Big tubs of protein supplements are becoming increasingly more prevalent – they're almost impossible to miss if you're at the gym, they're in all kinds of nutrition stores, and regular grocery stores are even starting to carry them. However, protein supplements are not for everyone, and even if they are for you, some supplements are better for reaching certain goals than others.
Some people, especially from older generations, are leery of protein powders because they don't look like regular food and, let's face it, GNC stores can be intimidating. The first thing you should know is that straight protein supplements that don't have creatine or other performance enhancers (check the label and ingredient list) are food. This has two implications: First, they aren't dangerous, they won't lead to strange growths, and they're not like force feeding chickens on a farm (Yes, I've heard this analogy). Second, because a protein powder is simply food, no one NEEDS a protein supplement because other more recognizable foods are also high in protein. However, protein supplements may still be beneficial depending on your health and fitness goals.
Gaining Muscle Mass
If your goal is to gain muscle mass, you should be consuming about as many grams of protein as your target body weight daily, so if I want to weigh 150 pounds, I should get about 150 grams of protein every day. Sound like a lot? It is. That's why people who are looking to put on muscle will be the most benefited by a protein supplement. Again, having a protein powder isn't an absolute necessity, but it is a quick, easy way to get the amount of protein you need to gain serious muscle mass.
Eating lean, high quality protein is essential to any weight loss program. Unlike carbohydrates, fats or starches, your body doesn't store excess protein; so if you eat more than you need, it won't weigh you down. Even if you're counting calories, you should be aiming for at least 75-100 grams of protein every day (which is only 300-400 calories). Protein supplements are a good, convenient way to get lean protein, but lean protein can also be found in chicken breasts, ham, lean beef, low fat dairy products and more. If you think you can get enough protein without a supplement, go for it. If not, try adding a supplement to smoothies or even some baking recipes if you don't like it with water or milk.
Weight Maintenance / General Health
Even if you're perfectly happy with your body type, you should still be getting 75-125 grams of protein daily depending on your size. Try using nutritional labels to figure out how much protein you eat in a day (a rough estimate should be fine). If you're within this range without altering your regular eating habits, you can skip a protein supplement. However, if you're finding it difficult to reach that amount because you don't like eating a lot of meat, high quality sources of protein are expensive and difficult to store (this is especially true for me as a college student who lived in a dorm last year), or you're a carboholic, supplementing your diet with a protein shake may be beneficial. Remember, if you're just short of your goal, you don't necessarily have to use their recommended serving size – a half scoop is fine and will make the powder last longer.
What kind of supplement should I get?
There are three basic kinds of protein that almost every single protein powder will have one or a combination of: whey, casein, and soy. I'll explain each type, how they're made, what they're best for, and why you should avoid a soy protein supplement.
Whey protein is the most popular kind of protein on the market today. It is derived from the protein found in milk after the casein protein has already been removed, usually to make cheese (about 20% of the protein found in milk is whey and the other 80% is casein protein). Whey protein is absorbed by the body very quickly, making it a favorite among weightlifters who take it both before and after lifting. In fact, traces of whey protein can be found in the bloodstream in as little as 20 minutes, though it generally doesn't last for much more than an hour. Because of its fast absorbing nature, I would recommend taking a whey protein supplement immediately before and / or after exercising to give you an energy boost during your workout and to give your muscles some much needed relief after a strenuous workout. However, whey protein may not be your best choice is you're looking for sustained energy or a supplement to your diet.
Where whey protein may fail, casein protein picks up the slack. Casein protein, like was mentioned, is also derived from milk, but it differs from whey in that it can last in your bloodstream for up to 8 hours, providing your body with a sustained source of protein that is good for supplementing a low protein diet and warding off hunger. Some weightlifters also like casein protein, though taking it right after lifting like you would with whey protein won't yield stellar results. Instead, try taking it right before you go to bed. Remember, casein protein will stay in your bloodstream for up to 8 hours, so if you want your muscles to build all night long, a casein supplement before bed might be your answer.
Soy protein, unlike whey or casein, is plant based. Without getting overly scientific, soy protein is generally considered a lower quality protein because it does not have a complete amino acid structure like whey, casein, or almost every animal based protein does. Some protein supplements still feature soy protein, though they're fading in number due to recent research that shows soy may mimic the hormone estrogen in the body. Men should take special note of this because males have less estrogen to begin with, so an increase could be more significant. My advice: stay away from any soy protein supplement – soy will be most dangerous if you're getting a lot of it on a consistent basis.
However, there really isn't a need to swear off all plant based proteins as some people might suggest. Beans and nuts, both of which have plant based protein, reap a number of nutritional benefits and it would really be a shame to scare people away from them. It's really only the soy based supplements that can have any significant negative impact on your body, so don't worry about the plant based protein you find naturally in foods.
Are all whey or casein protein supplements the same?
The short answer is no. When you're shopping for a protein supplement, take a look at the ingredients list. If it says something like "whey protein concentrate" or "caseinate" you might save some money, but know that this type of protein contains higher amounts of carbohydrates and fats and it's more difficult to mix by hand. However, it does the trick. The other most common one you'll see is "whey protein isolate." Isolates have less carbohydrates and fat than do concentrates and they're a little easier to mix by hand. You may also see something that says "hydroslate," which means it will be absorbed into your bloodstream even faster than usual. Only opt for this kind of protein if you plan on using your supplement right after working out. "Micellar casein" is the highest quality casein protein you can find because of how easily it will mix – you'll pay a little extra for it though. Finally, "milk protein" or anything with egg protein means they've simply added an ingredient that acts like milk or eggs in your body. Both are good.
Some Final Notes
If you're still unsure about which type of protein supplement to get, you can always try a blend of whey and casein protein. That way, you don't need to worry so much about when you take your supplement because you'll be getting the best of both worlds. Optimum Nutrition's Nitrocore24 and BSN's Syntha-6 are two good options. Also, consider buying your protein powder on Amazon or another online retailer. This will help you save money and choose the best product by reading through some online reviews. Just know that when it ships, the scoop will probably be buried and you may have to get creative to find it.