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The Ultimate Guide to Protein Supplements

Flip through any exercise magazine and, judging by all the attention protein supplements get, it appears protein and fitness somehow go hand-in-hand. And it is true: Protein can help promote a healthy weight and help muscle recovery after a good workout. But what exactly is protein, and when it comes to supplements, which type of protein is best? Here’s some information about the different sources of protein powder and which ones stand apart from the rest.

Protein 101

Protein is a macronutrient found in many foods such as meats, dairy, nuts, and beans, to name a few. It’s made up of amino acids, the building blocks of lean body tissue that promote healthy skin, hair, bones, fingernails, as well as muscles.

While many experts suggest getting the bulk of our protein from whole food sources, protein supplements can make it easier and more convenient to get those aminos on-the-go. But not all protein supplements are created equal. Before dissecting the pros and cons of different protein sources it’s important to understand two ways protein supplements are often classified:

1. Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: Protein is derived from various food sources and is "concentrated" by removing the non-protein parts. The result is a powder that’s 70-85 percent pure protein (with the remaining 15-30 percent mostly carbs and fat). Taking the concentration process a step further, "isolation" removes a much higher percentage of non-protein content. The additional processing produces a premium protein that is up to 95 percent pure.

2. Complete vs. Incomplete Protein: Amino acids that cannot be produced by the body are known as essential amino acids. "Complete proteins" contain all nine essential amino acids, whereas "incomplete proteins" contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids.

OK, now we are ready to look at the most common protein powder supplements on the market, and what their pros and cons mean for you.

1. Whey Protein The most popular protein supplement on the market, whey is a by-product in the process of turning milk into cheese.

Pros: Whey protein has been shown to promote lean muscle growth and fat loss, as well as support cardiovascular health and a healthy metabolism. Whey is also quickly absorbed by the body, making it useful for post-workout recovery.

Cons: The sugar found in milk (lactose) is a common allergen that can make whey indigestible for some. While tasty flavors make whey a yummy choice, they often come with a host of less-than-desirable artificial sweeteners and chemicals.

2. Casein Protein Casein is produced using a separation process applied to liquid milk that can concentrate or isolate the milk protein from the carbs and fats.

Pros: Casein protein powder offers similar benefits to whey protein but with a different release process. Because casein digests over a long period of time, research has found it’s an optimal protein choice before bed. (YUM – a bedtime protein shake!)

Cons: Casein is a by-product of milk, making it allergenic to some, much like whey. Also, it’s not ideal as a post-workout supplement because it’s absorbed so slowly (after exercise the body craves nutrients to replenish and rebuild). Casein also often contains many artificial ingredients to help make it more palatable.

3. Soy Protein Soy beans are one of the few plant protein sources that offer all of the essential amino acids. The protein is concentrated or isolated after the soy beans have been hulled and dried in soy flour.

Pros: Protein from the soy bean may help improve the body's immune function and promote bone health.

Cons: Soy has come under scrutiny because it is often genetically modified to produce greater crop yields. Some research has also singled out soy due to its effects on hormone levels. Many foods are already full of soy due to its low-cost protein. This has led some to question whether adding even more dietary soy (via protein supplements) is a wise choice.

4. Rice Protein

News flash: There is protein in rice! Although often thought of as a carbohydrate only, brown rice is becoming a standard source for vegetarian protein powder.

Pros: Protein aside, brown rice protein is considered a good source of complex carbohydrates, vitamin B, and fiber. It’s also hypoallergenic, meaning it’s easily digestible and therefore almost entirely used by the body, not relieved as waste.

Cons: Unlike soy, rice protein is a plant-based option that’s deficient in some amino acids (making it an incomplete protein) and therefore should not comprise the main source of dietary protein.

5. Hemp Protein Hemp protein is derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant that’s gained popularity in recent years. (We’re talking strictly about hemp as a food source here!)

Pros: Often referred to as a "superfood" due to its mix of essential fatty acids, hemp includes all 21 amino acids (making it a complete protein) and is vegan-friendly and extremely hypoallergenic.

Cons: Since hemp is only harvested in mass quantities in select countries due to its association with cannabis, it is often the most expensive protein powder available.

6. Pea Protein Pea protein comes from the yellow split pea, making it a popular choice for vegetarians and vegans alike.

Pros: As with most plant-based proteins, pea protein is hypoallergenic. And with few additives or artificial ingredients, this one appeals to those looking for protein sources closest to the whole-food source.

Cons: Isolated pea protein is often considered complete because it can contain the spectrum of essential amino acids. However, it still lacks certain amino acids and should not be used as a primary source of dietary protein.

When it comes to protein powders, there really is something for everyone. Just keep in mind that when it comes to buying protein, as in life, "you get what you pay for." Low-cost proteins often use inexpensive protein blends that may not be very digestible by the body.

It is also worth noting that the amount of protein required by the body depends on a person’s activity level, physical size, and gender. Testing various sources and quantities of protein can help determine a mix that works best. And just because it’s easy to chug a shake after a workout doesn't mean protein powders should replace whole foods entirely. Protein powders are supplements, best used to supplement an already healthy diet of nutritious whole foods.

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