Why should any one use protein powders at all?
There are two main reasons why bodybuilders and other athletes use protein powders.
- As additional source of proteins. Ideally, the proteins should come from our food but most diet programs require athletes to ingest such amount of proteins that it is practically impossible to get them all from natural sources. Another important question is if we really need such amount of proteins in our diets, for more on this topic read this.
- For better timing of protein ingestion. New research suggests new approaches in protein timing, for more info read this article.
Are protein powders healthy?
Unless you suffer from some rare metabolic syndrome or other disease that requires you to use proteins in highly processed form, you would have no good health-related reason to use protein powders. Protein powders are not here to improve our health, they are sport supplements. So the real question is whether they are damaging our health or not.
People claiming that protein powders are unhealthy usually mention the following reasons:
- The powders don’t work because our body is not able to process a large amount of proteins in a short time. The result is only increased strain on our kidneys.
Answer: It is hard to see what difference there is between proteins from food and those in powder-form. However, people probably differ in their ability to utilize big amounts of protein. Therefore some people may benefit from several smaller servings of protein a day. Many authors mention 30 grams of protein as maximum we are able to utilize in any given moment. But from our experience it seems that many athletes are able to digest much higher amounts. Unfortunately there is no simple way to know to which group you belong.
- Protein powders contain heavy metals.
Answer: It is true that higher-than-allowed amounts of heavy metals have been found in some protein powders as well as in other dietary supplements. This is more about the control of supplements: in USA, for instance, the industry is responsible for its products while most EU countries require testing on pollution by microbes and heavy metals before a supplement is allowed on the market.
- Protein powders cause insulin spikes.
Answer: Insulin spikes are very high values of insulin in our blood following the ingestion of certain food. Insulin spikes after protein ingestion are somewhat counter-intuitive response of our body: normally, we would expect them to follow carb ingestion. But they exist. It must be mentioned that the glucose metabolism and insulin levels are very individual: almost every person has somewhat different metabolism (therefore it is often hard to manage such a seemingly simple condition as diabetes). Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are indeed people who do respond with insulin spikes to protein powders and not to most other forms of protein. How can you know? Very high levels of insulin should lead to increased glucose uptake and eventually to hypoglycemia. Check for the following symptoms (normally following hunger):
- Protein powders are a highly processed food and as such they are unhealthy.
Answer: Yes, this is true. You can’t live of processed powders. But you can supplement your normal diet with them without much trouble.
What sources of protein are best?
Many scientific studies suggest that whey protein is the most effective in building muscle comparing other forms of protein.
Whey (a by-product in cheese production) is actually a large group of proteins like beta-lactoglobulin (65%), alpha-lactalbumin (25%), bovine serum albumin (8%), immunoglobulins (IgGs) and glycomacropeptides, many of which offer significant health benefits. What is most important for bodybuilders, whey has a very high content of BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids) – the type of amino acids most beneficial for muscle growth.
The problem with whey is that it also contains lactose – and many, maybe most, people suffer from some form of lactose intolerance. In fact, there are more potential problems with milk – for instance, it has been associated with diabetes (Karjalainen J, Martin JM, Knip M, et al. A bovine albumin peptide as a possible trigger of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. N Engl J Med 1992;327:302-7) and several other diseases, but this is a topic for another article.
Therefore you may decide to avoid whey protein powders in favor of another, if slightly less powerful type - beef or egg protein, for instance. In any case, men should avoid soy protein as it contains estrogen-like substances.
Then, of course, we have the casein. Casein is actually curds, or milk less the whey. It is valued among bodybuilders for its ability to form a clog in the stomach and slow release of protein. Therefore many bodybuilders drink casein shakes or eat cheese before sleep.
What form of protein is most effective?
The technology of protein-processing is evolving fast and new forms of proteins are coming to market almost every year. In the same time, we are re-evaluating some approaches that seem to be outdated.
Whey protein is commonly sold in the following forms:
Whey concentrates can contain as little as 30% of protein but some modern concentrates contain up to 80% of protein, the rest being lactose and fat. While reducing the amount of lactose is almost always a good idea, whey fat is not necessarily bad for you.
Many people used to consider whey concentrates inferior and opted for isolates or hydrolysates with higher amount of protein per serving. But the price for more processing is always damage to part of the protein (as you already know, whey consists of number of active compounds).
Whey concentrates contain, for instance, growth factors like IGF-1 and TGF beta that are practically non-existent in whey isolates. Growth factors are, according to some scientists, key to muscle growth.
Whey isolates can be produced by several different processes, some of which can almost completely destroy the activity of protein (those that denature the protein). Ion exchange has been the prevalent technology once but now new, more gentle methods are being employed. You’ve probably heard of CFM (Cross Flow Micro filtration), but other methods like UF (Ultra Filtration), NF (Nano Filtration), EU (electro-ultrafiltration), RFC (radial flow chromatography), RO (reverse osmosis), DMF (dynamic membrane filtration) and IEC (ion exchange chromatography)offer similar possibilities in filtering precisely those fractions we wish to retain on the product.
Simply said, whey isolates contain less lactose, which is good, less protein fractions, which is bad and less fat, which is questionable.
Whey hydrolysates are proteins that underwent a process of hydrolysation that breaks the protein into shorter peptides. As such, hydrolysates are a step closer to free amino acids. The problem is that some hydrolysation methods almost completely denature the protein (thus making it ineffective), not to speak of unpleasant taste they have.
Casein is usually sold as “Micellar Casein”. This term, however, only describes the normal form of casein in milk: micelles are aggregates of molecules dispersed in a fluid. In practice it only means that casein powder is not easily dissolved in water. Casein is also sold as hydrolysate.
Proteins from other sources are also produced as concentrates, isolates and rarely hydrolysates.
Among the nine essential amino acids there are three (leucine, isoleucine and valine) that are apparently more effective in building muscle mass. They are called branched chain amino acids, or BCAA’s. The value of a protein for bodybuilding is often judged by its BCAA content. High BCAA content in whey protein (compared to other amino acids) is one of the reasons why whey protein is so popular.
BCAA’s are also available as free amino acids. Free amino acids are easiest to digest and are readily available for muscle synthesis but one shouldn’t forget that other amino acids have also their place in muscle synthesis and their role may not be underestimated.