Professional Guide: Protein Powder
May 20, 2013
Walking into your local health foods store to buy a protein powder can be a daunting task. Which type of protein do I need? How much should I take? When do I need to use it? These questions and more plague even the most knowledgeable health-conscious individuals due to the ever growing variety of powders to choose from.
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- 1. The Basics of Protein
- 2. Protein Powders
- 3. Benefits of Protein Powder
- 4. Types of Protein Powder
- 4.1 Whey Protein
- 4.2 Whey Protein Concentrate
- 4.3 Whey Protein Isolate
- 4.4 Whey Protein Hydrolysate
- 4.5 Casein Protein
- 4.6 Calcium Caseinate
- 4.7 Micellar Casein
- 4.8 Hydrolyzed Casein
- 4.9 Milk Protein Concentrate
- 4.10 Milk Protein Isolate
- 4.11 Goat Protein
- 4.12 Beef Protein
- 4.13 Egg Protein
- 4.14 Soy Protein
- 4.15 Rice Protein
- 4.16 Pea Protein
- 4.17 Wheat Protein
- 4.18 Hemp Protein
- 4.19 Blended Proteins
- 4.20 Meal Replacements
- 4.21 Weight Gainers
- 5. Side-Effects
- 6. How to Choose the Right Protein Powder
- 7. How to Use Protein Powders
The Basics of Protein
What is Protein
Protein is one of 3 macronutrients the body needs to function, the other 2 being fats and carbohydrates. Proteins are a combination of 22 different amino acids.
Once ingested, protein is broken down into individual amino acids. These individual amino acids can then be re-assembled into protein the body can use in a variety of ways. These uses include almost all cellular functions including tissue growth, metabolism and regulating the immune system.
These re-formed proteins are also the base material of internal organs, hair, skin, nails, blood, muscles and most body tissue.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org
Why is Protein Important
In the health community protein is most often associated strictly with muscle growth, but the truth is, protein is necessary for much, much more. In fact, muscle growth is far from the top of the body’s priority list when it comes to distributing the protein we consume.
For those that do exercise, this is the basis for the increased protein consumption, the daily recommended value just isn’t enough to support the body when recovering from exercise and trying to build additional muscle.
Basic Protein Requirements
How much protein someone needs is likely the most debated subject between clinical researchers and sports nutritionists. Even within these groups, a consensus appears unlikely anytime soon.
The basic FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) recommendations on protein intake are 50g a day for anyone over 4 years old but based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet. This is the most general guideline set forth by a government agency.
Other well-respected authorities on sports nutrition such as Nancy Clark MS, RD, recommend protein needs based on overall body mass.
- Sedentary Adult- 0.5g/pound of bodyweight
- Active Adult- 0.4-0.6g/pound of bodyweight
- Growing Athlete- 0.6-0.9g/pound of bodyweight
- Adult Building Muscle 0.6-0.9g/pound of bodyweight
Many publications that specialize in sports such as power lifting and bodybuilding have their own experts that routinely suggest much more than .9g/pound of bodyweight, with popular recommendations around 1.5-2.0g/pound of bodyweight.
Basically, your protein consumption depends on your needs. If your goals are to build muscle, more protein is going to be required to see results.
Complete vs. Incomplete Protein
Amino acids are the basis for all proteins. Of the 22 amino acids the body needs for proper function, 9 (essential amino acids) must be consumed through our diet (the other 13 can actually be produced by the body and are referred to as non-essential amino acids). When protein sources contain proper portions of the 9 essential amino acids, it’s dubbed a “complete protein.” If the protein source is lacking one or more of these essential amino acids, it’s termed an “incomplete protein.”
For the most part, animal-based proteins are considered complete and all but a few plant-based proteins are incomplete. However, 2 or more plant based proteins in specific combination can form a complete protein and are called “complementary proteins.”
Dietary Sources of Protein
Some of the most popular sources of complete proteins include:
- Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, etc.
- Tofu (soy)
Some common incomplete sources of protein include:
*As mentioned in the section above on Complete vs. Incomplete Protein, several plant-based proteins that are incomplete on their own can be combined to form a complete amino acid profile to provide the benefits of a complete protein.
Protein is without a doubt the king of the supplement industry. With yearly sales at more than $5 billion (and an annual growth rate at 4%), protein is the one supplement that’s universally accepted, used and recommended .
What are Protein Powders?
Protein powders encompass all supplemental (non-dietary) forms of various types of protein. This includes everything from dairy protein derived from milk to beef extract protein. There are several ways to convert these food sources into a powder, some of the common methods include:
- Ion Exchange
You’ll often see these names in parenthesis right next to the protein source on the ingredient label of the product. They simply describe the process used to convert the protein into powder form.
Once in a powdered state, the protein is often mixed with additional ingredients to enhance the flavor and increase uptake, given an expiration date, and sold. The user then reconstitutes the powder by mixing some of it with liquid (usually water) and making a drink that is traditionally called a protein shake. Some protein powders can even be used in cooking or baking, though not all.
Who Can Benefit from Using Protein Powder?
The versatility of protein supplements make them a widespread staple. The various applications of protein and lack of serious side effects mean the benefits can almost be universal. Here are a few different groups of people that can benefit from supplemental protein powder:
- Athletes- The constant breakdown in muscle tissue associated with athletics requires elevated amounts of protein to speed recovery time and aid in performance.
- Bodybuilders- Considered by some the founders of the muscle-protein consumption link, decades of anecdotal evidence suggests protein is required for the amount of muscle needed to look like Mr. Universe.
- Dieters- Whether it’s a diet that calls for only protein and fat or one that merely restricts calories, protein powders can aid in the fat burning process and help with appetite control.
- Pregnant Women- Physicians regularly advise pregnant women to incorporate higher amounts of quality protein in their diet, some protein powders cater to this group by removing nitrates and leaving out artificial flavors.
- Gastric Bypass Patients- With the reduced stomach size that accompanies gastric bypass surgery, foods like beef and chicken can be nearly impossible to consume in necessary quantities, making a protein shakes a popular choice following this procedure and others similar to it.
- Teenagers- That awkward phase in life we call puberty is when we do the majority of our growing. This growth process requires higher amounts of protein in general and not every teenager eats like they should, which makes protein deficiency among teens a common issue. Protein shakes have become the de facto method of meeting daily protein needs for growing teens.
- Vegetarians- By nature, vegetarians are at risk of not getting enough protein. Plant based protein powder has risen in popularity over the last few years in large part due to the use by vegetarians as a way to increase protein consumption.
- Post-Injury- Essential amino acids (the ones we need to consume) have a direct impact on recovery from bone and soft tissue injuries. Some protein powders have higher amounts of these amino acids and are popular among those (especially athletes) recovering from injury.
- General Population- Everyday users of protein powders make up the largest group. Whether it’s someone who has a disease that requires elevated protein consumption or those that have allergens to certain protein rich foods, protein powders are as routine a purchase as bread and milk for millions of people.
Protein Powder vs. Dietary Protein
At first glance, comparing protein powder to whole food sources of protein seems to be apples to apples. Milk protein concentrate vs. drinking extra milk. Casein protein shake at night vs. cottage cheese (80% casein). Soy protein powder vs. tofu. The majority of protein based supplements are simply extracts of foods that are common in most people’s diets, so what makes one better than the other?
Both supplements and whole foods have value. Whole foods can force your body to burn more calories during digestion (something called the thermic effect) but powders are often filtered to remove excess fat and carbohydrates. Whole foods will keep you feeling fuller much longer but powders are convenient where time is a concern. Whole foods have essential nutrients beyond protein but powders are often fortified with vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional properties.
The truth about this debate is that one doesn’t have any clear cut advantage over the other. Eating 4-5 smaller meals that consist of just protein powder as the source of protein doesn’t make much sense and will leave you constantly hungry, whereas eating sufficient amounts of protein from just whole food sources at each meal can be impossible. A mixture of both makes the most sense and will allow you to enjoy the full benefits of protein.
Benefits of Protein Powders
As we discussed above, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In fact, amino acids make up about 30% of muscle (with the other 70% being water), making it essential to consume protein to see muscle growth. This is true for exercise-induced muscle growth as well as the natural muscle growth that occurs into the late teens and early twenties.
After exercise, the body is left in an environmental state that heightens it’s ability to synthesize protein, and remains in this state for up to 72 hours . In fact, the body’s balance of protein is tilted negatively until protein is consumed . This provides an opportunity to capitalize on a muscle’s need for protein by consuming a protein shake directly following exercise and elevating protein intake post-exercise your body will be able to build muscle faster.
The role of increased protein intake on fat loss is twofold: protein consumption causes the body to burn more calories during digestion, and increased protein intake can cause a feeling a fullness that carbohydrates fail can’t .
Protein plays a vital role in the metabolism of body fat . By increasing your intake of protein, you provide your body the tools it needs to burn fat more effectively and at an accelerated rate.
Protein intake has long been associated with enhanced performance in both endurance and strength sports . Protein can impact various elements of performance. As we mentioned above, protein has a greater impact on muscle growth and strength than any other nutrient. It’s also a key in recovery after a physical performance; protein helps the muscle recover faster to allow athletes to perform at their best again much sooner.
The human body is composed of water and “dry material.” Roughly 75% of this dry material is composed of amino acids . Amino acids and the proteins they form provide the framework for living cells and are therefore essential to the body’s ability to recover after physical activity or injury.
Protein powder is especially important with regard to exercise recovery because of the speed with which it is absorbed by the body. The period of time directly following a workout (within 30 minutes) is the ideal time for taking a fast-digesting protein to enhance the recovery process .
Part of the aging process is a gradual loss in muscle, a process termed sarcopenia. Age-related sarcopenia can begin to affect a person as early as their 30’s and gradually accelerates as the years go by . This process can be combated with proper protein intake. With an emphasis on essential amino acids (EAAs) and branch-chained amino acids (BCAAs) which are rich in most protein powders , individuals can prevent gradual muscle loss and even increase muscle development.
Another anti-aging benefit of increased protein consumption is increased bone mass in the elderly, making it a great for the treatment or prevention of osteoporosis .
Protein deficiency hasn’t been a huge concern in the U.S. but the recent rise in overall carbohydrate consumption as well as type II diabetes has experts concerned .
Protein molecules are the workhorse of life and are involved in every cell activity. Proteins play an essential role in the body’s normal growth rate, heart function and immune and respiratory systems. Supplemental protein powders are stocked with amino acids to support overall health and can be a convenient way to increase protein consumption without increasing the amount of meat or other protein-rich food you need to consume.
Types of Protein Powder
Whey protein is one of the most popular protein supplements available. Most forms of whey protein are inexpensive for manufacturers to make which makes it more affordable than other forms of protein and its amino acid profile is higher than most whole foods.
Whey protein is derived from cow’s milk; it’s actually a liquid by-product of the cheese making process. The liquid material is then either dried to form a concentrated whey powder or further filtrated to produce a higher quality type of whey protein (we’ll cover those below).
Whey Protein Concentrate
As mentioned above, this type of protein is the most concentrated form of whey, hence its name. Whey protein concentrate still has other properties contained within it, such as trace fat and cholesterol. Another property still found in whey protein concentrate is lactose, the sugar found in cow’s milk that is indigestible (to some degree) by the majority of adults. Whey protein concentrate is still one of the most popular proteins on the market due to its high level of amino acids and it’s relatively low price.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate is produced when the liquid concentration of whey protein is filtered to remove the base water component, leaving it virtually lactose and cholesterol free and around 90% pure protein by weight. This type of protein can be used by virtually anyone and has a much faster absorption rate than whey protein concentrate, making it great for those using it as a post-exercise source of protein.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate, also known as hydrolyzed whey protein, is the newest variation of whey protein. When protein isolate molecules are hydrolyzed (hydrolysis) they become broken down to the point that they contain no lactose or cholesterol. The size of the remaining protein peptides are small enough to be considered “predigested” so it leaves little work for your stomach before the protein is ready to be absorbed. By eliminating the majority of the digestive process, hydrolyzed whey protein can be considered the quickest absorbing form of whey; and consequently it’s usually the most expensive.
Casein protein, like whey, comes from cow’s milk and actually makes up about 80% of the protein found in milk. This type of protein is the insoluble part of cow’s milk. When casein interacts with stomach acids it gels to form a mass that is much slower to digest than whey protein, giving you more of a trickle-down effect of the protein into your system. This also accounts for the feeling of fullness that you’ll experience from this type of protein as opposed to a fast digesting type of whey, which can be great as a between-meal protein or as a nighttime shake to provide amino acids during that daily fast called sleep. Because casein protein is digested slowly, it shouldn’t be used for pre- or post-workouts, when your body is more prepared for a faster-absorbing protein, but should be reserved for use between meals or before bed.
Calcium caseinate is simply casein protein with a calcium ion associated with its structure. It’s a very soluble form of casein that mixes easily in liquid and contains more than 90% protein by weight. This is a commonly used form of casein in many protein powders and has the added benefit of high amounts of the amino acid L-glutamine (a popular recovery supplement in its own right).
Micellar casein is a little newer form of casein and is made by separating the casein protein (in milk) from the lactose, fat, and whey via microfiltration and at this point the protein isn’t furthered altered or treated like other forms of casein protein. This leaves the proteins full of the growth factors that aid in tissue repair.
Also called hydrolyzed casein protein, is casein protein that has gone through the same process of hydrolysis that whey does to form hydrolyzed whey protein. This process allows the protein molecules to be broken down into smaller peptides to dramatically speed digestion, making it a unique form of casein protein since it removes one of the defining features of casein proteins; slow digestion.
Milk Protein Concentrate
As the name implies, this type of protein is a concentrated form of milk protein which contains both casein and whey protein. By weight it’s around 80% protein, but still contains trace amounts of lactose that can cause irritation in users and slow digestion/absorption. Milk protein concentrate is great as an all-around protein powder, though maybe a little too slow digesting for a post-exercise shake.
Milk Protein Isolate
Milk protein isolate is made by isolating the whey and casein proteins in skim milk and filtering it to remove high amounts of fat and lactose. This makes milk protein isolate a great complement to milk protein concentrate as it can be used post-exercise for speedy absorption.
Goat protein is derived from goat milk and is quite different from cow milk-based proteins. The major difference is that it’s digested significantly easier than cow’s milk and has zero lactose-related side-effects. The protein content can vary product to product but is a good substitute for those with lactose intolerance as an all-around everyday protein.
A relative newcomer in the protein powder world, it is exactly what the name implies, beef protein in powdered form. Through a process that can involve clarifying the extract of beef, hydrolyzing it for digestion, and isolating the protein molecules, beef can be turned into a powder the same as the other whole food sources on this list! This type of protein in generally higher in creatine and is lactose free, making it great for building muscle.
Egg protein is a high quality protein derived from eggs that has almost no fat or carbs in it. Some labels will list egg protein as egg white protein, or as egg albumin protein. It’s a great choice for anyone that hates eating eggs, has allergens to milk-based proteins, or just wants to mix up the amino acids from other types of protein.
Soy protein is considered a complete protein as one of the only plant-based protein sources that contains all 9 essential amino acids. The manufacturing process removes the majority of carbohydrates and delivers a protein packed powder that is perfect for vegetarian use and general protein intake.
Rice protein is another vegetarian protein that goes through a separation process to remove the carbohydrates from the protein. It’s derived from brown rice and sometimes called brown rice protein. It’s easily digested by the stomach and rarely causes bloating. Rice protein has a distinct taste and it’s a good alternative for vegetarians looking to mix up their proteins from the standard soy protein powders to use at anytime of the day.
Pea protein is the protein usually derived from yellow peas and is considered hypoallergenic, which means it won’t likely cause any type of allergic response. Many manufacturers will recommend combining pea protein with rice protein to create a higher quality amino acid profile than either one could provide individually.
Wheat protein is manufactured similar to soy protein, leaving it low in carbohydrates. It’s often gone through hydrolysis to break up the long plant based amino acids. It’s usually a very affordable type of protein and can be used by vegetarians or anyone trying to add extra protein into their diet.
Hemp protein is derived from the seeds of the plant and are packed full of amino acids. It’s very easily digested by the stomach. There is a higher amount of fiber and essential fatty acids (EFAs) in this type of protein and can be ideal as a plant-based protein source that has a high amount of branched-chain amino acids. The fiber also helps users control their appetite.
Blended proteins have been around in various forms for years. The idea behind a blended protein is to get some of the benefits of each type of protein that’s been mixed together. Some proteins like micellar casein and soy are very low in L-leucine, the branched-chained amino acid that magnifies protein synthesis, but can benefit with the addition of whey protein which has high amounts of L-leucine.
Another example is the vegetarian proteins. Individually these proteins won’t pack the same amino acid “punch” that a combination will. Many manufacturers offer blended protein products but you can always create your own by combining some of the proteins we mentioned above.
Meal replacements have been around even longer than supplemental protein powders. They’re marketed to every on-the-go person that has little time to sit down and eat but still wants to control their calories. The protein-based meal replacement powders are generally healthier than the carb-based powders that often get labeled as “breakfast replacements.” The added protein, reduced carb, and moderate fat more closely resembles a solid meal from a nutritional standpoint. The type of protein is found in meal replacement supplements is usually whey concentrate or soy.
Weight gainers can be considered meal replacements gone crazy, and as the name suggests, are designed to help the user gain weight. These powders are loaded with protein, carbs, and varying levels of fat. It’s not uncommon to see weight gainers with more than 2,000 calories in each serving. The purpose of these powders is to provide extra calories to anyone that struggles to eat enough food to properly put on lean mass. The protein type can range from milk protein concentrate to micellar casein, and usually it’s some type of blend.
Weight gainers are ideal for between-meal use, meal replacement use, and even adding a shake on top of whole food for picky eaters.
Possible Side-Effects of Protein Powders
Gastrointestinal Discomfort (Bloating)
A common issue with protein supplements is the bloating that some of them can cause. More often than not this is due to some allergen an individual user has to the specific protein they’re consuming. It’s not uncommon to have a mild allergen to dairy (lactose in particular) or soy, which are two of the more popular choices amongst protein powders.
This potential side effect is easily avoided by choosing another type of protein. If you’re using something like whey protein concentrate or milk protein concentrate and experiencing gassiness and/or bloating, try switching to whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate. Same goes for some of the plant based proteins that may contain potential allergens like gluten. Rest assured; it’s not the actual protein molecules causing the discomfort in most cases.
Protein in general requires more water to be properly metabolized, more than carbohydrates and fats. This can obviously lead to dehydration (and all the negative side-effects associated with it) if water consumption is inadequate.
There’s no equation to figure out water needs based on protein intake, but there’s also no evidence to suggest water should be consumed in massive quantities if you’re supplementing with protein. The Mayo Clinic suggests 3 liters a day for men and 2.2 liters for women ; this will be plenty of water for most individuals using a protein powder. If you’re involved in endurance sports, the amount of water necessary to avoid dehydration is considerably more.
Consumption of high protein can cause dehydration which can be the main factor in constipation. Additionally, the overall diet may be too high in protein which leaves little room for dietary fiber. Adequate hydration is essential for general health, but make sure you’re getting at least 96 oz. of water every day to avoid constipation as a result of the increased protein in your diet.
Gaining weight from protein powders is the desired effect for many users that are trying to put on quality lean muscle mass. For those that aren’t interested in putting on muscle but seem to be anyway, lower your overall intake and examine your workout strategies, they may be catered to building muscle rather than weight loss. Check out our recommendations below.
It is possible to gain unwanted body fat with the use of protein powders. This could be from excess protein consumption, but it could also be that you purchased a protein powder that contains carbohydrates and/or fats that are the root cause of the weight gain.
Always be careful to inspect the ingredient list located on the back of all protein powders, look for excess carbohydrates and fat, not just how much protein is in a serving.
The kidneys are heavily involved in the excretion of protein (nitrogen to be exact). So it’s been speculated for years that high protein intake can cause unnecessarily stress on renal function. This connection is still merely speculative and in fact, studies on athletes with high protein intake have concluded there is no connection .
If we were to turn this argument around, we actually find higher rates of kidney disease associated with inadequate protein consumption . As it stands, the evidence suggests no link between kidney damage and high protein intake, making this one of the longest running myths about protein.
How to Choose the Right Protein Powder
Selecting the right protein powder for you might seem like rocket science with the number of options available and uses we covered. It doesn’t have to be. There are certain factors to consider when buying protein that will help you narrow your selection so you see the benefits you’re looking for.
The type of protein you choose is ultimately the first and most important decision when picking the right supplement. Ask yourself, “What goal am I trying to achieve?” What you come up with will lead you to a number of potential types of protein to consider. Even if your sole goal is to simply consume more protein, there are specifics types just for that!
Whey protein is easily the most popular type of protein on the market and one of the most beneficial. Walk into any supplement or health food store and the walls are lined with “Super Whey This” and “Extreme Whey That” and many of you reading this guide strictly want to know “which whey” is right for you. The 4 major types of whey protein are:
- Whey Protein Concentrate
- Whey Protein Isolate
- Whey Protein Hydrolysate
- Whey Protein Blend
Each of these types of whey is covered at length in our comprehensive list above. Once you decided that whey protein is the type for you, narrowing down the version of is relatively straight forward.
If you’re looking for a post-exercise protein that has lightning fast absorption (critical for post-exercise), consider whey protein hydrolysate, sometimes called hydrolyzed whey protein. It’s the fastest absorbing version of whey and has clinically shown to improve recovery from a workout but can be the most expensive form of whey protein .
If you’re interested in whey protein that can be used throughout the day in place of food, and you have no allergens to lactose, then whey protein concentrate is perfect. It’s the most affordable whey protein, generally tastes great, and has all the amino acids you need from a protein powder .
For a protein that is in between whey concentrate and hydrolysate, then whey protein isolate is a perfect choice. It’s not as expensive as hydrolyzed whey and has more protein by weight than whey concentrate. It’s been studied for years and proven to add quality muscle when used in conjunction with exercise .
If you can’t decide between these 3 types of whey, you may want to go with a blended whey protein. Whey protein blends are very common, they’re affordable, and you can get some of the benefits off every type of whey in one convenient shake.
Price vs. Quality
Ideally, price wouldn’t be the determining factor when choosing a supplement, but here at eSupplements, we know that realistically it’s one of the biggest deciding factors when it comes ot purchasing any supplement. The easiest way to make this decision is to weigh the price of the product versus the quality.
There are plenty of high end protein supplements available that cost an arm and a leg and will be perfect to take a dedicated athlete to the next level in performance. There are also inexpensive proteins that give you exactly what you pay for. It gets a little trickier when navigating between these two.
No matter what a particular advertisement might say; whey protein concentrate is a little lower in quality than whey protein isolate, so on and so forth… So be careful when making decisions based on what’s advertised. Always look at the label and what the ingredients are, no matter what protein you choose to go with.
For those looking for the least expensive but still quality protein, consider a blended protein. As we discussed earlier, blended proteins contain a blend of two or more protein types and are generally more affordable than a specific protein powder but still offer a number of benefits.
In a perfect world taste would be the last consideration when choosing the right protein powder for you. We of course live in real world, where a bad tasting protein will likely collect dust in the pantry until its expiration date arrives.
Taste is something that can be affected by several factors, including; type of protein, process used to make the powder, flavor added to the powder, and age of the product. There’s no easy way to overcome bad taste except to find a flavor that suits you (most manufacturers offer multiple options) and stick with it. Some companies even offer flavorless protein which can be mixed with a calorie free drink for tasty results.
Don’t let one bad experience shape your opinion of all protein powders; it may take some taste testing before you find the right protein powder for your taste buds.
Regardless of your goals, the number of calories you get from your protein shake should be considered. On a gram-for-gram basis, protein is always going to have the same number of calories no matter the source you choose.
What should be taken into consideration when deciding on a protein powder are the additional calories from fat and carbohydrates. It’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to include trace amounts of these nutrients in an effort to provide a better tasting product. Lower quality protein powders can also contain trace fats and sugars due to the lack of filtration and purifying.
Always be sure to read the nutritional data before making a decision of which protein to buy, the potential for additional calories could be the difference in reaching your goals or not.
How to Use Protein Powders
- First Thing in the AM – The time you spend sleeping at night doubles as longest period of time your body goes without any food. Getting a fast digesting protein shake in your system will resupply your body with the amino acids it needs for optimal health and muscle repair.
- Pre-Workout – For most people, a protein shake for recovery directly after exercise is common place. What many fail to realize is that a fast digesting protein pre-workout will also contribute to the recovery process. The added amino acids will facilitate the growth process of the muscles as you work out.
- Post-Workout – Arguably the most important time of the day to consume protein, the body is scavenging for the necessary amino acids to recover properly directly following exercise. At any other time of the day you can replace a protein shake with a whole food source of protein and have comparable results; not with post-workout. Whole food simply can’t be digested and the protein absorbed quick enough, making a protein shake essential after your workout.
- Between Meals – Protein intake between meals can have several benefits. In addition to keeping a steady supply of amino acids in the bloodstream, a protein shake can prevent the notorious act of “snacking” in the time between major meals. Plant based proteins with some fiber content can have a profound effect on the appetite and make the downtime between meals much more bearable.
- Meal Replacement – Protein powders can be marketed as a meal replacement when coupled with fats and carbohydrates. If the calorie count on a prepackaged meal replacement doesn’t align with your particular needs, consider making your own meal replacement shake by adding items like fruit, oatmeal, and peanut butter to formulate a shake that is consistent with your caloric needs. For a weight-loss related diet, protein on its own may even constitute a meal replacement.
- Before Bed – Stocking the body full of amino acids before the extended nighttime fast can prevent muscle tissue breakdown (catabolism). Restful sleep maximizes your body’s potential to recover from exercise as well as basic recovery needs. The added amino acids will provide the tools you need to take full advantage of this precious recovery time.
How Much Protein
Protein powders come in various serving sizes, some as small as 10g per serving, others as high as 75 or 100g. The average scoop of protein contains around 15g of protein.
Once you’ve determined your daily need for protein (covered above) you can divide that total by the number of times you eat in a day, including snacks. So for example, if you needed 100g of protein/day and you eat 3 meals and 2 snacks (5 times total), you would need to eat 20g or protein at each sitting.
We don’t recommend making protein powder your sole source of protein. In fact, protein powder shouldn’t constitute more than half your daily intake no matter what your goals may be. With this in mind, you can make a powder your only source of protein at a meal or it can be used in combination with a dietary source of protein to meet your needs for an individual meal.
How to Increase Absorption
What you consume and what you absorb can be end up being 2 completely different numbers. Through the entire process of digestion and absorption, protein has several opportunities to lose some of its biological value (BV). Much of this has to do with how much time you take in between meals and what other foods, vitamins, and supplements are consumed with the protein.
Increasing the amount of protein absorbed from a shake can be as simple as consistently taking a multi-vitamin. If the shake is a post-exercise source of protein and speed of absorption is essential, only mix the powder with water, absolutely no milk.
If the shake is combined with whole foods in any particular meal, consider having the shake 20-30min prior to the rest of the meal to increase the amount absorbed.
Finally, if you’re looking to increase actual muscle protein synthesis (growing new muscle), the amino acid leucine has shown to significantly stimulate protein synthesis . Taking 3-5g of leucine with protein powder (as well as whole food proteins) can be a great place to start if you’re goals are to increase lean muscle.
Water vs. Milk vs. Juice
“What should I mix my powder with?” routinely ranks as one of the most frequently asked questions with regard to proper protein powder use. The answer is a little more complicated as there can be a time for each.
Water is the go-to answer here; it can be used with any type of protein at any point of the day. It allows you to get exactly what’s in the supplement and nothing more.
Milk can provide taste and creaminess to a potentially bland product. It can also be a great addition to a weight gainer where extra calories are needed. The downside of milk is of course additional calories from carbs and fat for those that are managing their daily caloric totals. Additionally, the lactose in milk can slow down absorption when speed is critical(post-workout).
Finally, juice can be great for added taste or as part of a protein smoothie. Smoothies have become popular alternatives to fast food over the years and can be an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Many commercial smoothie bars even offer protein as an addition to any of their drinks. The con here is similar to milk; those additional calories from the juice are nearly 100% from simple sugars and can be a major impediment to someone following a weight-loss diet.
Over the years it’s become increasingly popular to cook and bake with protein powders. There are websites and sections within cookbooks dedicated to this use of protein powder. There is little concern when cooking with protein powder outside of long-term exposure to high heat. Extended exposure to high heat can affect the physical structure of the protein (denaturation) but nutritional content is still the same, similar to the various methods of egg preparation i.e. fried, scrambled, whipped, etc.
There are a handful of manufacturers that even produce protein specifically for cooking/baking that have been stripped down and are flavorless. They’re not necessary but incredibly convenient for those that want to fortify their favorite dishes and desserts with protein.
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