All About Protein Supplements

by Lauren Larson MS, RDN December 16, 2014

All About Protein Supplements

A protein supplement can be an ideal way to enhance your diet, whether it’s right after a workout to boost muscle repair, or as a meal replacement. However, it’s easy to get confused with all of the different types on the market. Some even have a lengthy list of ingredients, making it even more difficult to know which is best for helping you meet your goals.

There are a variety of different types of protein, some of which are milk derived and some are plant-based. Not only do they each vary in bio-availability (how much you get out of it), but some are better tolerated than others.

Milk-Derived Proteins: Whey and Casein

Whey

Whey is derived from the liquid portion of coagulated milk – it’s the liquid that you sometimes see on top of yogurt. Most whey is produced as a byproduct of cheese production. It can be found as “concentrate,” “isolate”, or “hydrolysate”. Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is probably the most common with about 80% protein and some lactose and fat.

Whey protein isolate (WPI) is processed in a way that removes virtually all of the lactose and fat, making it about 90-95% protein and potentially better tolerated by those with lactose intolerance.

In whey protein hydrolysate (WPH), the long protein molecules have been broken down into smaller ones, making them more easily absorbed and reducing the chance of an allergic reaction.

Either way, these milk-derived proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, making them highly bio-available and effective for muscle building when used along with resistance training. (Bioavailability refers to how much you get out of the protein – kind of like ‘miles to the gallon’ in a car..)

They also contain leucine, a branched chain amino acid that can actually stimulate muscle protein synthesis after exercise.

Casein

protein is digested more slowly than whey protein, which is why it is sometimes recommended to take in the late evening. The slow and steady release of proteins (amino acids) during overnight fasting and recovery may help preserve muscle proteins. The combination of whey and casein may also be used, but for muscle building, whey protein has been shown to be better than casein after exercise.

Plant-Based Proteins: Soy, Hemp, Rice and others:

Soy

Soy protein is isolated from soybeans and is a common vegetarian/vegan substitute for milk-derived proteins. Like milk proteins, it contains all of the essential amino acids, but is less digestible and therefore less bio-available, making whey superior for muscle building.

While consumption of soy has been shown to have some health benefits, it is important to also note that soy is a phytoestrogen, meaning it mimics estrogen in the body, making it an endocrine disruptor in excess amounts.

Also, next to corn, soy is the second most-produced crop in the U.S., and is highly likely to be genetically modified. If you choose to consume any soy products, it is important to do so in moderation and buy organic for these reasons.

Hemp

Hemp protein is made from the seeds of the hemp plant (a species of cannabis sativa). It is a complete protein (contains all essential amino acids) and is the only protein to contain the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, in the optimal 3-to-1 ratio.

However, because it has these healthy fatty acids in it, hemp protein can be higher in calories, which may or may not be in line with your goals. Hemp protein is also easy to digest, making it suitable for those that have trouble tolerating other protein powders. The only downside of hemp protein might just be its nutty taste that may require some masking with a bit of extra fruit or other flavor enhancers like cocoa powder or ginger.

Brown Rice

Brown rice protein is not a complete protein like the ones mentioned previously, but if consumed within the same day as other complimentary foods like tofu and beans, you can still get all of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts.

Brown rice protein is easily tolerated and tends to be allergen-friendly, low in calories and fat. I would recommend being cautious with consuming brown rice protein on a regular basis, particularly if you are also regularly eating rice and rice products. This is because of the potential for rice to be high in arsenic, a toxic heavy metal, which may become concentrated when processing it into a protein powder.

To get the most benefits from a plant-based protein, it is best to choose a blend of protein sources. Examples of other plant-based proteins include chia, chlorella (algae), pea, quinoa, sprouts (e.g. alfalfa), beans, and lentils. Choosing a blend of each of these tends to offer a more complete amino acid profile, promoting muscle building and recovery, while reaping the benefits from each. We love this vegan protein (pea, chlorellla, chia) powder!

While the type of protein is often the first ingredient, there are often other ingredients that may include a sweetener (caloric or non-caloric) vitamins, minerals, other nutrients and fillers. Stay tuned for another /blogs/natural-athlete-solutions post about the different types of additives often found in protein supplements.

Lauren Larson MS, RDN
Lauren Larson MS, RDN


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