Atkins, Zone, South Beach, Dean Ornish, Weight Watchers, Pick Your Diet-of-the-week and you'll inevitably be discussing Protein.
It's a Hot Topic!
* But how much protein do you really need?
* With what is it best consumed?
* And, if in the form of a supplement, what's the difference between a good protein supplement and a waste of money?
Protein: The Building Block for Healthy Bodies
Proteins are the basic building block for lean body mass. Protein is the primary material making up all soft tissue in your body, and makes up your DNA, enzymes, and hormones. Proteins, quite simply are not only a hot topic for weight loss, but are a required nutrient for lean body mass development, and is an absolutely necessity to live!
But everyone's protein needs are different. Exercising adults have a higher protein requirement than sedentary adults. Even the kind of exercise you're performing matters: some runners actually need less protein than someone working on core strength and functional fitness.
The safest, most accurate way to ensure that your protein intake is appropriate is to work with a licensed nutritionist or fitness expert to better understand your individual needs. However, a practical guideline to follow is that if you are resistance training 3 or more days per week, you require between .75 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of desirable body weight each day. This translates into 125g for a 150# person.
And that can be a lot of protein for a lot of people! Put into perspective, a typical 8 oz chicken breast is approximately 30 grams. A cup of steel cut oats oatmeal 18 grams. A cup of cottage cheese 20g. If you simply had those 3 foods alone for dinner, breakfast, and lunch, you would have consumed 68 grams of protein ... just barely half of your protein needs for the day.
So the challenge becomes how to get sufficient protein into your diet without picking up a lot of extra calories that sometimes come from lower grade protein sources.
As a result, some form of protein supplementation will be appropriate for a lot of us.
To be clear, supplementation should be exactly that ... supplemental to your food intake, not a food staple. A perfect diet includes 3 meals and 2 snacks per day. When working with supplements, a good rule of thumb to follow is to consume no more than one supplement per day. If you're using supplements for more than one snack or meal per day, you're treating it as food, and that's not practical, healthy, or sustainable over the long term. It isn't necessarily that the protein is bad for you; it's those last few ingredients listed on the package you need to be concerned about.
But, for a lot of us on the move, a protein shake on a busy morning, or a protein bar between afternoon appointments can be a lot healthier than most alternatives AND still contributes to the daily protein target.
In looking at protein supplements, however, the options can be overwhelming and confusing. You will find products based on soy proteins, whey proteins, casein proteins, and "proprietary blends." So, a few notes are in order ...
Not all proteins are created equal
From a chemical perspective, proteins are combinations of 22 known amino acids ("aminos" for short). 9 of these Amino Acids are considered essential ... they are required to live, and can only be found within food sources; the other 13 are considered non-essential and can be manufactured by the body (from the essential aminos).
When looking for a supplemental protein, the two most significant things to consider are:
1. How many of the key aminos are present; and
2. How easily can the body adsorb them.
Food source and food source alone drives amino acid content ... how many of the essential aminos your protein supplement contains depends entirely on where it came from!
Remember Little Miss Muffet? You know, the wench (hey, been renaissance fest lately?), who sat on her tuffet eating her curds & whey? Indeed, the curd (solids) and whey (liquids) derived from whole milk are the exact food products from which Casein (think 'curd') and Whey Proteins are derived. And they're boss.
From an amino acid content perspective, whey proteins have long been recognized as the king of proteins ... boasting not only a high quantity of amino acids, but the best collection as well.
Topping the list of essential amino acids found in whey proteins are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), Phenylalanine, Tryptophan, Arginine, Glutamine, and Proline. This chemical collection contributes to or regulates everything from muscle recovery to immune system performance to sex drive to anxiety control to skin appearance.
Are we there yet?
But don't throw out your casein or soy based products just yet! While whey proteins are top dog, even they don't contain ALL 9 essential amino acids. You'll need to get those from other sources like soy or casein. As a result, you will frequently see something like "proprietary protein blend" on many supplement labels. As long as whey protein is listed as either the 1st or 2nd ingredient in the blend, you can be sure that your money is being well spent. And if you see both whey and soy, you should have a complete set of aminos.
The other thing to consider when evaluating protein products is how effectively your body handles the protein ... something known as Biological Value (BV).
BV, as it turns out, is entirely dependent upon protein preparation techniques: when manufacturers take good care of the amino acid molecule during preparation you're body will adsorb the protein more quickly and more effectively. The most expensive and best quality proteins are derived from a process that produces Protein isolates: chemical ion exchange techniques preserve the structure of the protein best, ensuring high quality and efficient adsorption. Ultra filtered or micro filtered products are also high quality proteins (though 2nd tier), but protein concentrates and hydrolyzed proteins are cheaply produced and to be avoided.
Therefore, things like "whey protein isolate,", "casein isolate,", and "soy isolate" will be your highest quality protein sources, and the ingredients you should look for when selecting a protein supplement.
Lastly, don't forget that high protein intakes places additional demands on your digestive system, so be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day!