A Guide to Protein Supplements

Knowing which type of protein you should take can be quite the confusing experience. Now it should a little bit easier.

 So you’ve decided to add a protein supplement into your diet. As Dr. Karen Reid from Performance Food said, ‘it may be a more convenient way to get their protein within 30 minutes of exercise’ and that’s exactly what you want. But as you’ve probably already guessed, that was the easy part. The question now is: which one should you take? Looking through pages of options online and the plethora of choices in the shop can be quite overwhelming. You have to think about how much you train, your diet, and your body in general. So sit back, relax, and get ready for a crash course on protein.

To start off, let’s take a look at protein itself. What is protein and how does it work? In a way, protein is the building block of the body. Some of its functions include repair and maintenance, giving energy, creating hormones, producing enzymes, transporting and storing molecules, and forming antibodies. Basically, protein is really important. ‘Protein is made up of different amino acids,’ said Danny Heath from MyProtein. ‘The essential amino acids are fundamental for muscle growth and in particular it is the branch chain amino acids (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine), which are directly synthesised in the muscle increasing the rate of muscle protein synthesis – which is the build and turnover of new proteins needed for growth and recovery.’

Repair and maintenance is one of the most important functions of protein for a gym going person. Most of us aren’t just there to show off our perfectly chiseled physiques by lifting our shirts and flexing our abs in the mirror for all to admire and envy, or be annoyed by. We’re there to build muscle and maximise our strength. Hence why you’ve chosen to invest in a protein supplement. With the constant strain of physical activity, whether it be on the pitch playing sport or in the gym hitting the weights, the intake of protein is vital to ensure proper care of your body.

Now that you know why protein is important, you need to decide which protein type is best for you. As said before, there are many to choose from. Out of all the choices, there are four common types of protein supplement: whey, soy, casein, and egg.

 Whey

 Whey protein is by far the most popular choice and for good reason. First off, what is whey? Whey is essentially a milk protein that has had most of the lactose stripped from it after being processed. Milk is made up of both casein and whey. ‘If you think about milk,’ Dr. Reid said, ‘casein is basically the curd and you separate the curd from the whey, which is the more soluble protein and that’s the one that’s digested more quickly.’ This quick absorption is one of the main points that makes it stand out above the other types. If you’ve been working out hard, you are going to want to get the protein and nutrients into your system as quickly as possible.

Research has also shown that whey protein can even lower your blood pressure. Additionally, ‘whey also has higher levels of the amino acid Leucine which is important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis,’ said Danny Heath. So you aren’t just getting quick digesting protein, but a higher quality protein with additional health benefits.

The only real con to taking whey is the fact it is a milk protein. If you are lactose intolerant it would cause more problems than help. The only way to bypass this would be to get the whey isolate, which means the whey has been stripped of most if not all the lactose. The isolate is typically more expensive, but sometimes the benefits outweigh the costs (monetarily speaking of course).

An option you might have seen and wondered about is the hydrolysed whey. Hydrolysed means that the protein has been partially or pre- digested to aid in getting those building blocks to your muscles even quicker than normal. Sounds great right? Not necessarily. It would be if you were a professional athlete or bodybuilder. Mr. Heath said, ‘not all of us are professional sportsmen or bodybuilders. The only real additional benefit for taking the hydrolysed would be that it is less allergenic. My advice would be that for the recreational gym-goer, whey isolate/concentrate would be sufficient for their training goal.’

Casein

Opposite to whey is casein. Like whey, casein is a milk protein, but unlike whey it is not quickly absorbed. This might be seen as a con to some people, but if you know the best time to take casein, its slow-releasing action is actually a pro. One ideal time to take casein is actually right before bedtime. ‘The casein is more slowly digested and it is actually a good one to have before bed,’ said Dr. Reid. There are many benefits for this. The biggest benefit is that the muscle repairing is done whilst you sleep.

Casein can also help you sleep better. Casein contains L-Tryptophan which is ‘converted into sleep hormone melatonin which helps a person drift off to sleep and then helps maintain those normal sleep patterns over the course of the night,’ said Alexander Thompson, a nutritionist at GNC. So if you are looking for a supplementary supplement, taking casein could be a good route.

Another attribute to casein is that ‘you won’t get that sharp surge in the levels of amino acids in the blood after ingestion, but you get a more sustained release,’ said Mr. Thompson. This is perfect for those in-between meals. You can get this in supplement form, or by having dairy products like milk, yoghurt, and/or cheese.

As with whey, there are very few cons with casein, the biggest being that it is slow releasing. If you are looking for something to chug back after your workout, you’d be better off with whey (regular or hydrolysed). The other big con would be if you were lactose intolerant as, like whey, casein is a milk protein. You should be careful taking casein if your body cannot handle dairy products.

Soy

Despite being one of the more popular protein variants, soy has received itself a bit of a stigma. It is a known fact that soy has been a dietary staple in Asia for hundreds of years. It holds many potential health benefits including lowering blood pressure, protection against certain forms of cancer, and a reduced risk for osteoporosis. It is considered to be one of two plant sources containing all the essential amino acids similar to meat. Besides being high in protein, it is also high in fibre, low in saturated fat, cholesterol free, and lactose free, to name a few more benefits. So why the stigma?

Soya contains isoflavones which can have a weak, estrogen-like effect. ‘There’s a school of thought that it might hinder endocrinal muscle growth from a hormonal angle,’ said Mr. Thompson. ‘There’s no evidence to suggest actually that the weak estrogen activity that you get within soya has any kind of negative hormonal effect.’ So if you have any worries, you can rest assured that there won’t be any unwanted developments.

Other than the stigma, the cons are relatively few. Mr. Thompson said, ‘the only real con, and it would be a minor con, is that the protein quality in terms of the overall amino acid profile for soya isn’t as high compared to the milk-based proteins especially the whey protein.’ Dr. Reid added that soy protein has ‘the same benefits [as whey], but it’s just not as effective. The research clearly shows that the rate of protein synthesis is not as good with soya.’

So while the soy protein does not have any adverse effects, the quality of protein isn’t as good as with either whey or casein. With the slower synthesis rate, this would be a good option to take in between meals. This is also an ideal substitute for vegans/vegetarians.

Egg

Egg protein is probably the least talked about supplement type. Not that it really needs much to explain what it is. Egg protein is protein from eggs. Simple enough right? So why has there been so little talk about it? The myth is that eating eggs will raise your cholesterol. The truth is that it is dietary cholesterol, i.e. the good (or better) kind. Studies have shown that eating two eggs a day did not cause the Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) blood cholesterol to rise (which can cause heart problems if it does). So if you are worried about eating eggs for that reason, don’t be.

Eggs, whether in supplement or natural form, are a fantastic addition to your diet. For one reason, ‘egg has a higher protein quality compared to casein,’ said Mr. Thompson. Not to mention eggs are filled with vitamins like A, D, E, and various Bs, and minerals like iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and selenium.

Mr. Heath added that ‘egg protein will have a slower digestion rate in the muscle (roughly 4-5 hours) as well as having varying levels of the essential and non-essential amino acids.’ Because of the slower digestion rate, if you choose to take egg protein in the powdered form you should take it between meals. Otherwise, have some eggs for breakfast.

General Tips

Now that it’s been laid out for you, all you need to do is decide which one(s) work(s) for you. While you do that, here are a couple more things to remember.

First, you don’t need to overload on protein in your shake. ‘The body can’t utilize much more than 25 grams in any one hit and so the rest is actually wasted,’ said Dr. Reid. ‘It’s not quantity, it’s the quality of protein at the right time.’ Most servings should be averaging that amount anyway. Be wary if it isn’t as there may be unnecessary additional fillers.

Next, make sure you are getting enough protein in your overall diet. Mr. Heath said, ‘the most recent research, particularly the literature from Tipton and colleagues has postulated that 1.5-2g of protein per kg body weight is recommended to optimise muscle recovery.’ If you are bulking, you would want to have a higher protein intake, around 1-1.6g per pound.

Third, like with your regular diet, make sure you look at the labels of the supplements. ‘I would mainly avoid any flavours that contain Aspartame as the sweetener,’ said Mr. Heath. ‘Some flavours now also contain natural sweeteners such as Stevia which are good, however, it should be noted that these will often be more expensive. Unflavoured options are also good and natural fruits and other ingredients can be used with these to brighten them up.’ Make sure what you are putting into you isn’t hindering your fitness goals.

Fourth, don’t overload on protein before the workout. If you are going to take a pre-workout shake, make sure it has plenty of carbs and less protein to ensure adequate energy during your training. Having too much protein before the workout could actually lead to muscle-related injury.

Lastly, remember that supplements are just that: supplements. They shouldn’t be taking the place of your regular diet. Make sure you are getting plenty of protein in other sources other than dairy, such as chicken. A well-balanced diet is vital to ensuring you are getting the most out of your training. By eating well, adding the protein supplement when needed, and weight training, you will become a Men’s Health cover model in no time.

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