There are so many protein supplements nowadays. It’s hard to know exactly what type of protein is good for specific goals and what are the best protein supplements. The average fitness enthusiast probably couldn’t name more than one or two different types of protein supplements. You should really understand the specific types of protein sources to maximize lean muscle growth, have proper recovery, and improve your general health and well-being.
In fact, protein is one of the most studied nutrition supplements in the world. There is tons of research supporting the benefits of protein supplements.
Which type of protein is best? In this protein nutrition guide, we will analyze the importance of each type of protein, the pros and cons associated with it, and what makes it stand apart from the rest. First, let’s understand the true benefits of protein and why it’s so critical for the body to have.
Protein 101—Understanding the Benefits of Protein
Protein is found in virtually every part of the body. It’s found in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and all the other areas. It creates the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. Protein is made up of amino acids that form the building blocks of lean body tissue and muscle mass. You cannot build proper strength and muscle in the body without adequate protein consumption.
Protein is a macronutrient found in many foods like meats, seafood, dairy products, nuts, beans, etc. You should get most of your protein consumption from natural foods but it may also be easier to get them from supplements. Remember, not all protein is created equal. It’s important to understand two main ways that protein supplements are often classified.
Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: Protein is derived from various food sources and is “concentrated” by removing the non-protein parts. As a result, you get protein powder that’s about 70 to 85% pure protein (with the remaining 15 to 30% made up of mostly carbohydrates and fat). If you go a step further, “isolation” removes a much higher percentage of non-protein ingredients. The additional processing can formulate protein that is upwards of 95% pure.
Complete vs. Incomplete Protein: Amino acids that cannot be made by the body are known as essential amino acids. “Complete proteins” have all nine essential amino acids, while “incomplete proteins” contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids.
Now that you understand these two critical components, let’s discuss the most common protein powder supplements available and the benefits/drawbacks of each.
Nutrition Supplement Guide: Comparing the Most Common Types of Proteins
If you were to ask people to name the best protein supplement, a vast majority would say whey protein without really knowing why. Whey protein is certainly the most popular protein supplement on the market today. It’s the by-product in the process of turning milk into cheese.
Pros: Whey protein is quickly absorbed and utilized by the body, which is why it’s ideal when it comes to post-workout recovery, muscle growth, and fat loss. In addition, it can have antioxidant properties. It’s also one of the more inexpensive sources of protein.
Cons: The sugar found in milk (lactose) is a common allergen that can make whey protein indigestible for some people, known as lactose intolerance. Whey protein is more likely to contain artificial sweeteners and chemicals than many other types of protein powders. It’s important to do your research when choosing the best type of brand.
Casein protein is the most abundant protein in milk. Casein is produced using a separation process applied to liquid milk that can concentrate or isolate the milk protein from the carbs and fats.
Pros: Casein protein has similar benefits to whey protein but has a different release process. Unlike whey protein that is digested very quickly by the body, casein protein digests over a longer period of time. That’s why this type of protein is ideal to have before bedtime since your body can become catabolic when you sleep. Having a stable supply of protein in your body during sleeping hours is optimal to maintain lean muscle and maximize recovery.
Cons: Since it’s a slow digesting protein, casein protein is not that effective if you have it immediately after a workout. That’s best reserved for whey protein. Casein protein can also contain artificial ingredients and is more commonly expensive than whey protein. In addition, since casein is a by-product of milk, it can be allergenic to some people.
Like its name says, egg protein comes from eggs. It is a complete protein produced by separating out the yolks and dehydrating the egg whites.
Pros: Besides obviously having protein, egg protein is rich in vitamins and minerals.
Cons: Egg allergies, like milk allergies, can be common. Egg protein is also one of the most expensive protein supplements.
Soy beans are one of the few plant protein sources that have all of the essential amino acids. The protein is concentrated or isolated after the soy beans have been hulled and dried into soy flour.
Pros: This type of protein is great for vegetarians. Research supports that soy protein may help improve immune function and bone health while decreasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Cons: In recent years, soy has been under controversy since it’s commonly known to be genetically modified to produce greater crop yields. It also may have negative effects on hormone levels.
You may be surprised to know that rice actually contains protein! It’s not just full of all those carbs. Not only is brown rice a major carbohydrate source found in a bodybuilder’s diet, but it’s also becoming a standard source for vegetarian protein powder.
Pros: Besides just protein, brown rice protein is considered a good source of complex carbohydrates, vitamin B, and fiber. It’s also hypoallergenic so your body will easily digest and utilize most of the protein.
Cons: Unlike soy protein, rice protein is a plant-based option that is deficient in specific types of amino acids. As a result, you should not rely on rice protein as the main source of protein in your diet.
Hemp protein is made from the seeds of the cannabis plant (yes, the plant that marijuana grows from).
Pros: Hemp is frequently referred to as a “superfood” due to its mix of essential fatty acids and that it’s full of all 21 amino acids, which makes it a complete protein. It is also vegan-friendly and very hypoallergenic.
Cons: Hemp is often the most expensive type of protein since it’s only harvested in mass quantities in specific countries due to its connection to cannabis.
Pea protein comes from the yellow split pea.
Pros: A great choice for vegetarians and vegans, pea protein is hypoallergenic and contains minimal additives or artificial ingredients. This is one of the best types of protein supplements closest to the whole-food source.
Cons: Pea protein lacks certain amino acids and isn’t ideal as a primary source of protein in the diet.
As you can see, there are so many different types of proteins. There really is something for everyone so there really isn’t one best protein supplement. It is important to note that we all have different genetic makeups and our bodies respond differently to food and exercise. A nutrition supplement guide should be crafted based off your body type, goals, and lifestyle. You should aim for 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. However, that amount can change depending how active you are. Whenever buying any protein supplement (or any supplement for that matter), make sure you pay close attention to the ingredients found on the label. Protein supplements should be used in accordance with a healthy diet made up of mainly whole foods. Enjoy your protein!