Protein powders are often associated with body builders who love chugging shakes while waiting for the free weights and pushing their fitness limits. But protein powders can be an integral part of any well-rounded diet, especially for those looking to lose weight, athletes of all types, and vegetarians and vegans.
Protein powders should be used to boost healthy diets, and as such protein should come from food sources, too. Eggs, poultry, lean beef, rice, and beans can all supply an ample amount of complete protein. However, protein powders are great way to increase your intake, especially if you lead a very active lifestyle or are going through dietary changes.
The amount of protein you need depends on a couple of factors – weight, activity, and gender all change how much, at minimum, you should be getting in your diet. Just to prevent deficiency, men need to get 56 grams of protein per day, with women needing 46 grams.[i] This is, of course, an average; based on size, it’s recommended to take 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.[ii] Luckily, proteins are easy to ingest, and most people hit these targets without trying too hard. These figures are for sedentary people though, men and women who don’t move around a lot. For optimal health, active people need more. If you’re a runner, you’ll need about 0.7 grams per pound; body builders need 0.8 grams!
So if you’re not moving much, protein powders might hurt more than they would help. But they can be important supplements for people trying to lose weight, those recovering from an injury, growing teenagers, and especially if you’re going vegan or taking on a meatless diet.
Proteins are essential for healthy living. If you’re not getting enough protein, your muscles can deteriorate, your energy levels go down, your nails and hair become unhealthy and discoloured, and your immune system won’t work to fight infections.[iii] Proteins repair bones, muscles, and cells, as well as help dieters lose weight by curbing hunger and increasing metabolic rate.[iv] Its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties are still being investigated, but regardless, it’s very important to get enough protein.[v]
Some are better than others, though. Complete proteins are ones that provide the nine amino acids that the body doesn’t make on its own. When it comes to the major protein supplements, most are complete, but it’s important to know the differences between them and choose one that complements your lifestyle.
Forget the raw eggs, Rocky-style: the best way to get your protein tastes a lot better. A comprehensive protein shake or smoothie can be a great meal replacement when you’re on the go, but it’s best used to get ready for and recover after a workout. It gets what your body needs, when it needs it, in a very accessible, digestible form.
A basic shake will have a base like milk or yogurt, a natural sweetener like prunes, other dried fruit, or berries, and your protein. Generally, one or two scoops of protein powder get added to the shake, but always follow the directions on the label and the recipe you’re using.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or lactose intolerant, milk and yogurt could present a stumbling block to a proper shake. Here are some great alternatives:
Note that these are general guidelines; always read the labels to make sure you’re getting the benefits you want.
Let’s get down to business, then. There are three broad categories for protein supplements: dairy-based powders, vegan powders, and natural proteins. They all have different pros and cons, and before you incorporate any of them into your diet, read on and see what works best for you.
There are two types of dairy-based protein powders, both of which come from the same source but have different effects. These are whey and casein.
Whey vs. Casein
Whey and casein are both complete in the amino acids they provide the consumer, but they differ in how fast they work. Most of the cow or sheep protein is casein – about 80%, versus 20% whey – and it’s the difference in chemical makeup that gives them different helpful properties. Whey is leftover liquid from the making of cheese, whereas casein basically is the cheese.
These physical properties – whey being liquid based, casein gelatinous - are what gives each their uniqueness. Whey is a fast-acting protein high in leucines, an amino acid great for stimulating protein synthesis rapidly. Casein is more gelatinous, thus slower to ingest and create amino acids. It provides a steady release of amino acids into the blood stream.[vii]
Whey is definitely more popular, but because they do different things, they are commonly consumed together and at different times throughout the day for maximum effect.
Whey’s fast acting effects make it great for losing weight and building muscle. There are different types of whey:
Because of its fast-acting nature, whey is recommended for before and immediately after workouts, as soon as you can, because the effects are also short-lived.[ix] It’s generally what goes in popular shaker bottles that you’ll see in the gym.
When to Use Casein
Casein is the supplement to use before bed. Casein’s gelatinous qualities make it a slow releasing protein, providing your muscles with a steady stream of amino acids. It’s great for when you need a slow-acting energy and protein source, so with casein, you can sleep soundly while it repairs your muscles.
Combining Whey and Casein
Because they both have different benefits, many people use both in their routines to get the most benefits. Whey has short chain amino acids that provide benefits like lowering blood pressure; casein can preserve the function of these amino acids. Combining the two is about maximizing the effects these proteins have on your body, and they can do their best work together and make up for each other’s shortcomings.[x]
Of course, whey and casein are dairy products, and as such they come with the baggage that dairy products usually carry: GMOs, growth hormones, and soy from the animal’s diet. A high-quality protein like whey isolate will have most of the fats stripped away anyway, so the detrimental chemicals won’t be left in the powder. Using a concentrate low in protein will still have more of the fats and lactose in, though, and a higher chance of the bad stuff getting through.
There are whey options that come from grass-fed sources, promising a healthy diet for the animals from which the milk comes. Regardless of the health benefits, organic and grass-fed whey means the animals were more likely treated humanely and given proper diets. Ethically, grass-fed is the way to go.
Of course, as better for you as grass-fed dairy protein might be, it’s still unsuitable for vegans, many vegetarians, and those who are sensitive to lactose. For anyone who wants to start a vegan diet, Vegan protein powders can help them get the necessary proteins that may be lacking from a plant-based menu. Vegan diets often lack in complete proteins, and supplements can make up for this deficiency. There are different types of vegan protein powders, all of which have different pros and cons: soy, brown rice, pea, and hemp protein.
There is a lot of concern among those in the bodybuilding community that soy isoflavones, compounds in the plant with estrogen qualities[xii], can have a detrimental impact on men’s health. Don’t worry about the rumours: isoflavones have not been shown to have an effect on testosterone levels in men.[xiii]
If you’re not big on the idea of protein powders, there are many ways to consume raw, real, unprocessed foods that are high in protein and easy to throw in a shake or smoothie. Boosting a blender drink is the perfect way to get vitamins, minerals, and, yes, proteins that are otherwise absent from your diet.
With a base of milk or yogurt, you’re starting with something very rich in proteins. Chocolate milk is also known as a very good post-workout drink, because it has more carbohydrates and proteins than water, regular sports drinks like Gatorade, even regular milk. The calcium gives an added health benefit, and the sugar and salt added makes it great for retaining water and replenishing energy.[xvii] If you’re cutting sugar, though, it’s best to custom make your own post-workout drink.
With a base of protein-rich milk, chocolate milk, or yogurt, you can add a great many things that expand your protein intake and helps you repair and build muscle. Remember, if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, check the list of milk mixer alternatives at the top and see what works for you!
Recipe: Chocolate Monkey Power Smoothie
By: Jesse Lane
1 big kale leaf
1 Tbsp chia seeds
1 cup coconut water
1 scoop protein powder
2 Tbsp raw cacao powder
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 tsp cinnamon
Place all of the power smoothie ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.
The right boosters can make your next smoothie a complex protein supplement, comparable to a protein shake in its weight-loss, energy, and muscle-repairing potential. They can add not only complete proteins, but essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that won’t overpower or ruin your desired flavour.
Proteins are a great supplement in that they can appeal to just about any dietary choices, restrictions, and tastes. The many, many options that can accommodate allow active people to make original choices and add variety to their regiments. Finding what works best for you and your taste is often as simple as breaking out the blender and mixing and matching.
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