The world of protein supplements can get confusing. There are a lot of different options to choose from and a lot of bro-science surrounding the topic. No wonder people get overwhelmed.
As well as that, all the supplement companies tend to put a big spin on their products trying to convince you to go with their protein supplement. If you pay attention to protein supplement ads in the Internet or in gyms it often seems that the more hyped adjectives equals a better product.
Of course this is not always the case.
How much protein do we actually need
First, the protein requirements differ between an active person who’s trying to improve their body composition and those who are sedentary. What Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends (so your body can function well) is vastly different compared to what the International Society of Sports Nutrition says (so your body can thrive in athletic endeavours).
For the simplicity of this blog post I will focus on the requirements for an active individual who is concerned about their body composition and sport performance. Purely because those people form the 99.9% of my following.
International Society of Sports Nutrition’s protein requirements for the athletic population
“Protein intakes of 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg/day for physically active individuals is not only safe, but may improve the training adaptations to exercise training.” Further, “While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through a varied, regular diet, supplemental protein in various forms are a practical way of ensuring adequate and quality protein intake for athletes.”(1)
There is research that 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight for athletes might be overblown and we could possibly get similar results with less. This research concluded that protein intake greater than around 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight doesn’t contribute to increased muscle mass and strength in resistance training individuals.(2)
Also, a great article over at Stronger by Science discussed that 120 grams per day regardless of the person weight would be enough if you don’t want to obsess (too much) about protein intake.(3) For the person weighing 80 kilograms that would be 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram.
It’s also worth noting that there are often benefits in increasing the protein intake when the goal is fat loss while trying to maintain lean muscle mass.
Do we need protein supplements to reach 160 grams of protein per day?
Let’s say that we need 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For an 80 kg person this would mean getting 160 grams of protein per day.
If the 80 kg person eats four meals a day, getting 40 grams of protein per meal, he or she reaches the magical 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight amount. As an example, 130 grams of chicken breast has roughly 40 grams of protein.
Now if the goal is to get 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight the intake becomes much more manageable. For an 80 kilogram person that means 128 grams of protein per day. Getting to that without protein supplements is quite simple. Especially if you are a meat, fish and egg eater. For vegans things become a bit more tricky. We’ll touch on that later.
Before looking at protein supplements I would focus on building meals around wholefoods as this would allow you get in all the needed nutrients required for an amazing body. Aim for the minimum intake of of 120 grams as per Stronger by Science recommendation. Or go for the 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. After a month reassess whether you need more, or perhaps less. It could be that you do not need a supplement in the first place which would save you some money.
When to take protein supplements
The “anabolic window” of slamming down a protein shake is being challenged with recent research.(4) As a matter of fact you might actually be wasting your money if you don’t find a way to slow down your whey digestion. You’ll be, quite literally, pissing money away.(5)
Again, the big picture view is important when it comes to timing your protein intake. Consuming 40 grams of protein after workout might be more beneficial than 25 grams.(6) But as this research tells us: “Shifting the training session closer to the pre- or post-exercise meal should be dictated by personal preference, tolerance, and lifestyle/scheduling constraints.”(7)
In other words, you don’t need to rush to the change rooms to slam down a shake.
And unlike a lot of supplement companies would like you to believe, if you are eating enough protein, around 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, you probably don’t need a supplement.
But as mentioned earlier, this can be a challenging (but definitely not impossible) number to get to if you follow a plant-based diet.
If you do need to supplement protein, keep reading to find out which type to go with.
Which protein supplement is the best
Depending on your taste preferences, allergies or intolerances and ethical views there are a bunch of different options to choose from.
Dairy Protein Supplements
There are two proteins found in milk, whey and casein. To avoid getting too bogged down in the deep science, here is the takeaway: think whey as a fast absorbed protein and casein as slow.
When reading the Whey vs Casein comparison on Examine.com they conclude the following:
“The degree that one is better than the other (in regards to protein synthesis) is minimal relative to the degree they are both better than a protein deficient diet”.(8)
Although there might be a difference in how the protein is digested, this plays only a small part when looking at a whole day or a longer period of time. If you are hitting your protein target the timing may not play as big part as it has been hyped to do.
As with most things diet related, focus on the big picture instead of obsessing over minutiae. If want a dairy protein supplement test different brands to find which you like the most. Both in taste and digestion. And go for the one with the shortest ingredient list.
Beef Protein Supplement
Beef protein does not come from the flesh. Rather it’s made of connective tissue, bones, ears, ligaments, and such.
In a study comparing beef protein and whey the researchers concluded that “consuming two servings of either beef protein isolate or whey protein isolate following resistance training lead to significant increases in lean body mass and strength.”(9)
In other words, one wasn’t more superior than the other. No matter how much the products are hyped by their creators.
Plant-Based Protein Supplements
As the demand for ethical supplements has increased and we’ve come to realize that whey is not as superior as once thought, the offering of vegan supplements has skyrocketed. There are plenty of plant-based protein supplements available these days. Brown rice, pea, hemp and soy are the most common.
Is soy protein bad?
There is a lot of confusion and myth about the soy consumption, it’s negative effects and whether it affects testosterone and estrogen levels in men. If you choose a soy protein concentrate these issues are of no concern. As long as the product has been heat treated to eliminate trypsin inhibitors.(10)
What about the incomplete amino acid profile in other plan-based proteins?
Most people ignore plant-based options because the fear mongering about them not having the complete-amino acid profile. However, this is over blown. And way smarter than you might think.
As long as you eat a variety of foods throughout the day your body will combine the necessary amino acid profiles. What’s more, a blend of brown rice protein and pea protein has an amino acid profile similar to whey. End of story.
Plant-based protein might be easier to digest than egg or dairy protein supplements
Often people find that switching to a plant-based protein such as brown rice protein supplement alleviates some of the digestion issues that they get from whey, casein or egg protein supplements. However for some, pea and soy protein supplements might be as challenging to digest as dairy and egg based powders.
The biggest drawback from switching away from whey is that plant-based proteins tend to be a bit less “smooth” in texture and can take a bit of time to getting used to. But as long as you don’t mind a bit of sweetness in your shake or smoothie Prana has done a great job in flavoring their plant-based protein powders.
Choosing between a plant or animal-based protein supplement
As far as other nutrient profiles go between plant and whey proteins, plant-based take the trophy here. Whey on the other hand is slightly higher in protein per serve (easy to fix by just having a larger serve of plant-based option) but doesn’t have much else going for it.
What to look for in a protein supplement
The most important thing to look for in your protein supplement is the “other ingredients” – part. Often lower quality products are filled with artificial sweeteners and other unnecessary junk. Stick with powders that have a list of natural ingredients. And if it’s all too confusing pick the option with the shortest list of ingredients.
And when looking at the pricing it doesn’t always mean that more expensive protein powders are better than moderately priced. But with dirt cheap ones you’ll often (not always) get what you pay for. Here’s a website that might come handy when choosing a protein supplement (or other supplement for that matter).
First decide if you need a protein supplement. And if you do, I recommend trying different sources and always choosing reputable, quality brands. Find out what works the best for your taste, your values and your digestion.