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When it comes to supplements, protein powders, in all their various forms from ready-to-drink protein shakes (RTDs) to protein bars, should be at the top of your list. And not just because it takes a lot of protein to grow muscle. No, the majority of your protein intake should come from lean whole-food sources, such as fish, poultry, beef, dairy, and eggs.
The reason you should purchase protein supplements is because they offer benefits that you just can’t get from whole food. Besides the convenience of just drinking a shake or eating a protein bar, the types of protein you can get in supplements are far superior to those in whole-foods—when consumed at the right time.
So how do you choose the right protein supplement among the masses that are available today? By educating yourself regarding the benefits of certain proteins and learning how to maximize those benefits to your gain. That’s the purpose of this protein buyers’ guide—to help you make the best selections for you.
Protein supps come in three main forms—bars, ready-to-drinks (RTDs), and of course, powders. Here’s what you need to know about each of them.
MEAL REPLACEMENT BARS
The big advantage to bars is their convenience. You can keep one in your car, in your gym bag, or in your desk for any time you need a protein meal. There is no prep time involved and no clean up necessary. And the fact that sometimes you actually want to chew your protein as opposed to drinking it makes them the best option as a meal replacement.
Plus, due to the manufacturing involved in making bars, it’s fairly impossible to find a pure protein bar that does not include a decent amount of carbs. They’re essentially a meal. There are numerous low-carb bar options for those watching their carb intake. These usually replace sugar with sugar alcohols, which are not readily absorbed by the body.
Because bars digest more slowly than shakes, you should not get in the habit of using them for your pre- and post-workout meals. Keep these around for when you can’t grab a meal or need a snack.
Like bars, RTDs also offer convenience. There’s no mixing involved, simply open the bottle and guzzle it down. You can use RTDs around workouts, but they may not be your absolute best option. The reason is that most RTDs use milk protein as their main protein source. Since milk protein is 20% whey and 80% casein, you may not be getting enough whey to really boost muscle growth. Use RTDs as a convenient way to get a dose of protein for a snack or a meal replacement, or as your pre- or post-workout shake in a pinch.
Protein powders have numerous benefits over bars and RTDs. For starters, there are many more choices. There are pure proteins, such as pure whey protein powders, or pure casein protein powders, as well as mixed protein powders that combine whey, casein, and even egg white protein. The flavors also extend far beyond the typical chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Then there’s price.
Protein powders are economically your best option as you get far more protein for your buck. We suggest that for most workouts you use a protein powder that you mix yourself. This will not only let you get the precise amount of protein that you want, but it also allows you to add other critical supplements to your pre- and post-workout shakes. Ingredients you may want to look at in your protein powder of choice include:
You simply can’t beat this protein from milk for building lean muscle. Numerous studies show that whey protein is crucial for stimulating muscle growth. Your best option will be products that contain whey protein isolate and/or whey protein hydrolysates. Whey protein isolate is the purest whey you can get. This makes it very fast digesting, which is what you’ll need before and after workouts.
The only thing that digests faster than whey protein isolate is whey protein hydrolysate. This is a “pre-digested” whey protein, which means that it is already broken down into smaller protein fragments so your body does less work when digesting it. Whey protein concentrate is still good, but it will contain more carbs and fat than the previous two forms of whey and therefore will digest a bit slower.
If you choose a mixed protein that contains two or more forms of protein, be sure some form of whey is listed first on the ingredients list.
Casein makes up the majority of the protein in milk. Unlike its fast-digesting counterpart whey, casein takes longer to work through your system. This makes it a good protein choice to take before bed when you’ll be fasting for several hours throughout the night, or when you can’t get to a meal for several hours.
Adding casein to your post-workout whey shake has been found to enhance muscle growth. So consider purchasing a casein protein in addition to whey protein, or a mixed protein that provides both whey and casein proteins to take after workouts. Your best bet is to choose a powder that includes micellar casein, which is the slowest digesting form of casein. However, sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, and potassium caseinate are also good forms.
Milk protein is essentially milk with the majority of the carbs (lactose) and fat removed. This protein is 20% whey and 80% casein. It’s not the best option to use around workouts, but since it is mostly casein, it makes a good protein source before bed or between meals.
Mixed powders may include this type of protein, but if you’re using it around workouts, be sure that milk protein is listed on the ingredients list after whey protein. Look for milk protein listed as milk protein isolate (the purest milk protein available), or milk protein concentrate.
EGG WHITE PROTEIN
This protein powder used to be the choice among bodybuilders back in the day. That’s because egg white protein is a very high-quality protein and no one knew about the benefits of whey back then. It digests a lot slower than whey, but not quite as slow as casein. Therefore, going with a pure egg white protein powder around workouts may not be your best option.
If you do not eat eggs regularly, an egg protein powder may be a good choice for you to use between meals. Numerous mixed protein powders include egg white protein in addition to whey and casein. The benefit of this is that you get a very fast-digesting protein, a medium-digesting protein, and a very slow-digesting protein in one.
Let’s get one thing straight, beef protein powder doesn’t taste like a steak that’s been thrown in a blender—it actually comes in flavors like fruit punch and blue raspberry.
Beef protein powder is beef that has almost all of the fat removed. The end product is about 99% protein. And because it is pre-digested just like whey hydrolysate, it’s a fast-digesting protein. That makes it a good alternative to whey, especially if you have a milk-protein allergy.
If you’re vegan or allergic to dairy, you can reach for a plant protein source such as wheat protein isolate. While you may not think of wheat as a good protein source, wheat protein powder is concentrated down to just the protein with most of the carbs removed. Wheat protein is a rich source of glutamine, which is a critical for muscle growth.