What You Need to Know About Protein Supplements

by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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What You Need to Know About Protein Supplements

When it comes to protein, most of us can meet our needs with a well-balanced diet and don’t need to turn to supplements. But when protein needs can’t be achieved from diet alone, supplements may be appropriate. For example, vegans rely on plant sources to supply protein and plant sources rarely contain all of the essential amino acids. For vegans who exercise intensely or strength train, protein supplements may be beneficial.

Protein powders are often a cost-effective, quick way to incorporate more protein into your diet. Protein powder can provide a high-quality snack with approximately 20–30 grams of protein for refueling after a tough workout or eating on the go. Depending on the protein supplement you buy, it may actually be more cost-effective to use a supplement than purchase more pricey foods like meat and fish. Whey protein powder is about $10–15/pound and has a longer shelf life than fresh, protein-rich foods.

While protein bars provide a quick, mindless, no-mix way to get post-workout nutrition, they generally contain more calories, carbs, fat and sodium. Bars vary widely in the amount of carbs they contain. Choose higher-carb bars (>20 grams per serving) when you engage in vigorous aerobic activities (running, swimming, biking) for a duration of more than 90 minutes and lower-carb bars (<20 grams per serving) for non-aerobic activities.

WHAT’S IN PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS?

When it comes to protein, quality matters. This is why scientists came up with the “protein digestibility corrected amino acid score” (PDCAAS). This score tells you protein quality as measured by: 1) how “complete” the protein is and, 2) how easily digestible it is.

The PDCAAS scores protein sources from 0–1 with 1 being the highest. A score of 1 is assigned to egg white, which contains all 9 essential amino acids and is easily digested and absorbed. Ideally, your protein powder supplement should score as close to 1 as possible, but this depends on the source of protein it’s made from.

3 COMMON PROTEIN POWDER SOURCES

1. WHEY AND CASEIN (PDCAAS=1)

These are proteins extracted from milk and are complete proteins, easily absorbed by the body and relatively inexpensive. Plus, these milk proteins contain branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) to encourage muscle building during strength training. The downside is this protein source is unsuitable for vegans and people with lactose intolerance or milk protein allergies.

2. SOY PROTEIN (PDCAAS= 1)

Soy protein is plant-based, contains all nine essential amino acids and is inexpensive. Soy protein powder is a great alternative for vegans who can’t take whey or casein; however, it isn’t suitable for those with soy allergies.

3. OTHER PLANT-BASED PROTEINS

Pea (PDCAAS=0.69), rice (PDCAAS=0.47) and hemp (PDCAAS= 0.46) proteins score low on the PDCAAS because they don’t provide all nine essential amino acids when taken as a stand-alone source, and the rice and hemp proteins are not readily digestible. For this reason, they are usually found together in a plant-based protein powder supplement mix. While these mixes can be hypoallergenic, we’d still suggest whey, casein or soy if you can stomach them.


READ MORE > NO-BAKE CHERRY VANILLA PROTEIN BARS | RECIPE


3 TIPS FOR FUELING WITH PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS

1. READ THE INGREDIENTS
This is usually not a pretty place, but if you’re going to eat it, then read about it. Protein bars can hide processed fibers, sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners. Make sure you’re OK with these before biting into one.

If you’re considering protein powder to increase muscle size and strength, whey is the way to go – as long as you don’t have lactose intolerance. It’s an inexpensive, high-quality protein that is quickly accessed by your muscles.

2. DON’T FORGET TO LOG

Remember that supplements (and anything you mix with them) have calories, too, and can contribute to excess weight gain if you aren’t careful, especially since some bars are meant to replace a whole meal — and they have the calories to do it.

3. SUPPLEMENT WITH EXERCISE IN MIND

Consuming extra protein alone won’t get you a lean, mean physique you’ll still need to shape up with pushups, lunges and burpees.

Related

  • Heidi C

    What about collagen as a protein supplement?

  • Steve E

    Not quite sure how protein does anything with regards to burpees… protein helps in lean muscle mass with resistance training. Burpees are more aerobic than resistance. And no, most if ya do not consume enough protein thru our diets alone to produce the lean muscle mass many want…

    • DaBoss

      Burpees burn calories and therefore have the potential to reduce body fat. “Lean” means a higher proportion of muscle to fat, so if we reduce body fat we become leaner. Burpees can also build muscle because they utilise most of the muscles in the body, if done correctly. QED burpees can make you leaner.

      • Steve E

        Never said that burpees do not burn calories. And I’m quite sure I understand the meaning of “lean.”

        Steve E. RD, Ms.E, Ph.D
        Exercise physiology.

        • Steve E

          If you can show me some scientific research to suggest that whey protein helps with aerobic performance I’ll have a look. In the mean time, I’d be happy to send your way some research from The Ohio Dtage University that suggests whey is most effective in resistance training and barely effective with regards to areobic (and other “calorie burning”) performance, which was the basis of my original response to the article.

  • debbie

    This is a really important topic. Please provide more information. As a previous reader commented, what about collagen supplements like Arthred? Or Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein powder? Is egg white protein powder such as Jay Robb’s as good a protein source as pasteurized egg whites sold in the refrigerated section?