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Protein Powders

Originally used by bodybuilders and athletes, protein powders are now consumed by every gender, age group and activity level interested in increasing their protein intake.  Protein powders are an excellent way to meet the high protein demands many of us have – especially weightlifters and athletes – in order to maximize performance.

There are many types of powdered proteins, and since protein is not all the same, protein powders vary in amino acid contents and bioavailability (the rate of absorption and availability to targeted tissue after consumption).

The Biological Value (BV) is a value or scale that measures how well the body can absorb and make use of proteins based on nitrogen retention.  The higher the biological value of a protein, the more nitrogen your body absorbs, utilizes and retains.  Therefore, proteins with the highest BV promote the most lean muscle development – an important factor for bodybuilders and athletes.

Branched-chain amino acids – valine, isoleucine and leucine – are essential amino acids that can provide energy directly to muscle tissue, and reduce protein and muscle breakdown during exercise.  As a result, they are very beneficial for all athletes, especially during times of intense exercise and stress.  “Branched-chain” refers to the chemical structure of these amino acids.  Protein powder labels should list the content of branched-chain amino acids, as well as all others.

The following list gives a quick rundown and biological value of the most popularly used protein powders:


Whey Protein Powders

Typically the preferred choice of body builders, athletes and fitness enthusiasts, whey protein has the highest quality protein available because of its superior amino acid profile or content.  A complete protein, whey has a BV of 104, and as a result is the most widely used protein powder on the market.  In addition, whey protein has the highest level of branched-chained amino acids of all proteins.  Derived from milk, whey is the by-product of curdled milk used for cheese making.  Most whey proteins are derived from cow’s milk; however, goat milk whey is available for those sensitive to dairy proteins.  It’s usually lactose free and has a BV of 104.  Expect a high price tag for goat whey, but it’s a great alternative to bovine based whey products.

There are several categories of whey protein: 1. Whey Protein Isolate – the purest form of whey protein, containing 90-95% protein, is virtually fat, carb and lactose (milk sugar) free.  This is the most expensive whey protein available, but worth the cost if you’re looking for high levels of clean protein.  Unfortunately, its processing destroys much of the naturally occurring immune enhancing properties found in other types of whey protein.  Still, isolate is the best choice for post-workout consumption, when muscles are most in need of amino acids, since it’s quickly absorbed.  Because it’s absorbed rapidly and doesn’t linger in the body as long as other types of protein, other forms of whey are preferred for daytime and meal use.  This product is suitable for lactose intolerant individuals.  2. Whey Protein Concentrate – typically has 80% protein, but can vary from 25 to 89%.  The rest of the powder includes lactose, fat and minerals. This form often has the highest fat and lactose content of all whey proteins, with some brands containing as high as 9% fat and 52% lactose.  3. Hydrolyzed Whey Protein – contains whey protein whose amino acids have been broken down into peptides, which make it more easily absorbed by the body.  Protein levels range from 80 to 90%, with fat content not exceeding 8% and lactose up to 10%. Hydrolyzed is often used for people with medical problems needing to up their protein intake because it’s so readily available. 4. Whey Blends – these are typically a blend of isolate and concentrate wheys.  They have an excellent amino acid profile, yet are not as pure as isolate alone, or as high in fat and lactose as concentrate.  This is the most commonly used whey protein; offering the most reasonable price of all whey powders.  Many brands contain mostly concentrates, so read labels to be sure of what you’re buying.

Choose whey protein based on your specific needs.  Just about anyone can use it, and it’s the perfect option for building muscle and muscle recovery; making it the ideal protein source for both before and after workout use.  Concentrates and blends can naturally strengthen the immune system due to their active immune enhancing ingredients.  All whey powders can be mixed together, or used intermittently throughout the day, depending on your needs.

Casein Protein Powders

Both Calcium Casseinate and Miscellar Casein are derived from milk protein, making them a complete protein with a BV of 91.  Caseins are slow digesting proteins that have a strong anti-catabolic (ability to stop cellular breakdown) effect.  The consistency of this protein drink is thicker than whey; seeming more like a milkshake.  It is not recommended for post-workout because of its slow release of amino acids, and is typically used by body builders during the day when there is prolonged time between meals and especially at night; making it known as the “night time” protein.  Being anti-catabolic, it slows down muscle loss during sleep because it can take up to seven hours to digest.  This protein has the highest amounts of glutamine, an amino acid known to help build and preserve muscle.  Those who use casein protein typically use whey protein, also, at different times.

Egg Protein Powders

Absorbed at a rate somewhere between whey and casein proteins, egg protein is a complete protein, which has an excellent amino acid profile, a BV of 100, and ranks second to whey for muscle building capabilities.  Egg white protein is a great alternative for those with allergies to other protein powders.  It’s low in calories and essentially free of carbs and fats.  It’s a good addition to any meal for increasing protein, and a great choice for daytime use, since it gets absorbed fairly slowly.

Soy Protein Powders

Although soy is a complete protein, the amino acid profile is not as outstanding as the above proteins and has a BV of just 74.  Soy is an acceptable choice for vegans and anyone choosing to avoid animal based proteins.  However, the phytoestrogens in soy, which mimic estrogen, are not preferred for bodybuilding, since they can interfere with testosterone levels.  It is advised that children, both male and female, not consume soy before the age of fourteen, since the estrogen effects can alter their hormones – making girls mature too quickly and postpone boys’ masculine maturation.

Other Protein Powder Types

Other well known protein powders are rice, hemp, nut and pea, which all have a low BV status, and aren’t typically used for bodybuilding or athletics.  However, if you’re unable to use whey, casein or egg protein for muscle growth, these powders are a better choice than using none at all.

Meal Replacement Protein Powders

Many brands offer Meal Replacement products, which are protein powders that include vitamins, minerals and other nutrients; qualifying them as a safe meal alternative.

Whether you are a bodybuilder, athlete, dieter, or anyone looking to up their protein intake, there’s a protein powder for you.  They come in many types and flavors, and can be added to any liquid (milk and water are most commonly used) for a protein drink, or added dry to yogurt, cereal, or any food you choose.

Today, more than ever, there are countless protein powders on the market, which can be found in most grocery stores, health food stores, gyms or online.  If you’re not already using a protein powder, consider adding one to your exercise protocol to help reach peak performance, or to just enhance your protein intake.  You’ll love the results!

by Aaron Marino

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