Protein Powder

First published on June 23rd, 2020. Updated on November 25, 2023.
7 minutes average read.

Protein powders are probably the most popular supplement on the market at the moment. How many times have you heard “once I get my protein I’ll start back in the gym” or “I’ve just started back in the gym, so I’ve just ordered some new protein”. Some people use this as motivation, which is absolutely fine. What this article will look to do, is talk about what protein powder does, how effective it is, and if it’s necessary to enhance recovery and increase muscle mass.

Firstly, we should look at the different types of protein powders on the market and how each one differs from the next. Below is the list of the most popular on the market:

· Whey Protein

· Casein Protein

· Beef Protein

· Egg Protein

· Pea Protein

· Rice Protein

Before we look at the differences between the above proteins, there is also a difference between how proteins are extracted from where they originally come from. The names and how they are extracted is as follows:

Protein concentrates – extracted from whole foods using heat and acid or enzymes. These usually contain around 60-80% protein with the remainder being 20-40% fats and carbs. Usually the cheapest form.

Protein isolates – Additional filtering removes more fat and carbs. Isolates contain around 90-95% protein. This purer form of protein means you’re getting more protein for the calories consumed and easier digestibility. More expensive than concentrate.

Protein hydrolysates – Further heating with acid or enzymes, this breaks the bonds down even further (which means it’s been pre-digested). This makes it even purer and digested even easier than the two above types. Protein hydrolysates is by far the most expensive out of the three types.

Whey protein is probably the most popular out of the above. Whey protein comes from cows milk, during the cheesemaking process whey protein is the liquid that separates from the curds. As whey protein comes from milk, it contains lactose. Some people have trouble digesting lactose so, whey can cause some stomach discomfort in some. Whey protein is high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s), which will be covered in a separate article, especially leucine which has been scientifically proven to promote muscle growth and increase recovery after resistance and endurance exercise. Studies have been conducted to suggest whey protein may decrease fat-mass and increase lean mass in normal-weight, overweight and obese individuals who also resistance train.

Casein Protein is also relatively popular amongst athletes and gym-goers. Again, Casein is derived from cows milk. However, Casein is digested and absorbed much more slowly. Casein forms a gel when reaching the stomach and reacts with stomach acid. This slows down stomach emptying and delaying the absorption of amino acids (amino acids will be covered in the article that includes BCAA’s). The slower absorption rate of casein protein means there is a reduction in the rate of muscle protein breakdown, for this reason many athletes and individuals in the body building industry tend to take casein when they will go prolonged periods of time without a high protein source. Many people take casein protein just before bed as your body is in a fasted state while sleeping. It should be noted that some scientific research has stated that whey protein has been found to be more effective than casein protein, but more scientific studies are needed to state this for certain.

Beef protein differs from whey and casein as it doesn’t contain lactose (a positive if you’re lactose intolerant). Beef protein is absorbed in the stomach rather than the intestines so can help reduce bloating and stomach discomfort. Beef protein is also low in sugars, although whey is also quite low it still contains intrinsic sugars which are derived from milk (lactose being one). So, there are some positives, the price is reasonable too. Flavours are limited and for those who have digestion issues when it comes to beef (or any meat for that matter) might want to steer clear.

Egg, Pea and Rice protein are the vegan alternatives for protein powder. You can buy them individually or certain companies sell a ‘vegan blend’ which has a mix of different types of vegan proteins in one. Egg protein contains high amounts of leucine. Pea protein has a high amount of BCAA’s.

Now we’ve gone over the different types we can talk about how protein powders work. When working out, muscle fibres are teared, and protein is used to recover damaged muscle tissue (this is how muscles grow). By protein, I mean any foods that contain protein, whether that be meat, plant based, or protein powders/bars. By consuming foods/supplements high in protein, your body has a plentiful amount of amino acids to speed up recovery time, reduce soreness and one of the most important factors, increase MPS (muscle protein synthesis). The body is constantly breaking down protein in our muscles and elsewhere. If protein levels are too low, your body’s muscle protein breakdown will exceed the rate of muscle protein synthesis, resulting in a negative protein balance. This could result in a loss of lean muscle mass. Protein supplements, such as powders, provide a quick protein boost if levels are too low. The fact that they can be taken on the go with water/milk and are relatively cheap makes them very convenient.

So, from the above, you’d be led to think that protein powder is an essential in any fitness freaks cupboard. It’s a clear fact that overall protein levels in the body are critical to anyone in the fitness industry, but the truth of the matter is, protein powders aren’t definitely needed. As long as overall protein levels are high enough, the rest of your diet meets your needs and you’re training accordingly, you will see results. It’s worth mentioning that timing of protein can make a difference for resistance training, some scientific research says that having 20g of protein every 3 hours increases MPS more than 40g every 6 hours. But you will still see results from having higher amounts over longer periods of time.

While on the topic of ‘timing’, I’ve known people to finish their training and whiz to the nearest shop or back home to pick up a protein bar or shake because they’ve been told there’s window of time they need to eat, or their workout would have been for nothing. This is partially true. This ‘window’ mostly refers to the glycogen that has been used in our workouts which come from carbohydrates. When your muscles have been depleted of the glycogen stores which are used after an intense workout (weight training/HITT), within the first 2 hours after training your body is more receptive to the carbohydrates you eat being converted to glycogen and then shuttled into muscle stores, and do this more efficiently than most other times of the day. This is only important if you are training more than once a day, which, if you’re not a professional athlete is unlikely. Yes, you’ll recover quicker, but isn’t essential if you’re not in a professional environment as muscle glycogen will replenish to normal levels within 24 hours. In terms of protein, studies have found that pre and post workout meals should not be separated by more than roughly 3-4 hours.

To play it safe might be worth consuming an easily digestible protein source an hour before training to give you a bit more leeway. There are supplements on the market which can be taken while working out (intra workout). So, this ’20 minute window’ isn’t quite as accurate as first thought.


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