When it comes to nutrition and training the term protein will be mentioned a lot of the time but there are a number of questions you might find yourself asking:
- What is protein?
- What foods are high in protein?
- How much protein do I need?
- What’s the difference between Whey, Casein and Hydrolysed Protein supplements?
The purpose of this article is to answer all of these questions and more.
What is Protein?
Dietary protein is a macronutrient – one of the three groups of nutrients that provide energy (carbohydrates and fats being the others). Proteins are unlike carbs or fats in that they contain nitrogen. This is where the term amino acid comes from – ‘amino’ meaning ‘nitrogen-containing’. Amino acids join into groups to form the protein in our natural world. The proteins in our body are comprised of 20 amino acids that fall into two categories; essential and non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by your body and therefore require you to consume them. Non-essential amino acids, however, can be sythesised by the body.
Amino acids are the building blocks for structures and functions in our body and when we talk about protein and the ability to build muscle they need to be discussed. There are 9 essential amino acids that we need to consume as part of our diet. The quality of protein is determined by the number of essential amino acids contained in the protein. If a protein contains all 9 essential amino acids it is called a High Quality protein but if it is lacking one or more of the amino acids it is called a Low Quality protein. The protein found in meat, eggs, fish, poultry and dairy products are all high quality proteins whereas the protein found in grains, vegetables and beans are low quality proteins.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Now you know protein is made up of amino acids you will understand that the requirement isn’t actually for protein but for amino acids. If you lay in bed all day you would still need to eat food as your body requires energy to stay alive – this is called cell turnover, where cells are constantly being broken down and built back up again. This cell turnover relies on amino acids stored in the body and in order to ensure this storage is kept replenished you need to consume amino acids in your diet (protein). When you start to move around performing normal daily duties your calorie requirement goes up and the same happens when you add exercise into your daily routine. The amount of protein your body requires depends on a number of factors such as age, weight, height, activity level and lean muscle mass but there are two other factors that are often never taken into consideration.
Firstly, if you are in a caloric deficit (trying to lose weight) protein can be used as a form of energy so you will need to increase your overall protein intake. You must also consider the quality of protein you are consuming. If you are getting most of your required protein from high quality protein (as explained previously) then you will not require as much in comparison to consuming mostly low quality protein. It is recommended that you try to get at least 70% of your protein from high quality protein sources.
Now, to the actual quantity. Basic requirements for men and women are lower than that of athletes and people who train regularly. One recommendation is 1.5 g/Kg to 2.0 g/Kg of your bodyweight. This means that if you weigh 80 Kg then you would consume between 120g to 160g of protein per day assuming that you are getting approx. 70% of your protein from high quality protein sources.
However, in my personal opinion and from other sources a recommendation of 1 gram per pound bodyweight is a very good guide to your protein intake. For example, if you weigh 80 Kg or 176 lbs then you would consume 176g of protein each day. Bear in mind that if you are in a calorie deficit you should consume more protein. But be realistic here too. If you are very overweight then this recommended amount would be ridiculous – I would recommend limiting it to 180-200g of protein if you are very overweight (by overweight I mean fat %, not overall weight. You can weigh a lot and still have a low fat % and be healthy). Despite my current recommendation being 176g of protein per day I will aim to consume about 200g because I am in a caloric deficit and by eating more protein rich foods it helps to increase satiety and decrease the chance of overeating.
The supplement industry is huge and no doubt you’ve already heard about protein supplements but there are also a number of different types of protein supplements available. So, what’s the difference between them and what should you be taking?
Whey protein is probably the most common type of protein supplement you will see for sale. They come in different ranges of protein content, usually about 70% to 95% protein. It is a high quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids your body requires. It is a derived from milk and is produced through different stages of processing to isolate the protein. It is a fast digesting protein and is ideal for a a pre or post-workout shake. As you can imagine the higher the percentage of protein the higher the price will be.
Casein protein, like whey protein, is derived from milk and goes through different stages of processing to isolate the protein. However, casein is a slow digesting protein in comparison to whey. It can come in different ranges of protein content (percentages) just like whey.
Hydrolysed Whey Protein
This is essentially whey protein that has been put through more processing in order to increase absorption, leaving it in a pre-digested form. Due to this extra processing and higher quality of whey hydrolysed whey is expensive make and therefore expensive to buy.
Which Protein Should You Take?
Firstly, whey protein is excellent as a post-workout shake and is effective for building muscle. Hydrolysed whey is a more expensive option but I wouldn’t choose it if you a trying to save money. Although it has a higher absorption than the whey discussed previously I feel the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost.
Casein is in a different category to whey as it is slow digesting. This can be used as a snack during the day between meals if you are looking to fight cravings, hunger and increase overall protein intake. It is not the best post-workout protein though. Personally, I don’t feel the need for a casein protein supplement. I take 1 scoop of whey upon waking up and one directly after a workout but the rest of my protein intake will mostly come from meat, eggs and dairy products with a small amount coming from grains, vegetables and beans. I’ll list the recommended brands of supplements below.
The Bigger Picture
You must remember that a supplement is just that – a supplement. It is to be used to supplement your diet. If it is possible and affordable to get your required protein from whole sources then you shouldn’t need a supplement. When it comes to protein supplementation I would recommend limiting your consumption to 2 scoops per day (approx. 50-60g). The rest of your required protein should come from consumption of high quality protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Obviously you can get protein from the lower quality sources such as vegetables, grains and beans but try to get the majority from higher quality protein sources (at least 70%).
The Supplement Industry
The supplement industry can be quite deceiving in the claims that are made about products. In some cases studies that are used to back the products effectiveness can be completely bias and setup not to test effectiveness but to alter a test method to ensure the desired results are achieved. Since this article discusses only about protein I will only talk about protein supplements and how some companies try to deceive customers to increase profit. Some companies have been known to use a practice called amino spiking which is adding the “useless” amino acids (and cheaper) to the supplement in order to make it appear to have a higher percentage of protein (this works when nitrogen content is tested, nitrogen only being present in amino acids). You may be thinking that this might only happen with cheaper and less well known brands but you’d be wrong and you need to be informed about what you’re buying. However, this can be tricky and sometimes your research into certain products by certain supplement companies might throw up some contradictive results. To the best of my ability I always to try to be informed about what I’m buying, not just reading what companies have to say about their products but what third party testing has to say. Using two sources I trust with regards quality testing and methodology (Labdoor and SupplementLabTest.com) and from personal experience with brands there are only a select few I would be quite confident in recommending.
The Best Protein Supplements
- Ros Nutrition
- Optimum Nutrition
- Bulk Powders
So, why the brands above?
MyProtein is probably the best combination of quality and price especially with the offers that they always have available. In terms of best value I’d recommend the Impact Whey Protein but if you want to spend a little more you can buy the Whey Isolate which has a higher percentage of protein. I’d be happy to buy any of the other brands listed and I have tried them all but my 2nd favourite is Ros Nutrition Blue Label Whey. I would probably put Ros Nutrition ahead of MyProtein for a few reasons due to finer detail in terms of quality; it is an Irish company that uses milk from grass fed cows and also has added digestive enzymes. This results in protein with a higher bioavailability and higher amount of protein being absorbed per serving. So, if you don’t mind spending an extra few euro/pound then I’d be happy to recommend Ros Nutrition first but if you you’re trying to save a little money and want to get good quality protein then MyProtein is perfect. With regards ON and Bulk Powders, if you’re already taking them and enjoy them then there’s no real reason to change but if you every want to change things up I’d recommend keeping to the list above.
There may well be other high quality brands out there but currently the above ones are the only ones that I would confidently recommend to people. If you’re doubtful about your supplement just look into it and try to find third party test results from Labdoor, SupplementLabTest or any other trustworthy source.
Note: Labdoor’s quality of testing and methodology may be very good but one thing I do not agree with is their criteria for ranking. When using their results look at the individual results of products and avoid ranks because they do not always represent the best quality or most honest brands.
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