On the fitness and athletic training side of the equation I get questions about supplements all the time. I had a great conversation with someone about protein and I thought what a great topic for the blog. So here you go everything you wanted to know about protein in a succinct blog post…
What is Protein and Where Does it Come From?
It is critical to begin by understanding what protein is and where exactly it comes from. Proteins are simply amino acids linked together by a peptide bond. The configuration of the amino acids and their peptide bonds is all that separates the protein in steak from that in tofu. During digestion all proteins are broken down into their smallest unit which is an amino acid. The human body then uses these amino acids as building blocks for new proteins and tissues in the body. In essence the proteins you eat get broken down into amino acids and then those amino acids get rebuilt into new tissues in your body.
There are two kinds of amino acids, essential and non-essential. Do not let the names fool you, both types are essential for the human body. Non-essential simply refers to the fact that your body can synthesize or make these particular amino acids. Essential means your body cannot synthesize them and must be consumed through a person’s diet.
Proteins come from both plant and animal sources. Proteins that come from animals contain high amounts of essential amino acids. Plant sources of protein are typically low in one or more more essential amino acids. The concern of getting enough protein or essential amino acids from diet alone is not typically a problem in the USA because of the wide variety of food sources. If you are a vegetarian I would recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to ensure you are doing some unique things to get all the essential amino acids in your diet, it is very manageable with the right knowledge.
What Makes Protein Unique?
Protein is unique compared to the other macronutirents carbohydrate and fat for two main reasons. The first reason is obvious, the body uses carbohydrate and fat mainly as energy sources and protein mainly to rebuild tissues. Which by the way the body is constantly turning over new tissues, remember that for later because it will be important. The second, and less obvious reason protein is unique is that it cannot be stored. Carbohydrate can be stored as a form of sugar and fat can be stored, well you know how. Protein on the other hand cannot be stored for any long period of time.
How Do I Use This New Found Protein Knowledge?
Now that you know what proteins are the next step is to know when to eat them. The rule is pretty simple, it is much more important WHEN you eat your protein than HOW MUCH you eat. Remember you cannot store protein and your body is constantly turning over new tissues, even more so if you are involved in training for an athletic sport. It is much better to eat portions of protein throughout the day and have a constant source of amino acids in the body versus eating one protein heavy meal and getting all the amino acids at once.
What Kinds of Protein Should I Eat?
Protein can come from a variety of sources both animal and plant. In general the rule for animal proteins is that the less legs they have the better the source. I got that from a colleague of mine, Dr. Chris Mohr R.D. and it makes perfect sense. It basically means that the best choice for protein is fish or seafood (no legs), chicken or turkey next (2 legs), and finally the beef and pork (4 legs). You can also mix in some things here like greek yogurt and other dairy items. Great sources of plant proteins include beans and nuts. Remember it is not so much about how much protein you eat but spacing it out throughout the day so their is a constant source of amino acids in the body.
So Where Does a Protein Shake Fit In? Does It?!
First, you have to understand what exactly a protein supplement like powdered whey protein is before we go any further. Whey protein is the fluid left over from making cheese. Think curds and whey from little miss muffet. Whey has a high level of essential amino acids and is easily absorbed by the digestive system. Manufactures of protein powders basically dehydrate the whey and the powder left over is then bottled and sold. The whey can be refined into 3 different types and the level of refinement is the difference between the qualities and prices. Whey Powder is the least refined, least expensive, hardest to mix and consists of about 10-15% protein and 65-75% lactose. Whey Protein Concentrate is more refined and is anywhere from 25-90% protein and 10-55% lactose. Finally, Whey Protein Isolate is the easiest to mix, most refined and is almost pure protein with > 90% protein and < 1% lactose. Whey Protein Isolate is by far the best quality but it is also the most expensive. This is the exact reason why I personally use Pro Grade Protein, because it is whey protein isolate.
Now that you know what whey protein is let me explain that it is a dietary supplement. The term dietary supplement infers that it is used to supplement a person’s regular diet, not replace all protein sources. By far the best way to consume protein is in whole foods like animal and plant proteins. So why would someone want to mix whey protein into a shake a drink it? The answer to that is actually pretty simple. Remember it is more important WHEN you consume protein opposed to HOW MUCH protein you consume. At times it can be tough to cook meat for lunch or get access to a good source of protein at a meal and this is where a protein shake can fit in. There also is a window of opportunity post-workout where the muscles can absorb and utilize amino acids and if you are not going to eat after your workout here is where a protein shake can fit in as well. A whey protein shake made with skim milk is a great post-workout drink. Finally, eating eggs, fish, chicken, steak, and meats can get expensive so consuming some whey protein can save some money over time. Ultimately protein supplements are not for everyone but they definitely have a place for many.
So that is a very quick and dirty overview of protein. You need protein on a daily basis to provide the amino acids your body needs to turn over tissues. Your body does not store protein for long durations so it is actually more important when you consume protein versus how much you consume in one meal. The best sources of protein come from whole foods. Whey protein is a dietary supplement and comes in a variety of refined levels with whey protein isolate being the highest quality. Adding whey protein into shakes or to food can be a great way to meet individual protein needs and possibly even same some money.
I personally use whey protein in a shake form post-workouts because I do not typically eat within an hour or two of exercising. I also like to add it to my breakfast oatmeal to get the day started with a source of protein. If you really want to know I utilize Pro Grade Protein Powder. It is a little more expensive than most because it is whey protein isolate. For full disclosure I partnered with Pro Grade to provide my clients access to the highest quality supplements. I figure if people are going to use supplements they should get them from a reputable company versus some of the others out there. If you want to try it out and you purchase through my online store I do make a commission. Hope this 1300+ word blog post cleared up a lot of misconceptions about protein and will help you get better!