Protein is the building block of life. Protein underlies the successful, healthy functioning of every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. There are more than 50,000 different human proteins, and they provide structure to our bodies, build muscle, create antibodies for our immune system, and aid in digestion in the form of enzymes. Their most important function overall is to build, maintain, and replace the tissues in your body.
Proteins are composed of long chains of amino acids linked together to make large molecules. Our body is able to make 14 of the 22 amino acids it needs to function properly. The rest need to be obtained from the diet.
Protein powders are used by athletes and bodybuilders to support muscle growth and improved performance, as well as by people whose diets don’t supply enough protein. Protein powders are known to help with synthesis of new muscle mass as well as muscle recovery, to produce energy and fight fatigue, to help stimulate the metabolism of fat, and to boost the immune system.
Commercially available protein powder is composed of dried derivatives of animal or vegetable protein, including cow milk, eggs, soy, hemp, and goat milk.
- Cow and goat milk proteins include mostly casein (80%) and whey (20%)
- Soy protein is derived from dried, ground soy flakes
- Hemp protein comes from hemp oil, which is extracted from hemp seeds
- Egg protein comes from egg whites
Protein powders may provide a single protein source or may combine proteins to enhance their overall benefits. The choice of powder depends on the target purpose, such as muscle building and recovery, energy production, fat loss, or endurance. Each powder has its specific strengths and advantages:
- Casein protein powder (from goat or cow milk) is insoluble, so it is slowly digested. This means it can deliver a steady stream of amino acids to help muscles recover from a hard workout.
- Whey protein powder is more soluble, so it digests more quickly and is the perfect choice for just before and after workouts. Whey protein has the highest Biological Value (BV) protein, and it helps repair and build muscle tissue when the body needs it most.
- Egg protein powder has the second-highest BV and is used by people who are allergic to cow milk or who don’t eat many eggs.
- Soy protein powder contains the highest levels of the amino acids glutamine and arginine. It also contains isoflavones which are known hormone regulators. Soy protein powder is said to be excellent for helping women both balance hormone levels and strengthen bones.
- Finally, hemp protein powder includes about 50% protein and also contains omega 3, 6, and 9 essential fatty acids and fibre.
Choosing the best protein powder for you
Experts suggest choosing a powder based on a specific purpose and/or nutritional need. Protein powders may contain any or all of the following:
- Creatine, an amino acid that may increase levels of insulin in the body, thus helping with energy production
- Glutamine, an amino acid that boosts the immune system and promotes muscle growth and recovery
- Arginine, an amino acid that helps increase blood flow and water retention in muscles.
- Omega 3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects and help the body burn fat stores
- Vitamins and minerals should be included at at least the 50% Recommended Daily Allowance
In addition to these components, look for a powder that will help you achieve your goal, whether it’s fat loss, muscle building, immune system support, increased endurance, or a combination of these goals.
Clinical studies on protein powders have had mixed results. Some highlights of recent research include:
- Women may benefit more from soy-based protein powders than milk-based protein powders in terms of hormone balance and bone strength. However whey may be superior for muscle development.
- Long-term use of protein powders may result in quicker recovery from workouts, better blood oxygen levels and increased athletic endurance.
- Regular use of protein powder may provide more muscle mass and strength (when combined with exercise), higher peak power, improved cholesterol levels, and higher levels of antioxidants in the body.
To date, little evidence exists for safety or toxicity problems with protein powders. However, taking protein powders in the absence of a balanced diet and sufficient exercise can lead to dehydration, liver and kidney problems, gout, calcium deficiencies and stomach upset. One problem with protein powder selection is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so quality and efficacy can vary from blend to blend and brand to brand. You may wish to consult your personal trainer for ideas on which protein powder is best for your particular needs.