It is not uncommon for aspiring gym-goers to have a diet short of protein necessary to support exercise-induced muscle growth. Protein supplements in powdered form can help adjust and compensate for deficiencies in your diet, supporting attempts to build additional muscle. Few supplements have more utility and proven effect to weight trainers than protein powders taken in addition to or in between regular meals.
The importance of protein supplementation is tied to the importance of protein itself. Some individuals may not even be aware of their need for a protein supplement. Proteins are complex organic compounds made up of amino acids that serve functions from acting as enzymes and antibodies to forming structural components of tissues, hormones, and blood. Proteins are often classified as
- “globular” (i.e., biologically active) and
- “fibrous” (i.e., structural).
Biologically active proteins, mainly globulins, include hormones, hemoglobin, antibodies (immunoglobulins), and enzymes. Structural proteins include actin, myosin, collagen, keratin, and fibrinogen. Structural proteins are the main constituents of muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, hair, and nails. Thus, proteins are vital to growth and repair of body tissues. That means building and maintaining muscles!
Amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein; chains of amino acids make proteins. The body breaks down protein consumed through our daily diet into amino acids in the stomach and intestines to be reconstructed into new biologically active and structural proteins. We need amino acids at all times, so when they’re not consumed via food sources, our bodies will scavenge muscles to get them. The scavenging is referred to as “muscle catabolism.” Of course, this is the exact opposite of what most anyone would want to happen.
The nine essential (i.e., cannot be manufactured by our bodies) amino acids:
The eleven non-essential (i.e., can be manufactured by our bodies) or conditionally essential amino acids:
Not all food has the same nutritional profile with regard to amino acids. Foods containing all nine of the essential amino acids are regarded as complete protein sources, such as:
- Meat, fish, and poultry
- Hemp seeds
Foods lacking essential amino acids are regarded as incomplete protein sources, such as:
- Beans, lentils, peas, and other legumes
- Rice, wheat, rye, corn, oats, and other grains
- Spinach and other leafy green vegetables
The incomplete protein sources available are what make a vegetarian or vegan diet so undesirable for the muscle-conscious individual; it’s harder to get all the essential amino acids. Barring animal-based food products means you could be inadvertently saturating your digestive system with carbohydrates as you struggle to consume adequate amounts of protein.
While complete protein sources from plants (and blue-green algae in the case of spirulina) exist, they typically are lower (in milligrams per gram of protein) in the essential amino acids leucine, lysine, methionine, threonine, and/or tryptophan. When relying on the majority of vegetables and grains available as a primary source of protein, it’s necessary to mix and match various complimentary foods – like beans with rice on a tortilla – to ensure that you are getting all essential amino acids and in sufficient quantity.
However, it takes a large plate of beans and rice to get the same of amount of essential amino acids available in a smaller piece of meat. So, it can be challenging to aspire to a bodybuilder’s physique on a vegetarian, and especially a vegan, diet.
Of concern to males: all soy forms – like tofu – contain isoflavones, a phytoestrogen, i.e., plant estrogens. Having some female hormones in males is normal but having high amounts of the plant version in a human is abnormal. Soy proponents, backed by favorable studies, protest soy’s “bad rap” but some research has found that men, besides male rats and monkeys, who consumed a soy-rich diet had measurable effects, such as lower testosterone levels than, say, meat eaters.
Regardless of whether you’re a meat eater, access, availability, apathy, and aversion to complete proteins such as meat lead many weight trainers to seek out convenient new sources. In other words, we don’t always have a top sirloin steak in hand, some folks wouldn’t eat it even if they did, and even if you would, you don’t always feel like it.
Enter protein powders! These powders are simple and fast protein sources that, in most cases, mix with water to provide a quick shake whether you’re on the go or needing a snack. Let’s take a look at some choices.
Whey protein is derived from milk plasma (also known as whey), i.e., the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. Whey protein typically comes in three major forms:
The differences here come down to digestive pace and monetary cost. Isolate digests more quickly than concentrate. Hydrolysates are whey proteins broken down into even smaller fragments that digest faster than isolate; it’s the most expensive of the three. Some products offer whey peptides (really small protein fragments) shown to enhance blood flow and deliver more nutrients to muscles.
In relation to other protein sources, whey protein in all its forms is easier to digest and quicker to absorb, so amino acids head to muscle lickety split. Hence, whey is good at boosting muscle protein synthesis and breaking the fast after a good night’s sleep. Moreover, all whey contains high levels of all essential and non-essential amino acids.
Between its digestive ease, amino acid profile, and low price, whey is the number one protein powder to take as a supplement pre-workout and post-workout at any time of the day.
Casein is another protein normally found in milk and cheese. Its advantage is that it is a slow-digesting source of amino acids – unlike fast-digesting whey protein. Casein is difficult for enzymes in the stomach to break down, taking up to 7 hours. This means it provides a steady stream of amino acids instead of a surge like whey. Since the body needs amino acids at all times, casein can arrest catabolism between meals or during sleep.
Casein is also a rich source of glutamine. For these reasons, it is both a beneficial post-workout and the preferred pre-sleep protein supplement.
Soy protein contains all essential amino acids, and is a supplemental protein alternative for vegetarians and vegans.
On the downside, the phytoestrogen in soy, isoflavones, arguably have estrogenic activity.
On the upside, it is fast to digest and high in the non-essential amino acid arginine. Soy can boost nitric oxide (NO) levels thanks to genistein, another soy phytoestrogen, that increases the amount of nitric oxide synthase (NOS) produced by blood vessels. NOS causes arginine to convert to NO.
Between the fast digestion and NO boost, soy is a good choice for pre-workout protein.
Hemp protein is another supplemental protein alternative for vegetarians and vegans. Hemp is made of the globular protein edistin. It is highly soluble, digesting quickly and allowing nutrients to rapidly enter the bloodstream.
A big upside to hemp is that is doesn’t contain the phytoestrogens found in soy.
On the downside, many people dislike its taste and its higher cost than whey protein. Lastly, hemp has a poor shelf life, so a stale product shortly after opening may be a concern for some consumers.
Egg White (Egg Albumin)
Egg white protein, also known as egg albumin, comes from the nutritive, protective, gelatinous substance surrounding the yolk of an egg, i.e., the whites. It is a lactose- and dairy-free protein option. Egg also has a great amino acid profile: it is packed with essential amino acids.
If you feel your diet leaves a lot to be desired or you’re a serious lifter needing additional protein at a moment’s notice, try a powdered supplement. In conjunction with a sound diet of more conventional foods, an effective training program, and adequate rest, it will fill in a piece of the muscle-building puzzle. There are powdered protein supplements available today catering to all training goals and dietary preferences.