intake and a direct flow of amino acids to encourage muscle protein synthesis has been studied and the link between the two, is found to be a strong one.
With that being the case, how do we know which protein and what amino acids are the best to consume? How can we ensure we are meeting our body’s individual protein intake needs and should we be eating whole protein or taking advantage of protein supplements? Protein supplements can be used for both gaining muscle and shedding unwanted weight and the number of different kinds of protein supplements can be overwhelming when perusing them in store.
So, where do we start?
There are different kinds of protein supplements, each with their own benefits, it just depends what your goals are, what your needs are and what your budget looks like. Still, it can be confusing knowing exactly what type of protein you might need, so below are several common and perhaps, less common, forms of protein supplements to help you navigate your health and fitness goals a little better.
This is the most well-known, commonly utilized, least expensive kind of protein powder. A dairy-based product, whey protein often comes chock full with vitamins and minerals and is exceptionally popular among regular gym buffs and pro-athletes alike. Able to repair and build muscles after a strenuous strength training session, whey protein is an excellent option for supplementation, particularly if consumed within two hours after a workout. This is all great, but what if your whey protein options include “hydrolyzed” and “isolate”? What does that even mean? Well, hydrolyzed is science-speak for the whole form of the whey protein that has been broken down into small segments called peptides, which can be digested by the body a lot quicker. When the term ‘isolate’ is used, it means the manufacturer has attempted to develop the purest form of whey through a purification process. However, it’s still up for debate as to whether ‘hydrolyzed’ or ‘isolate’ whey protein offer enough benefits to justify a higher price tag. Some experts in the field suggest that, while a small benefit is seen in the use of hydrolyzed and isolate whey protein powders in terms of augmenting fat loss, the benefit is quite small and very little if any effect is had on increasing muscle mass. A decent whey protein powder sourced from a reputable company, along with an adequate and healthy diet can achieve the same results. Keep in mind, timing of whey supplement intake is key.
As a dairy-based protein product, casein protein is similar to whey protein. While it is the primary constituent making up the protein in cow milk, this nutrient is more slowly digested by the body than what whey protein. This means that essential proteins and amino acids are released more slowly. So, in a situation where a less speedy, steadier stream of nutrients to the muscles is required, a casein protein supplement is a great choice. Some research suggests that casein protein is not as beneficial due to its slower digestion, however, some professionals in the health and fitness industry prefer to focus on our total protein intake overall, rather than the time it takes to be digested and the nutrients absorbed by the muscles.
Derived from the cannabis sativa plant, hemp protein is acquired from processing the plant’s seeds. Not only is hemp protein a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, it’s also made up of 30% fats and 25% protein. Albumin and edestin are the two primary components that provide hemp its protein power and contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need. Plus, they’re easily digestible. And while hemp protein isn’t necessarily going to offer you the same amount of protein per same-size serving as whey protein, for example, hemp protein adds a little something extra as it is brimming with heart-healthy fats, which are essential in helping to combat certain diseases. Additionally, hemp can provide approximately 14 g of protein per serving and is full of fiber, which in turns helps us regulate our digestive functions and keeps our gut swept clean! Hemp protein is an ideal option for vegetarians and those who are lactose intolerant, so for a pre or post workout protein shake, a quick in-between-meals snack or a bedtime treat, hemp protein is one supplement that goes a little above and beyond for us.
Yes, this tiny morsel of vegetarian goodness puts its best foot forward on the protein stage. It contains almost the same amount of protein per scoop as whey, however it lacks the essential amino acid cystine. So, while it makes a great option for those who have dietary limitations or prefer to stick to plant based sources of protein to fuel their workouts, it should be used interchangeably with other protein supplements to ensure you’re getting all essential amino acids to help you build strong, healthy muscles. As a gluten free option, pea protein can help prevent certain digestive issues for some people who supplement often. Best of all, pea protein is affordable, with the average price ranging between $20 and $40, depending on the size of the container and brand.
As one of the few plant-based sources of protein offering all the essential amino acids our body requires for maintenance, repair and growth, you can’t really go wrong with a soy supplement. Soy protein is touted for its overall quality and excellent digestibility compared to other protein sources. If the high-quality protein it provides isn’t enough of a reason to incorporate soy protein into your diet, then its many other health benefits, including being a rich source of isoflavones, might persuade you otherwise. However, it is important to note that there is a possibility of soy’s isoflavones interacting with hormones like estrogen in the body, which can have an effect on hormone levels if soy protein is used in excess. If enjoyed in moderation effects on hormone levels shouldn’t be a problem, but for those who are still wary of the potential pitfalls of soy protein, there are many other protein supplements available instead.
Not just a staple side dish at a dinner, rice can provide a fantastic source of protein. While it can also be a full of carbohydrates and B vitamins, in addition to its hypoallergenic properties that make it incredibly easy to digest, rice protein can be used as a filler or substitute protein supplement method. However, due to it rice protein’s lack of some critical amino acids, it should not be relied upon solely as a form of pre or post workout protein supplement on its own.
How you fuel your body is extremely important, especially as part of a health and fitness regimen where strenuous exercise causes the body to break down muscle tissue and burn calories. The quality of the food we eat is important and so too is the quality of the supplements we use to help fill any nutritional gaps and build our strength and resilience. Likewise, it is important to keep in mind that protein intake will vary from person to person depending on their size, activity level and weight. Protein is critical in maintaining a healthy body, therefore protein supplements should be just that – supplements. Always ensure you are eating a well-balanced, healthy diet and add protein powders to ensure you’re meeting your dietary needs. Whether plant or animal based, there is as least one type of protein that’s ideal for everyone.