Protein supplements are becoming popular among athletes as a way to boost the efficiency of their workouts and to help build muscle mass. People trying to shed body fat also use protein supplements. However, with so many different protein supplements available on the market these days, which one(s) to choose can be a mind-boggling experience. Below, we discuss various features to consider when choosing protein supplements.
Types of protein supplements
Protein supplements are produced from food sources such as milk or peas. Various processes are used to concentrate or isolate the protein from the food source. Protein supplements are commercially available as beverages, powders, and snack-type foods such as bars. Protein supplements can be broken down into three categories:
- Concentrates: Concentrates are simply concentrated forms of the protein, extracted from the food source using various processes. They are usually around 70% protein with the remainder made up of carbohydrates and fats.
- Isolates: Isolates take protein concentrates and further purify the protein, resulting in a product that is at least 90% protein.
- Hydrolysates: Hydrolysates take protein isolates and break down the proteins into their constitutive amino acids by applying heat or enzymes. These products, basically being pre-digested, are rapidly absorbed from the digestive tract.
Hydrolysates, due to the rapidity of their absorption, make an ideal mid- or post-workout supplement to fuel the muscles, speed their recovery, and accelerate their growth.
Whey is the liquid that remains after milk is turned into cheese. Whey is one of the most popular sources of protein supplements. It is especially rich in branched-chain amino acids that fuel muscles during exercise. Several studies have shown that consuming whey protein supplements increases muscle mass in response to exercise, and in particular, whey protein supplements were shown in one study to increase muscle mass more than soy or casein protein supplements. Whey protein supplements are also able to control appetite for more extended periods than other protein supplements, which may be very helpful for individuals trying to shed body fat.
A drawback of whey protein concentrates is the presence of lactose, which many people have trouble digesting. However, whey protein isolates and hydrolysates contain little to no lactose. Whey protein hydrolysates tend to cause a significant insulin spike after consumption, which may be of concern for individuals with insulin resistance and diabetes. However, for others, this insulin spike seems to endow whey protein hydrolysates with a particularly powerful ability to boost muscle mass when you take it after a workout.
Casein is a protein found in milk. When taken as a supplement, it is digested very slowly and thus releases amino acids into the body slowly and steadily over a long period of time. Taking casein supplements has been shown to improve muscle mass more than soy supplements, but they are not as effective in boosting muscle mass as whey protein supplements. However, one study suggested that individuals on a calorie-restricted diet combined with muscle-building exercises lost more body fat while building more muscle when taking casein supplements than individuals using other types of protein supplements.
Egg protein supplements are prepared from the protein-rich egg whites. They are a decent source of leucine, one of the most important branched-chain amino acids. Egg protein supplements haven’t been studied much regarding their use by athletes. Preliminary studies indicate their use had little impact on building muscle mass, and they also didn’t seem to be very helpful in regards to losing body fat.
Plant-based protein supplements
Protein supplements derived from plants like soy, peas, rice, and hemp are becoming increasingly popular, but they have some serious drawbacks when it comes to using them to build muscle mass. Many of these protein supplements don’t contain sufficient levels of the essential amino acids to support protein synthesis. Also, plant-based protein supplements generally tend to be relatively low in methionine and leucine content. Methionine and leucine are thought to be essential for supporting increases in muscle mass in response to resistance exercises.
The following is a list of the only known commercial plant-based protein concentrates that provide sufficient amounts of all of the essential amino acids to support protein synthesis by the human body. They are listed highest to lowest (note soy, the lowest, is barely over the minimal cut-off line):
- Brown rice
Among the popular plant-based protein supplements, soy, brown rice, and pea all provide only around half of the amount of the leucine provided by whey protein supplements. Brown rice supplements provide around the same amount of methionine as whey protein supplements, but soy and pea contain very low amounts of methionine. Hemp protein supplements, which are becoming increasingly popular, provide a decent amount of methionine. However, it has limited amounts of leucine, and hemp doesn’t provide sufficient amounts of the various essential acids to support protein synthesis.
There are only a minimal amount of studies on the use of protein supplements derived from plant sources (other than soy). One study reported that male weight-lifters who consumed fairly large amounts of pea protein concentrate did experience increases in muscle mass close to the levels observed for men consuming whey protein concentrate. In addition, pea protein supplements seem to be able to measurably reduce blood pressure levels.
Some companies produce mixtures of various plant-based protein concentrates, but little to no research has been conducted on their efficacy in boosting muscle mass or assisting in body fat loss.
The Best Protein Supplements
For building muscle mass
Whey protein concentrate or isolate is the best choice to build muscle mass.
For rapid post-workout recovery
Whey protein hydrolysate is the best choice to assist in post-workout recovery, and it has impressive effects in regards to building muscle mass that rival whey protein isolate’s effects.
For body fat loss
Casein seems to be the best choice to promote body fat loss, with its slow, steady rate of digestion that suppresses the appetite and promotes building muscle while metabolizing fat. Some experts have suggested athletes trying to build muscle mass while losing body fat consider consuming both casein and whey protein hydrolysate supplements.
Unfortunately, the options for vegans looking to build muscle mass are not as good. Brown rice or pea supplements appear to be the best ones based on their amino acid profiles. However, very little research has been conducted on the actual use of these protein supplements to build muscles. Numerous studies have shown that soy supplements are far less effective than whey when it comes to increasing muscle mass.
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