Photo: Tony Webster/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
The words “protein” and “supplements” have important meanings that don’t change when they appear together in a sentence. Getting enough high-quality protein, and getting it when your muscles are most receptive to it, is important to a guy who wants the best physique possible.
You want to get the majority of this protein from whole foods, from a mix of animal and plant sources. Those foods will also contain carbs and fat for energy, along with vitamins, minerals, and fibre for health.
They’re convenient and economical, and nowadays many of them taste really good as well. (Without flavouring, either from sugar or artificial sweeteners, these products would taste like armadillo balls.)
Most are made from two milk proteins, whey and casein. The protein in a glass of milk is 80 per cent casein and 20 per cent whey.
But because whey digests and reaches your bloodstream faster, it’s much more common in supplements, and is usually considered the best type to use after a workout. Slower-digesting casein is a good choice as a meal replacement at other times of the day.
Protein Powder Terms
To most guys, the ingredients list of a protein powder might as well be written in Sanskrit. That’s because it often contains several subtypes of whey, casein, and even soy protein. Here’s how to read the label like a chemist.
Concentrate (whey) or caseinate (casein): This is the cheapest type of protein supplement. It’s usually about 80 per cent protein, so it has more fat and carbs than the higher-quality products.
It can also be clumpy and hard to mix by hand. But it still offers the same basic muscle-building benefits.
Isolate: It’s more processed and concentrated, with 90 to 95 per cent protein, and thus easier to mix.
Hydrosylate, or hydrolyzed protein: This protein has been broken down into smaller particles that are more easily absorbed, and thus reach your muscles faster.
Both whey and casein can be hydrolyzed for faster digestion, but in the case of casein, it negates the benefits of a slower-acting protein.
Micellar casein, or isolated casein peptide: An expensive but easy-to-mix protein composed almost entirely of pure casein, ensuring slow and steady absorption.
Milk protein: An ingredient that has the composition of natural milk protein—roughly 80 per cent casein and 20 per cent whey.
Egg-white protein: Like whey and casein, an excellent high-quality protein. It’s sometimes called “instantized egg albumin” on the label.
“Proprietary blend”: This phrase allows companies to use a mix of whey, casein, and other ingredients (like creatine) without saying how much or how little of each you get in each serving.
Consumer trends are way ahead of research when it comes to vegetarian proteins. While soy protein has been around long enough to be tested against whey and casein in published research, there aren’t many strength-training studies using the others listed here.
Soy: It’s a high-quality protein with all the amino acids needed for muscle development.
In studies, soy induces lower rates of protein synthesis compared to milk proteins, but when tested against whey supplements over periods of several weeks or months, there were no differences in muscle gains.
Soy gets a bad rap because of concerns about the potential estrogenic effects of soy isoflavones, which are compounds found in soy and other plant foods that interact with human hormones.
But most of the isoflavones have been removed from soy protein isolate, the kind most commonly used in supplements.
Hemp: It has all the essential amino acids (those that your body can’t make from other aminos, and need to get directly from food), but is low in leucine, the most important for protein synthesis and muscle growth. On the plus side, it’s high in fibre and healthy fats.
Brown rice: With a similar profile to soy protein, Like hemp, it’s low in the most important amino acids for building muscle. But it does have fibre and B vitamins.
Yellow pea: Another protein that’s low in essential amino acids but may have other health benefits. In research, it’s been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and may help reduce appetite.
Plant-based protein blend: These products mix and match seeds, grains, and legumes (peas, beans, lentils) to create a powder with a full dose of leucine and the other essential aminos.
Although a complete protein has all 20 amino acids, we know that some are more important than others for protein synthesis, muscle growth, and sports performance.
That’s why we have supplements that give you the three branched-chain aminos—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—or leucine by itself.
Either type of supplement can increase protein synthesis, but not beyond the effect you can achieve with complete proteins, either from whole foods (like meat, dairy, fish, or eggs) or supplements.
The following chart (based in part on material from Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Roussell, Ph.D.) shows how much protein you need from various powders to get 2.5 grams of leucine.
Most of these numbers are based on supplements used in published research. Manufacturers can easily tweak a formula to increase its leucine content.
Protein bars are portable, convenient, and a healthier alternative to whatever you might find in a vending machine when hunger strikes. But you need to read the nutrition labels carefully because the calories can add up fast.
If your goal is to lose fat, a bar designed for endurance athletes, or to help young lifters gain weight, will have more calories than you need. Also, beware of bars advertised as low-carb. They often have chemicals called sugar alcohols, which can produce “toxic” levels of gas in those of us who are susceptible.
All that’s aside from taste. If possible, buy a single bar at a grocery or health-food store before spending $25 (plus shipping) on a box of 12. Fitness conferences and expos are a good way to get free samples of a variety of bars to see which you like best.
By Lou Schuler