It’s awards season. And while the entertainment industry gathers to hand out accolades to the best and brightest, there’s a battle for the best in the supplement aisle, where protein—the powerhouse driving global sports-nutrition sales, according to Nutritional Outlook—comes in a dizzying array of variations including whey, casein, egg, soy, hemp, pea and beef.
Which protein supplement deserves your vote?
Best for allergies: Pea and rice
Pea protein is derived from yellow pea, which makes it highly digestible—especially if you’re prone to tummy troubles. The problem is that pea protein isn’t complete; it only contains a measly two amino acids. That’s where rice protein powder steps in to help deliver protein that will be OK for those looking for an anti-inflammatory source of protein and can help complement pea’s amino-acid profile.
Best for hardgainers: Casein
When you are having a difficult time building muscle, you want a steady stream of protein feeding your muscles, helping them recover and aiding their growth. This is where casein takes the prize. As the main protein in milk, it is the slowest absorbed, which makes it the perfect protein to consume before bedtime when a hard-\gainer doesn’t want to fast his or her muscles.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand on Protein and Exercise, consuming a protein shake 30 minutes before sleeping or two hours after your last meal will help aid in muscle recovery and offset muscle damage.
Best for lactose intolerance: Egg whites
When you can’t tolerate dairy or soy but want a complete protein, egg-white protein powder can fit the bill. These dried egg whites digest more slowly than whey but faster than casein, meaning they are versatile enough for the average person looking to supplement with protein powder—though studies have shown that it is not as effective in building muscle as whey and casein.
Best for longevity: Whey or casein
As you get older, loss of lean muscle mass becomes a concern. Studies have shown that consuming protein powder may help maintain muscle mass in the elderly. For instance, when healthy older adults supplemented with dairy-based protein at breakfast and lunch for 24 weeks, they experienced a positive increase in lean tissue mass than those who did not. Researchers reported in The Journal of Nutrition that these results suggest that an optimized and balanced distribution of meal protein intakes could be beneficial in the preservation of lean tissue mass in the elderly. This is just one of the many studies done with whey or casein looking at their effects on body composition in the aging.
However, in a scientific review on protein supplementation published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers caution that protein supplementation benefits increase with resistance-training experience but become less effective with older adults, pointing to a need for greater supplementation to reach optimal results as we age.
Best after a workout: Whey
According to Tiffani Bachus, a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer and co-author of “No Excuses! 50 Healthy Ways to Rock Breakfast!” (U Rock Girl, 2014), whey is a complete protein. (It contains all nine essential amino acids.) “It is a fast-digesting protein, so it enters the bloodstream faster to delivery nutrients,” she says. “Whey contains the highest level of leucine—one of the BCAAs that aids in stimulating muscle growth.”
Time and time again, research has found whey protein to be effective at building muscle, so consume it within an hour of your workout for the best results.
Best for weight loss: Casein
Bachus suggests casein or egg-white protein powders for weight loss because they are absorbed more slowly than whey, which some studies have linked to weight loss. The key to using a protein powder for weight loss is to make sure that the shake satiates you for a long time, hence the choice of casein and egg whites. (If you’re a vegetarian, she suggests hemp protein.) This can help keep you satiated longer, specifically 18 percent longer, according to one study in the journal Appetite.
Bachus suggests choosing the least processed, higher fiber, no added sugar/artificial sweeteners.
Best for vegetarians: Soy
Unlike other plant-based proteins, it’s a “complete” protein, which means it has all the amino acids you need. So if you’re lactose intolerant or a vegetarian, this is the best choice for you, but also know that it can be difficult for some to digest.
Made from de-hulled and defatted soybeans that are ground up, this protein powder absorbs at a moderate rate and contains greater amounts of the amino acids glutamine and arginine. Because it has a complete protein profile, it is the most effective plant protein to aid muscle growth and health.
Best overall protein powder: Whey
When we contacted Jose Antonio, Ph.D., CSCS, associate professor in exercise and sports science in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the Dr. Pallavi Patel College of Health Care Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, he told us: “You can answer ‘whey protein’ for all of those!”
His answer perfectly sums up what the research surrounding whey protein has found: Supplementing with whey protein can (broadly) help improve body composition and health outcomes. Whether your goal is to lose fat and gain muscle or lower blood pressure and help you age better, shaking up whey protein is the easy choice.
Do you need a protein powder?
If you’re heavily active or are looking for a meal replacement, then consider the protein source. “More is better—up to a point,” says Mike Saunders, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at James Madison University in Virginia. “Depending on how hard you are working out, whether or not you need that much depends on what you are doing,”
Women should use a powder with 15 to 25 grams of protein per serving, while men can go for 20 to 30. (If you’re sharing a canister, 20 grams will cover both your bases.) “Your body can’t synthesize any more protein than that in one sitting, so it will store any excess as fat,” says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., the director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis.
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