So Many Types of Protein! Where do I start?

So Many Types of Protein! Where do I start?

Animal protein sources

You and your gym bestie just smashed a fee personal records at the gym. You feel great about it, but you get into your car you can’t help but think about how much more progress they have made. They always male sure to have a protein shake on the way out of the gym.

Is that why they seem to be progressing better than you? After all, the two of you have basically the same lifestyle. Similar schedules, both of you eat fairly well, and you both do the same workouts together. Why are their results a bit better?

You decide to head on over to the store and buy yourself some protein, but there are so many types of protein. Where do you start? All you know is you want to go to pick something up.

Wall of protein powders
Image from Yelp

You’re overwhelmed by the vast selection of protein that’s available when you step inside the store. In fact, there’s an entire wall dedicated to it (in some stores, multiple walls!). They all have flashy labels, and all make different claims. You see words like “casein,” “whey,” and “plant based,” among many others. What’s with all of these different types of protein. And do they really make a difference when it comes to your gains in the gym?

Yes, in fact it does! But, can you really trust the person behind the counter to know what each item they sell does, nonetheless what every protein does? Wouldn’t it be better if you could march in there, unafraid, and pick up exactly what you need without needing help? It may all seem confusing, but don’t get too stressed. This article will explain what it all means. Trust me, it’s not as confusing as it may seem.

First, what is protein?

This is a fairly common question, and rightfully so. Protein is held up as almost a one stop shop for health by some blogs and fitness professionals who claim you need absurd amounts in order to make any progress. In reality, it is a necessary component for the human diet.

‘Proteins’ are compounds made up of amino acids (the building blocks of life), organized in different sequences. That’s all they are at a simplistic level. What we do with them when we consume them is far more complex.

How does my body use protein?

Humans use protein in many ways to perform many different functions throughout the day. A few ways that protein helps us out in our daily lives include:

  • Energy in the form of calories
  • Hormonal production
  • Structural protein building and maintenance (muscle, bone, teeth, skin, blood vessels, hair, etc.)
  • Transport proteins (e.g. albumin, hemoglobin, lipoproteins).
  • Immune system support in the form of antibodies

Protein does far more than we give it credit for. While protein deficiency is actually quite rare in developed countries, people in developing and third world countries as well as those in developed countries with an imbalanced diet can fall victim to low protein intake.

Signs of protein deficiency

Not getting enough protein in your diet can lead to multiple problems. Issues associated with deficiencies include:

  • Muscle loss
  • Weakened bones
  • More frequent sickness lasting longer periods of time
  • Liver problems
  • Hair, nail, and skin issues

None of these things are conducive to a good exercise routine, nonetheless overall fitness and health levels.

How much do I need?

The age old question of ‘how much protein do I need a day’ is contested by nearly everyone in the fitness world. Current FDA recommendations say you should eat 50g a day. Other people believe you need to eat 1 gram of protein per bodyweight pound (e.g. if you weigh 180lbs, you should eat 180g of protein a day), others say you should aim for .5g/lb, and yet others still say you should eat 2g per bodyweight pound. The answer, like anything else having to do with you individually, probably isn’t as black and white as people try to make it out to be.

Research has shown that eating too much protein can be just as bad for you as not eating enough. Some of the negative ways too much protein can hurt you include:

  • Intestinal discomfort
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea
  • Irritability

Other, more serious issues have also been attributed to high protein consumption include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Liver and kidney problems
  • Osteoporosis
  • Type 2 Diabetes

Most negative issues occur when over 2 grams/lb are consumed daily for a long period of time. Many people have made pretty decent gains without any negative issues when they consume somewhere between 1 and 2 grams of protein for each pound in bodyweight.

Side Note

Protein supplements are meant to be a supplement, not an exclusive source of protein. Don’t skip out on other sources in your diet such as steak, chicken, beans, vegetables, cottage cheese, and yogurt. With that said, protein shakes definitely help make up any gaps you have when trying to reach your daily intake requirements.

Most common types of Protein Powder

Whey

This is what’s the considered the “gold standard”, at least in the sports and fitness realm. You’ve probably noticed it’s the most popular and talked about protein out there. And this is for good reason. Whey, one of the two proteins found in milk, is the fastest absorbing protein that you can consume. The quick absorption speed is exactly what you want after an intense weight training session. Why is that?

When you’re in the gym, you break down muscle tissue. After a workout, your muscles are depleted, torn, and in need of recovery. Because they need to heal, you need to feed them quickly in order to start up the repair process as soon as you possible. Whey causes the greatest stimulus to the skeletal muscle protein synthesis process because it is digested so rapidly in the body. This crazy sounding function is basically the process within a muscle cell that aids in muscle cell growth.

Anatomy of a muscle
Image from HomeGymr

Given proper amounts of protein, hydration, and rest you build those muscles back up. That’s why adequate, and rapid, protein intake after a workout is of utmost importance.

Whey protein also contains the widest variety of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle, compared to other types of proteins. Amino acids are the broken down components of protein, and the body requires a wide variety of them in order to optimize the muscle-building process. This gives whey protein another edge over other types of protein out there.

Lastly, concerning whey protein, there are primarily two different types; concentrate and isolate. Whey concentrate has been filtered to the point where there are trace amounts of lactose (milk sugar) left in the powder, giving it small amounts of carbohydrates and fats. Whey isolate is a “cleaner” protein that has been put through an additional filtering process.,
The extra filtering gives it virtually no carbohydrate or fat content! However, the latter is often more expensive.

Casein

Casein protein, the other milk-based protein, is the slowest digesting protein that will most likely find on a store shelf. Why on Earth would you want this a slow digesting protein like this?

Casein comes in handy when you really don’t have access to protein sources over the course of the day, such as if you’re at work or the time between bedtime and breakfast. In this way, you’ll be able to make sure that you’re optimizing muscle growth at all times.

Most people use casein when they know they will not be consuming any protein sources for a considerable amount of time (usually greater than 4-6 hours). Before bedtime and prior to getting on a long plane ride are good examples. Casein creates a sort of “gel” in the stomach (kind of like fiber does) which “drip feeds” protein into your system over period of up to 8 hours in most cases.

Egg

Egg protein can be considered a “medium-digesting protein”; slower than whey but faster than casein. It is often used in unflavored protein products, as it has the most “plain” flavor after processing compared to other types of proteins. Often, egg proteins are included in blended products, which combine multiple types of proteins together in order to vary its rate of digestion. Because it’s an animal protein, it contains all of your essential amino acids, making it a solid choice.

Eggs

Soy

Soy is actually a high-quality protein source, despite the bad rap that it has gotten over the past few years. It contains all of the essential amino acids just like whey and casein do.

However, it is still the least optimal type of protein compared to pretty much any other type of protein out there. Why is that?

Too much soy has been shown to raise estrogen levels in men. However, in moderation, it is safe. Additionally, research has shown soy to be less optimal for muscle protein synthesis when compared to whey. I wouldn’t recommend it after a workout. You’re better off spending just a little more money on whey so that you can get the most gains for your money, unless your diet requires a more vegetarian type product.

Plant

This is usually a blend of differing proteins coming from different vegan sources, such as brown rice, pea, and soy. Companies will “protein pair” the different sources of protein in order to make sure they have all of the essential amino acids necessary. No single plant source contains all of the essential amino acids necessary for protein synthesis, like animal proteins do.

However, plant protein still isn’t as optimal as whey is for muscle building, as shown in multiple studies. Although it absorbs faster than casein, it doesn’t absorb nearly as fast as whey due to the increased fiber and fat content from the plant sources, This also, in turn, increases its calories, which doesn’t make it an optimal choice for those who are on a calorie-restricted diet. It may not be a great choice for most gym goers, but if you are vegan or vegetarian, plant based supplements are a life-saver since it’s very difficult to get the recommended amount of protein through a strictly vegetarian diet.

Animal protein sources
Image from EatThis

Final Words

This article only scratches the surface of the various types of protein supplements out there. There are many other variations of how you can consume them coming out every day. These are currently the primary types of protein you will see for sale in one form or another.

Determine how much you need to consume, compare with what you are currently eating daily, and adjust. Many of these supplements can fit into your diet, regardless of if you are on keto, flexible dieting, or a vegetarian/vegan!