Protein: How Much, What Kind?

There are a number of different views on protein intake and everyone seems to be selling some, so which is going to fit your lifestyle?  Let’s take a closer look and hopefully make the protein choice a little easier.

First off, what even is protein?  Protein is a collection of amino acids strung together into a larger structure.  Amino acids are simply a carbon ring with a few differing features compared to carbohydrates or fatty acids.  They have an amino group (hence the amino acid name) and a “R” group (chemical structure nomenclature) that gives the amino acid its name.  So when you see things on the shelf like branch chain amino acids, don’t fret, it is simply a particular cluster of amino acids clumped together.

Branch chain amino acids are, as stated previously, a particular clump of amino acids strung together as they are thought to provide extra energy, and, perhaps more importantly to the performing athlete, are processed a little different than a simple protein supplement.  Branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s), use a different shuttle mechanism when being digested which allows them to be processed a little quicker in some instances.  Why is that important?  Well it is important to help that whole recovery thing take place a little quicker.  Especially when you have back-to-back games like in college sports or club/AAU sports.

Protein supplements are also important to recovery and diet.  There are even some diets out there that consist of nearly all your daily calories coming from protein supplements.  Sounds enticing I know, but it is also very challenging to swallow six shakes a day with all your caloric needs.

Protein supplements traditionally come in either whey or casein form, however, more recently have begun to show up in a number of other varieties.  To make it even more confusing, they have taken things like whey protein and created about 30 different versions like isolate, amplified whey, isomer, wheybolic, etc.  Don’t be confused.  Sometimes companies like to throw random names mashed together that don’t really mean anything, but sound cool.

Let’s start simple.  Whey is animal protein and casein is plant-based protein.  In most cases whey is considered complete and casein incomplete because of it’s source.  Complete proteins are considered complete because they contain all of the essential amino acids that the body can’t make on it’s own.  Also, whey has been shown in research to be a little quicker to act versus casein in terms of digestion/absorption.

In the process of turning whey, a gel that separates from milk, into a dry substance, there can be some minor changes.  To turn a gel into a dry mixture you must either add a lot of heat, a chemical, or some other more costly, stringent, tedious processes.  To save money, most companies elect to add heat or chemicals.  The problem is that this will also denature some of the protein structures.  Here you are in a store reading the label and it reads: “30g protein per serving”.  Although this is technically true, a good portion of that protein has been denatured–unable to be processed by the body–so who really knows how much you are really getting.  Some companies will elect to go the more costly route to have less denatured and these proteins tend to taste better, anecdotally.  There is also something known as isolate, which simply means that through some process that they have removed some of the sugars that would create havoc for lactose sensitive individuals.

This free-form type of protein is generally associated with the recovery process and what most people finishing a workout chug.  It is also speculated that free form protein can have a little “back-up” in terms of shuttling for absorption.  This is why considering BCAAs would be a good idea for the performing athlete.  It will enhance the recovery process just a little bit, but hey, every little bit helps.

So this is the basic knowledge you can use when determining what supplements to buy.  Don’t waste your resources on a supplement that will only deliver partially.  Another interesting topic is how the body will do whatever it needs to do in order to preserve energy stores.  Feel free to add comments.

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