Protein, protein, protein—it’s all the rage these days. You can scarcely turn a corner without seeing some new trendy thing with protein, going as far as having enriched protein water. When it comes to protein consumption, however, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the optimal way to take advantage of this important macronutrient.
Ranging from the multitude of protein supplements available, to how much you should take and when, it can feel like an avalanche of information. With that said, you’ve arrived at the right place. Consider your protein problems solved.
What Makes A Good Protein Supplement?
The number one factor that goes into determining if a protein supplement is “good” is the amount of actual protein a scoop serving delivers. At a minimum, a good quality powder should yield 20g per scoop, with the average of industry leaders standing at around 24g.
Secondly, is its amino acid spectrum. The best protein supplements, referred to as complete proteins, contain all the essential amino acids in them (nine amino acids). There are many protein supplements that do not contain all nine amino acids, such as various plant based sources.
Finally, is the inherent properties of the protein supplement. By this, we’re referring to traits such as speed of action, anabolic potential, etc., because they do not all possess the same properties. Let’s check out some of the most popular and effective supplements that you should consider for upping your performance and gains in the process.
The “gold standard” so to speak of protein supplements, whey is the most popular and widely available protein supplement in the world.
Extracted as a byproduct of cheese production, whey possesses unique traits, such as:
- Speed of action: Whey is the protein supplement of choice because of its rapid absorption. This means it is primed to hit muscle cells fast following a workout, or whenever you need a rapid infusion of aminos.
- Complete protein: Whey contains all the essential amino acids along with BCAAs, involved in anabolism and helping retain positive nitrogen balance.
Best for: Almost anyone, especially around the peri-workout period. Affordable and widely available, whey offers the best bang-for-the-buck. Shoot for one scoop both before and after your workout session.
Not for: People with lactose intolerance or allergies to milk proteins.
Whey’s cousin, casein, is also extracted from milk, but is much more common. Casein has massive anabolic potential, as its specialty is delivering a slow release of amino acids over the course of many hours, opposed to whey’s rapid absorption.
Consider taking casein:
- Before bed: Casein’s slow action means that the body is fed throughout sleep with a steady stream of amino acids.
- During periods of delayed meals: Also perfect for use daytime, when you may be unable to eat on time.
- Mixed with whey: Also frequently consumed the same time with whey, as it has a synergistic anabolic effect with whey.
Best for: Intermediate athletes who have more diverse protein needs. Take a serving before bed, and an optional one in the middle of the day to keep amino acid delivery high.
Not for: Lactose or milk intolerant persons, not for sole use around workout period (acts too slowly).
Still relatively popular, especially with the population that does not use milk products, vegan proteins do have their place, albeit with the frequent limitation of being incomplete proteins. There are, however, complete sources too, but they are much less frequent.
Common vegan proteins include:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
Ideally, soy based proteins should not be used by men, because their effects can be feminizing. Soy shares a close structural similarity to the female hormone estrogen, and is a known pseudo-estrogen (phytoestrogen in this case).1
Best for: Vegans, or persons who have an interest in consuming more natural food sources.
Not for: People that have precise nutritional requirements.
If you’ve never heard of colostrum, you’re not alone. Colostrum should be the real gold standard of protein supplementation because nothing else truly comes close to the nutritional density of this powerhouse.
Colostrum is the clearish-white substance that is produced by some mammals (cows and goats especially) the first time following birth of offspring. While it possesses the regular protein potential of whey, it is far superior in its content of other growth enhancing factors, vitamins, minerals and even antibodies. It is also able to restore growth factor levels (especially IGF-1) in depleted individuals.2
Think of colostrum as the superfood that accelerates growth of these animals immediately after birth. Besides its mere protein content, it can be considered a functional supplement because it can improve many other aspects of health, with actions such as:
- Preventing oxidative stress: studies have shown that when taken before workouts, colostrum supplementation can shield the body against the adverse effects of free radicals, generated from intense training. This aids in speedy recovery after your training session.
- Offers IGF-1: IGF-1 is a growth hormone that may indeed be responsible for the majority of your muscle gains, because it is responsible for the growth of tissue. Bodybuilders sometimes use HGH injections, whose actions in the liver is to boost IGF-1 production (and hence, muscle gains).
- Reduces cancer risk: This is particularly interesting as increasing IGF-1 levels also coincide with increased cancer risk. However, the effect of colostrum is attributed to its ability to increase levels of a protein that ultimate increase macrophage activity, named GcMAF.3 Macrophages destroy cancer cells and small tumors before they manifest and grow larger.
This is the first protein supplement of the bunch that will not directly influence muscle growth, but rather provide “insurance” for the supporting cast of your body, your connective tissue. Connective tissue includes joints, skin, hair, and the like, with collagen being an essential protein found in them all. Collagen deficiency is actually common these days, since people scarcely consume connective tissue meat, the primary source of collagen. Gelatin is collagen that has been cooked. Made up of two amino acids, proline and glycine, collagen’s benefits extend beyond joint health.
Benefits also include:
- Enhances sleep thanks to glycine’s activation of GABA receptors in the brain.
- Increased testosterone thanks to glycine’s suppressive action on cortisol (cortisol inhibits testosterone).4
Keep It Simple
With all the varieties of protein available, it’s easy to see how you can get overloaded. To keep it simple, here is a compiled a list of some of the protein supplements that give the best bang-for-the-buck. Now, on to the actual work of hitting the gym for your gains.
1. “The Science of Soy: What Do We Really Know?” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006.
2. “Colostrum supplementation restores insulin-like growth factor -1 levels and alters muscle morphology following massive small bowel resection“, JPEN, 2008.
3. “Degalactosylated/Desialylated Bovine Colostrum Induces Macrophage Phagocytic Activity Independently of Inflammatory Cytokine Production“, Anticancer Research, 2015.
4. “Effects of orally administered glycine on myofibrillar proteolysis and expression of proteolytic-related genes of skeletal muscle in chicks“, Amino Acids, 2008.