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What did one protein bar say to the early protein bar? I’m so sorry isolate, I couldn’t concentrate.
If you don’t at least roll your eyes or chuckle at that silly little pun, this is probably the guide for you. Maybe you’re just starting your fitness and nutrition journey, or maybe you want a quick refresher on that ever-essential nutrient, protein. Whatever your reason, here’s a handy rundown of the best protein sources and what all those names mean on the nutrition labels. This isn’t a deep dive in the sea of protein supplements, but rather an inviting dip into the protein pool.
Best high-protein foods
When seeking the best sources of protein for your eating needs, you can never go wrong with the big four: fish, chicken, beef, and eggs. If you happen upon a lean cut of steak, you can get a fantastic protein to calories ratio (P/Cal%). That’s important when you’re counting every calorie and gram of protein because the higher the P/Cal% the more likely your body is to begin the process of building muscle. But if you aren’t Mrs. Moneybags, you get just as an effective P/Cal% from Yellowfin Tuna or the old staple, chicken breast. Both are cheaper than lean-cut red meat and are easier to find. Eggs are great if there isn’t any meat handy—they don’t have as high a P/Cal% as their fully developed and meaty brethren, but a hard-boiled egg can be just the protein boost you need to ensure you’re meeting your daily protein needs.
The vegetarian/vegan option: Beans are your best protein friend. Not only are certain beans like Navy beans or soybeans high in protein, they also contain all the essential amino acids that trigger protein synthesis. This is essential if you want to tone or build muscle, but black beans, lentils, and other legumes are also rich sources of protein for the non-meat eaters.
Protein in a pinch
Sometimes you’re not home to cook the perfect sautéed chicken or $15 steak every night. Many times, fitness folks supplement their protein intake through bars, powders, and other foods. This rundown will make it easy for you to identify what kind of protein is in your bars and shakes, and what benefits they offer.
Protein bars can be a fantastic source of protein, a snack between meals or a delicious extra protein boost after a rewarding workout. In most bars you’ll find some combination of milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, micellar casein, or milk protein concentrate. Not all are created equal.
Quest Bars, for instance, will only use isolates in their protein bars. Isolates are a cleaner, purer form of protein that cut out excess fat, sugar, and other ingredients that remain in the protein-making process.
Concentrates are typically more cost-effective, but will have extra lactose and fat compared to isolates. You’re still getting the same amount of protein with a concentrate, but you’re also getting some ingredients you may not want. That’s important to note because more ingredients in your concentrates means a lower P/Cal% and a less effective form of protein. For everyday use, though, concentrates are fine, just not ideal.
If you see the main source of protein as micellar casein, these are typically reserved for those seeking bulking and maximum protein synthesis. Micellar casein works differently, and is usually used in tandem with other blends or concentrates. When you eat micellar casein, it slows digestion to maximize amino acid absorption. This allows your digestive system more time to metabolize the proteins in your bars/powders.
For when you absolutely must have all the protein as quick as possible. It used to be that protein powders were dominated by black and red colors, masculine text, and “extreme” callouts and features and benefits. Now we’re seeing a softer hand (and far better flavor) in the protein powder space. A quality powder has at least 80% P/Cal% and should have little to no sugar. Think of sugar as the purest form of carbs that has no worldly place being in your protein powder.
Some powders are more utilitarian with no or bland flavor, but Quest Protein Powder provides a bunch of tasty flavors that can be drank, blended, or baked into a variety of tasty desserts.
Vegans and Vegetarians are able to get in on the bodybuilding game, but for them (or possibly you reading this), it’s tough to get all the nutrients and amino acids you need to trigger protein synthesis. This can cause an issue when using plant-based proteins because you’ll need to mix up your powders to ensure you’re receiving all the beneficial amino acids that help build muscle. The plant-based approach is great for an animal-friendly option, but can be more expensive due to the need to buy various sources of vegan/veg-friendly powders to maximize your amino acid profile. In some plant-based powders you’ll find more fat and carbohydrate, which will lower the P/Cal%.
So what do I choose?
At the end of the day, the choice is yours! Maybe you don’t care about all this technical mumbo jumbo and you just want healthier snack alternatives to the candy bar king. Obviously, if you’re of the vegan/vegetarian variety, you’ve got a clear path ahead.
Whenever possible it’s best to get your protein from whole foods sources (meats, eggs, beans, etc.), but thankfully there are options when you’re staring down a candy bar in the checkout line. Most grocery and convenience stores now carry protein bars, and you can even find single-serving protein powder packets at some convenience and gas store locations.
Ultimately, a handy reminder is that isolates are the tip-top quality protein source, concentrates are good for everyday use, but aren’t the purest form of protein, and micellar casein is for those who are ready to buy a whole new wardrobe to fit their fancy new muscles.
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