Monday, November 5, 2012

Not All Protein Is Created Equally

You've probably heard the hype over Whey Protein or Casein, Soy, Egg, Meat, Milk, or any number of other varieties.  Not all proteins are created equally and taking the right one at the right time can make a world of difference for your goals.  Protein consumption is essential to muscle growth and maintenance.  Lifting weights temporarily damages your muscles.  You get stronger when your body repairs the muscles and makes them bigger to accommodate the stresses.  Most people don't workout their entire body at once.  If you don't have the required amino acids in your blood for muscle synthesis, your body will degrade other muscles in order to fortify those you worked.  Taking the right proteins at the right time helps to ensure amino acid surplus and stimulate anabolic muscle growth while preventing catabolic muscle degradation.  Below I've broken down the different proteins in a simple, easily digested way to help you make the right decision and get the most out of your hard work.


Whey Protein is the most commonly thrown around name in weightlifting protein supplements.  The hype isn't for nothing.  If you lift weights and want to gain muscle, Whey is a must-have.  Taken within 30 minutes of workout, Whey is the most effective anabolic protein.  In common English: take whey immediately after you work out and it helps you build muscle.Whey protein is the most quickly digested protein.  It has the shortest time from consumption, to digestion, to use.  As a result it is the most useful for immediately post-workout. Its amino acid composition is also ideal for muscle building and immune system support.

There are 3 main categories of whey protein products:
  • Whey Protein Concentrates (WPC)
  • Whey Protein Isolates (WPI)
  • Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolates (HWPI)
These vary in cost, purity, and digestion time.

Whey Protein Concentrates
WPC's are the cheapest form of whey protein supplements.  They are produced by filtering the whey byproducts of cheese production.  It has more impurities such as cholesterol and carbohydrates than Isolates and Hydrolyzed Isolates.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Studies have shown that cholesterol intake in men who actively lift weights does not correlate to blood cholesterol levels.  In fact, cholesterol (LDL in particular) is essential to the production of testosterone.  Because Whey Protein comes from milk, the most common carbohydrate is Lactose.  While most products do not have enough lactose to trigger reactions in those who are lactose intolerant, you may want to play it safe and step up to the isolates.  Lactose in everyone who can tolerate it is a good thing.  Your body's ideal source of energy comes from carbohydrates.  Lactose is a natural complex carbohydrate, which unlike overly processed carbohydrates, is good for your body.  It takes time to digest and helps maintain proper blood sugar levels.  In a healthy adult, drinking a Whey Protein Shake won't peak you blood sugar or cause a dangerous crash, unlike some sports drinks and sodas. Whey Protein Concentrates are a great supplement to use, especially for those just entering into the protein supplement world who aren't ready to stomach the price of some of the more refined products.

Whey Protein Isolates
WPI's begin life the same as WPC's; as whey byproduct of cheese manufacturing.  The difference is the level of filtration used to achieve the final product.  Isolates are much more pure than Concentrates.  They contain less carbohydrates and less fat/cholesterol.  While this is ideal in that it is more quickly digested, and has fewer calories; the benefits of lactose and some fats explained above are lost to some extent. When using WPI, I like to mix with 1% milk to retain the digestion rate of WPI and the benefits of lactose and milk fat.  As mentioned above, if you are lactose intolerant; Isolates are the best bet as they contain far fewer carbohydrates than concentrates.

Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolates
HWPI's go through the same process as WPI's.  They are then subjected to enzymes which partially hydrolyze (digest) the proteins to expedite the digestion time even further.  Many Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate products contain higher protein content per serving, and therefore are listed as having higher calories.  If that is a problem, use less powder, but remember in order to gain muscle mass you need a caloric excess.  One other personal note: HWPI tends to taste slightly less delicious than regular WPI or WPC, but is still quite delicious.  See my personal protein supplementation plan at the bottom for more info.

Casein Protein, or as you will often see on labels as Sodium Caseinate, is another milk-derived protein. Whey and Casein are nature's perfect mixture.  Their presence in Milk is in a large way why milk is often called nature's perfect food.

Casein Protein is very different to Whey.  It is a strong anti-catabolic protein whereas Whey was an anabolic protein.  In English: where whey helps your muscles to build, casein prevents them from breaking down.  Casein protein reacts with the acid in your stomach to "gum up".  The benefits of this are two-fold.  First of all it stays in your stomach causing you to feel full and resist the temptation to eat.  Secondly, its digestion rate is very slow.  This allows a slow, constant supply of amino acids to your body, which accommodates protein maintenance and prevents the degradation of muscle for amino acid supply.

Casein Shakes are excellent for a late night snack, or for mid-day maintenance. 

Soy protein is a much cheaper alternative to the milk proteins.  It digests slower than Whey, but faster than Casein.  It is often used by people seeking to avoid milk products for personal reasons and by those who don't want to pay for milk proteins.  It is also heavily used in protein fortified food products.

I don't recommend using soy protein unless it's your only option.  The amino acid content of soy protein is not ideal for human consumption.  We amino acids referred to as essential amino acids: meaning amino acids which the human body cannot create from other amino acids, but rather needs to obtain through ingestion.  Soy Protein, unlike Milk Proteins, does not supply all essential amino acids.  Its amino acid composition is also less potent as an anabolic force as well as a less potent anti-catabolic force than milk proteins.  These combine to make a slower protein that has less positive effect.  The way I see it, if you work hard in the gym, you deserve to fuel your muscles with what's best for them.  Stick to the milk proteins.

Not Convinced?  While it has not yet been definitively proven, Soy Protein has been linked in many studies to increased estrogen production, and decreased testosterone levels.  At best this makes it harder for men to get the lean muscle body composition they desire.  At worst it may actually stimulate breast development and cancer.  In women, increased estrogen has been shown to greatly increase the chance of developing breast cancer.  Again, studies are still exploring this, but it is certainly reason enough for me to avoid soy protein at all costs.

Egg protein is a very niche market.  It seems to be marketed mostly to people who don't want milk proteins and are smart to avoid Soy.  It is a relatively slow digesting protein, but is lactose free.  If you're severely lactose intolerant and can't process whey and casein, egg may be something to look into.  Otherwise stick to the milk proteins.

For some reason Beef Protein is available as a powder.  Beef is an excellent source of essential amino acids and lipids, but there's no need to buy it in powder.  I can't imagine it tastes better than a lean grilled steak.  Look into venison and bison as well: very high in protein, low in fat.

Vegetable Protein: If you're a vegetarian, I guess this is for you.  But then again, If you're a vegetarian building muscle mass will be much, much more difficult.  Def Leppard's Phil Collen might be one example of the contrary, but one might wonder how much muscle he'd have if he consumed milk proteins.
-One thing to be careful of: Gluten has been shown to lower testosterone levels.  Like soy, the studies are ongoing but moderation may be key here.

If you've read my previous article (CAUTION: Not for the Faint of Will), you know that my lifting routine is pretty intensive and without much muscle recovery time.  As a result, I make great effort to keep my muscles fueled with the amino acids they need.

On top of a protein rich diet, after each workout I have a protein shake of my own blend of milk proteins.  For my morning workout, I use roughly 1.5 scoops of chocolate whey protein isolate/concentrate mix (I have used the Hydro-Whey, but unless there is a good sale, it's generally not worth the price to me) and ~0.5 scoops of chocolate micellar casein in a large mixer bottle with 1% Milk.  Many of you probably have used whey but not casein before.  When you first start mixing the casein you will notice it does not mix as well and tastes slightly bitter.  Use more whey-casein mixture and work your way up.  Soon you will not notice, and actually find the taste of the mix to be better than without the casein.

In the evenings, I use about 0.75 scoops of casein in the same mixture as above.  I also sporadically have MetRX's Colossal Big-100 Protein Bars, particularly if I'm going to be missing a meal (common as a college student).

For an adult male lifting heavily, you need 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  Lift heavier, obviously you need more, and on lighter days less. 

Follow me on Twitter @keepermike1949 for more updates and words of encouragement, and to let me know your thoughts!


My Favorite Whey Protein Powders:

Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate

Micellar Casein

Stay tuned, a pre-workout comparison and review is in the works.

Just the fancy legal stuff: All of the above are based on my experiences and research and are for informational purposes only.  Workout and consume supplements at your own risk and remember, always consult with a doctor before beginning a workout routine or drastically changing your diet.  Be Careful. Stay Safe. Lift Heavy. Be Strong!

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