What is Protein?
Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are 29 commonly known amino acids. In the body the liver produces about 80% of these (known as nonessential amino acids). The remaining 20% of amino acids (called essential amino acids) we must get from our diet.
Why is Protein Important?
Protein is important for everyone, regardless of age or activity level. Protein is best known for its ability to build and maintain lean body mass. It also maintains strong hair, skin, and teeth. But it doesn’t stop there – protein is also vitally important in maintaining blood, organs, tendons, and in the production and smooth functioning of hormones, enzymes, immune cells and brain neurotransmitters. In short, every tissue and cell in our body relies on protein for survival. Conventional protein sources include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese. Beans, legumes and soybean products (i.e. soymilk, tempeh and tofu) are also fairly high in protein.
Of particular importance is the role of nitrogen for optimum health. Nitrogen is needed in the body to manufacture several key ingredients including creatine, and vitamins B-3 and B-12. Protein remains our only dietary source of nitrogen.
Many of us don’t consume enough protein. During specific times, our bodies require higher amounts of protein including: exercise recovery, physical injury, prolonged stress, infection and cancer. But unlike carbohydrates and fats, protein is not stored in the body as reserves.
Even the simple act of exercise damages our muscles, and our body needs more nitrogen and amino acids (particularly glutamine) to repair its’ self. If there aren’t enough free-floating amino acids in the blood, the body will be forced to pirate it from its own healthy muscle tissues. When this happens, our metabolic rate plummets (we can’t burn fat as efficiently), our ability to heal slows, and our internal chemistry is altered. Not a recipe for good health.
We need a constant flow of protein into our bodies to ensure we don’t enter this catabolic state where our bodies are chewing up our muscles. Ideally, we should eat protein 2 to 4 times a day, which should be spread throughout several meals. This protects our precious protein (muscle) cells, and ensures we are burning fat.
While spreading our protein intake throughout the day is vitally important, a key time to refill protein stores is one hour after exercise. At this time, the body is strategically aligned to ingest and make use of every bit of protein available. So the value of a quick, easily digested protein shake in this unique window of opportunity becomes obvious. (Meat can take over an hour to be digested, so we lose this opportunity.)
Whey Protein vs Soy Protein
When it comes to protein powders, there is an endless selection. Consumers have several choices to make, including what type of protein (whey, soy, egg, rice, vegetable) and what form of protein (meal replacements, protein isolates, concentrates). But which type is the best and why?
Soy and whey offer the greatest benefits. The biological value of protein (BV) relates to the percentage of nitrogen absorbed by the body. The higher the BV, the greater the benefits. A whole egg has a BV of 100, whey concentrate is 100, whey isolate is 159, and soy is 74.
Whey protein is a by-product of cheese production. When cheese is made, the milk curdles into a product containing mostly casein and a syrupy liquid called whey. In the past, whey was discarded as a waste product, until it was found that it had a superior amino acid profile and was highly digestible.
Whey is still the protein of choice. It mixes well (unlike egg, soy and rice) and is tastier than the others. It is low in fat and lactose, and has a superior amino acid profile. Most important, whey enhances the immune system because it raises glutathione levels. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that helps our immune cells stay charged to help ward off cancer, bacterial infection and viruses. Whey is also very high in glutamine and the branch chain amino acids L-leucine, L-valine and L-isoleucine, important amino acids for repairing muscle.
Soy protein is the second most popular choice, even though it has a lower BV. This is partly due to the isoflavones (found in soy isolate, not concentrate), which are estrogenic, and therefore help to ease the symptoms of menopause, and to help increase bone density in pre-menopausal and menopausal women. Soy may also speed up the metabolism and increase fat loss. It also lowers cholesterol levels, and is naturally high in amino acids glutamine and arginine.
But for all its benefits, soy is a common allergen, and it may cause gas and stomach upset in some people. Also, vegetarians who already consume plenty of soy products would be advised to avoid extra soy. That’s because in Chinese medicine, soy’s estrogenic properties are cooling in nature. Too much soy can create too much cooling and an eventual imbalance in the body, which can lead to disease. (A balance between heating and cooling is important for homeostasis.)
Protein Isolates vs Protein Concentrates
The first whey proteins were called concentrates. Treatment methods involved washing the whey with an acid precipitate, a process that caused the important immune enhancing micro fractions to be destroyed. This method produced whey that contained as little as 30 to 40 per cent protein and high amounts of lactose and fat. These concentrates were used mostly by the food industry. Today however, whey concentrates have dramatically improved. They contain 70 to 80 per cent protein with small amounts of lactose and minimal fats.
Cross-flow micro filtration, which creates the superior whey isolate, is now considered the ideal technique. Here, the protein components are separated by a microscopic filter, which can increase the percentage of protein as high as 90 per cent. Other techniques used to produce an isolate, such as hydrolysis and ion exchange, damage the delicate immune-enhancing fractions. So the CFMF process is currently the ideal choice.
For anyone lactose-intolerant, the isolate is their only choice, because it guarantees only 1 to 3 per cent lactose levels. A new generation whey concentrate may also have relatively low levels of lactose (3 to 8%), but the percentage of protein is also usually lower.
Many whey protein products on the market are a blend of concentrate and isolate. This can be confusing for many people. It can be an important issue in terms of digestibility for lactose sensitivities, and for people wanting the highest percentage of protein. For most people, eating the highest grade of protein is not necessary, because they obtain adequate amounts from their food. For people who eat little protein, choosing the highest quality protein is important to ensure they are getting all the essential amino acids.
We suggest you choose a respected company that has been around awhile. Often, companies will put out different grades of protein, with the higher grades having a higher percentage of isolate (and a higher price tag).
Read the label: How can you determine which protein supplements are good quality? One simple formula is to divide the amount of protein per serving by the serving size (listed on the side of the container). For example: protein-18g, serving size-22g. So 18 divided by 22 = .82 or 82 per cent protein.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
In order to build muscle and to encourage fat loss, we need to eat high quality protein 4 to 6 times per day (and exercise). The servings should be evenly divided throughout the day, and roughly 2 to 3 hours apart. For women, servings of protein should be between 15 to 20 grams, and men 20 to 30 grams. (The only exception is immediately after a work out when our bodies can absorb 25 per cent of our total daily protein intake).
The most critical times to eat protein are first thing in the morning and after exercise. If you’re less active, you need about ½ gram of protein per pound of body weight. If you’re more active, you need about 1 gram per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 120 lbs and do little activity, you would need 60 grams of protein per day. If you were physically active, you would need 120 grams per day. Keeping a steady supply of circulating protein in the body ensures that amino acids are always available for use. That’s why supplementing with a protein shake becomes vitally important because it’s quick, easy to make and easily digestible.
How to Make a Protein Shake
Protein powders tend to move through the digestive system quickly. To combat this, you can add a tablespoon of flaxseed oil to your shake. Flaxseed oil slows the transit time of the protein through the intestines, which ensures a readily available supply of amino acids for a longer period of time. (Fiber also slows the transit time of the shake.) Not only does this enhance muscle repair, it also simply helps you feel satisfied longer, making it more of a meal replacement. Flaxseed oil also helps protect against cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But don’t worry about it being fattening – flaxseed oil is a good fat (essential fatty acid) and helps the body to burn its own fat stores as fuel.
Protein powders are theoretically best mixed in water, but you can also use soymilk, rice milk or juice. (Cow milk is not advised for people on a weight loss program. Remember, it’s a biological program to build the body of a cow.) After exercise one needs carbs with the protein, as this is when the “carb-load” occurs. Blending the protein with orange juice and a banana, is a easy way to add the carbs (about 60grams of carbs).
Most protein powders are artificially sweetened, we suggest you research any artificial sweetener before including it in your diet and you will likely decide to avoid most of them. A protein shake can also make a great evening snack, but it shouldn’t include carbohydrates. Carbs eaten 2 to 3 hours before bed will decrease growth hormone levels, important hormones that help to burn fat and regenerate muscle while you sleep.