I’ve written before about the importance of protein. Whether you are looking to build strength, or just lazily keep yourself in decent shape, protein is absolutely crucial for building and maintaining muscle mass. Muscle mass, by the way, is that stuff that comprises the real you. Fat, after a certain point, is pretty worthless. Lean mass is the “real, metabolically active you”, as DeVany would say. Protein is important, but it is woefully lacking in many people’s diets. Carbs and bad fats form the basis of most people’s diets and so trying to get enough protein from whole meals can be daunting. This is particularly true if you’re eating out or traveling frequently, as restaurants cater to the average joe and think that 20g of protein in a chicken breast constitutes a meal. Fun fact: even a CHICKEN needs about 24g of protein a day. As the dominant species, you have a moral responsibility to eat more protein than the animals upon which you are feeding.
That being the case, we still have the problem of trying to get enough protein is a society where protein is an afterthought. Enter: protein powder. There are many kinds — and brands — of protein powder and most of them are garbage. To cover the major types of protein:
The classic protein, derived from milk, is popular due to its rapid absorption, low allergenic potential, and high bio-availability. Whey is the most popular protein and most of the protein you’ll find will be whey protein. This is the stuff you want to consume pre and post-workout.
Also derived from milk, casein is the more complete, slower absorbing protein. Casein is whey’s bigger, stronger, older brother. It turns into a gel in the stomach and slowly provides amino acids over a longer time. Many studies also show greater muscle mass gain and retention when supplementing with casein instead of whey or in addition to whey. Particularly, micellar casein is the kind to get. Casein is very thick and you will need about twice the liquid you would use for whey. Some people don’t like the thickness or texture, but I think it grows on you.
Can’t handle milk-derived proteins? Get some egg protein. You can actually just buy huge tubs of powdered egg whites, which are great for mixing in to meal-replacement smoothies. Egg protein doesn’t mix well without a blender, so keep that in mind. It’s bioavailability is very high (your body can use all of it) so this is definitely something you want around if you stock a few different proteins.
This stuff is garbage. Don’t even think about it.
Things to Avoid
Some pitfalls for the protein buyer are the excess of crappy, celebrity proteins and cheap blends using dairy-process byproducts and heat-deformed proteins packed with filler and unnecessary ingredients. A disturbing number of proteins contain soy protein, wheat protein (gluten), wheat starch, vegetable oils, and even trans fats! Like many other things, you are better off with fewer ingredients.
Taking the above into consideration, I have a few recommendations for protein. My favorite brand is Optimum Nutrition. They have done a good job keeping excess ingredients out of their proteins and even offer natural varieties with Stevia instead of Splenda (sucralose). The best source for protein (And any supplement) is bodybuilding.com. Their selection is huge, their service is phenomenal, and I’m pretty sure they ship their stuff by launching products out of a huge cannon, because my orders arrive within 48 hours. Optimum has excellent flavors of whey and casein, and I recommend getting at least one of each so that you have a more complete blend of proteins and have some flavors to mix and match.
Natural Whey (no artificial sweeteners): http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/opt/natwhey.html
ON Whey: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/opt/whey.html
Natural Casein (no artificial sweeteners): http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/opt/naturalcas.html
ON Casein: http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/opt/cas.html
The non-natural versions contain splenda (sucralose) so don’t get those if you are trying to avoid that. Also, the “cookies and creme” flavor, while delicious, contains actual cookies (and therefore wheat), so avoid that one as well. You won’t be disappointed with any of the flavors. The natural vanilla — for whey or casein — is excellent, as is the chocolate and strawberry whey. I’d recommend getting a vanilla, a chocolate, and maybe a banana creme casein so you have plenty to mix and match. Make sure you get a whey and a casein for a more complete protein. I tend to have a scoop of each prior to a workout, and if I make meal-replacement smoothies I’ll have about 3 scoops of casein and 1 of whey. I frequently put a scoop of casein on top of some berries and cream/coconut milk for dessert. You can also mix it in with yogurt, Kefir, or cottage cheese for some added protein and flavor. Martin Berkhan at Leangains has a recipe for “protein fluff” on his site, so that may be worth checking out too. Whatever you decide, adding some protein will help you feel full and give some much needed nutrition if your diet is lacking or if you are engaged in heavy weightlifting.
For those of you who aren’t in engaged in heavy lifting, protein supplementation can still benefit you if you replace inferior/junk calories with protein. Some will argue that excess calories from protein will merely make you fat if they are not burned. While true, won’t the excess calories from ice cream, a candy bar, or chips make you fat too? The difference is that ice cream, candy bars, and chips don’t fill you up and will make you hungrier, whereas protein will make you less hungry. Protein Powder mixed with coconut milk or heavy cream and poured over some berries makes a great ice-cream like snack, and of course I’ve provided a recipe for protein ice-cream before. Finally, protein’s true caloric value is likely much less than 4 calories per gram due to a higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Conventional wisdom equates protein and carb calories at 4 calories per gram, but new studies are blowing this notion away, suggesting that protein may only be 3.2 calories per gram. Fewer calories? Less blood sugar spike? More appetite suppression? What’s not to love?