If you’re interested enough in fitness to be educating yourself (great job!) via online resources (especially a great one like this), then you sure have at least heard of supplements. This is the first article of a guide on the world of supplements. Its main goal is to simplify your life and help you cut through the nonsense. Beginners and fitness elites alike should be able to find something helpful in these pages.
WHAT ARE SUPPLEMENTS?
Supplements are dietary aids that are meant to help you reach your fitness goals by supplementing your solid diet and exercise routines (not replacing them! although some exceptions apply, specifically for the “basics” and under certain diets). They are often based on either the pure form or derivatives of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, plant extracts, or other regular dietary components.
The first thing to keep in mind is that supplement companies are businesses, and you are the target of their advertising. Further, as it is a largely unregulated industry, you must always be wary about claims made by supplement companies!
Disclaimer: This post is not affiliated with any protein product; we simply wish to help you make the most out of your fitness efforts.
HERE'S HOW THIS FIRST PART OF THE GUIDE WILL GO:
- Overview: Protein requirements
- Who needs to supplement with protein?
- Pros and cons of common protein powder types/sources
- Checklist for choosing a protein powder
Protein is an essential part of our diets, helping to build and repair muscles, connective tissues, support hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis, and many other things. Further, a great benefit of dietary protein is its effect on satiety (feeling full, satisfied, avoiding hunger cravings). Thus, it can be an especially important part of diets for those aiming to lose fat, as it keeps you full and further provides extra insurance that your calorie deficit will eat into your fat rather than those hard-earned muscles.
"But how much do we really need?"
Great question. If you read too many bodybuilding forums, you may be thinking you need to eat at least 3 entire cows per day to meet your protein requirements. False. However, protein is very important. In general, we should be consuming about 0.36 g of protein per lb (0.8 g/kg) of bodyweight.
However, this requirement can increase quite significantly when you are training. As a rough guide, aim for a minimum of:
- 0.45 g/lb (1 g/kg) if you train lightly/infrequently
- 0.68 g/lb (1.5 g/kg) if you train moderately (lifting or moderate cardio 3 times/week)
- 0.9 g/lb (2 g/kg) if you train heavily (heavy lifting or intense cardio 4+ times/week)
For example, if you weigh 132 lbs (60 kg), aim for:
- 60 g of protein/day if you train occasionally
- 90 g of protein/day if you lift a few times/week
- 120 g of protein/day if you do very intense lifting/cardio sessions 4+ times/week
You may notice that these numbers fall somewhat short of recommendations often shouted out by supplement companies and fitness magazines. However, remember that they are trying to sell you a product! Consuming excessive amounts of protein, especially rapidly-digesting forms such as whey, can put a strain on your kidneys and affect calcium storage in your bones. Eventually, you may also just be peeing out that extra money you spent on fancy powders!
WHO NEEDS TO SUPPLEMENT WITH PROTEIN?
If you pay attention to portion sizes and you eat fish, meat, and other animal products like dairy and eggs, you will notice that the above recommendations are fairly easy to achieve. In this case, it may be unnecessary to supplement your diet further. If you are vegetarian, it gets slightly trickier. If you are vegan, it gets even trickier. Protein supplements are a great way to hit your protein requirements if you can’t meet them with your regular food. They are also an interesting way to vary sources of protein in your diet.
If this applies to you, then read through the next sections to educate yourself on the different types of protein supplements. Also, have a look at the quick 3-part checklist to help you shuffle through the labels and choose a product that's right for you.
PROS & CONS OF COMMON PROTEIN POWDER TYPES/SOURCES
The most common way to supplement protein is in the form of a protein powder, which can be made from many sources. These same sources are also the main constituents in protein bars, ready-to-drink shakes, gels, and whatever other creative delivery systems are found out in the world.
Whey constitutes 20% of the total protein found in cow’s milk. It is fast-digesting and has nutritional benefits such as immune system-boosting compounds. It is the main type of protein supplement found on the market, and it is usually a great choice since it is rather inexpensive, available in numerous types and flavors, and generally considered healthy. A major downside is the large environmental impact involved in the processing, from growing food for cows to producing milk, to then separating the whey, purifying it, and pasteurizing it. Further, vegans and people with dairy allergies will obviously not be able to consume whey protein, and those with sensitivity to lactose may have difficulties with less-pure forms like concentrates (see below).
Whey is found in three main forms, which tend to increase in price down this list:
- Whey protein concentrates are concentrated forms of whey, although they have not undergone extensive filtering to remove lactose, other sugars, or some fats.
- Whey protein isolates have undergone further processing to remove a large portion of the fats and sugars, including lactose. These powders usually measure 90%+ protein by weight. People who are sensitive to lactose but are intent on whey as a protein source can try a whey protein isolate first. The higher the protein concentration, usually up to 95%, the less lactose is likely to be in the powder.
- Whey protein hydrolysates are "pre-digested" or hydrolyzed, meaning that the proteins have been broken down into individual amino acids or short chains of amino acids. These are thus extremely fast-absorbing, even to the point of causing blood sugar spikes. They should be avoided by people with diabetes. The price tag is often not justifiable in regards to the needs of the majority of people.
Casein is the other main protein found in cow milk, constituting 80% of the total protein. It is a slower-digesting protein, often used as a bedtime protein for its ability to slowly release amino acids into the bloodstream. However, I find the concern with overnight catabolism (muscle wasting) to be overboard. In fact, not having an influx of nutrients overnight is a completely normal part of the sleep cycle for humans and other animals. Further, I personally do not recommend its use due to speculative health concerns, although I urge you to do your own research and form your own educated opinion!
Believe it or not, the protein from beef has made its way into powder form and can even be found in strawberry flavor. The advantage is that it is a robust protein with a complete amino acid profile, and may contain other compounds found in beef, such as iron, minor amounts of creatine, and taurine. Disadvantages include its cost and its extreme environmental impact.
Yes, eggs too can be turned into a powdered protein supplement! The yolks are separated, so egg protein powder is typically just from egg whites and is a very pure, complete source of protein. It also has some vitamins and minerals. It is infortunately quite expensive, but if it fits your budget, it is a great choice if you want to avoid dairy. However, the environmental impact will still be higher than the vegan sources discussed below.
Soy protein can also come in concentrates or isolates and is often the cheapest vegetarian/vegan protein option available. Soy has a complete amino acid profile but may confer a chalky taste to your drinks. Further, there are concerns about the isoflavones in soy, which have estrogen-like effects in the body. However, this is likely unproblematic if consumed in moderation. There is also the fact that a large portion of soy is now genetically modified, which has implications in farmer welfare, ethics and biodiversity. If you do opt for soy protein, there are a few reasons why soy concentrates are sufficient and possibly better than soy isolates, including the fact that they are cheaper.
OTHER VEGAN PROTEIN SOURCES
These include numerous plant-based proteins, which are extracted/concentrated forms of the proteins naturally found in the foods described below. These are obviously a great option for vegetarians and vegans, but also a great option for meat-eaters, as they pack hefty punches of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Plus, their environmental impact is lower than proteins produced from milk. Although in the past these proteins were famous for their chalky textures, this is rapidly changing with new production and blending techniques.
- Rice (often brown rice) has a decent amino acid profile, and can be quite inexpensive
- Pea is a well-rounded and inexpensive protein, although it is often the primary culprit for the chalky texture
- Hemp has a complete amino acid profile, healthy omega 3 fats, and heaps of fiber and minerals make hemp an optimal choice. The drawback is its higher price tag as compared to rice or pea protein.
- Chickpea flour is provided as an example of the numerous plant-based sources of protein supplements.
If you have a food processor, you can make "flour" out of peanuts, almonds, other nuts, chickpeas and seeds by simply blending them up.
Replace part of the flour in your recipes with these, add them to shakes, or use them to thicken sauces.
Get creative! Nowadays there is no excuse to fall short on protein requirements with a vegetarian or vegan diet.
CHECKLIST FOR CHOOSING A PROTEIN POWDER
I am going to save you time with this one, disheartening tip: most protein powders in the same category (i.e., whey protein isolates) are more or less the same. From there it becomes a marketing game. Most well-known brands follow strict quality control. On the other hand, you may wish to avoid buying proteins from companies for which no information is available, who may be cutting corners by skipping on quality control, bulking with cheap amino acids like glutamine, or sourcing from very poor suppliers.If you have decided a protein supplement is right for you, go shopping in stores and online, and find a protein that fits the following three criteria.
1. Budget-friendly. The protein powder should end up costing you ideally much less than $1 per scoop and provide 20-30 g of high-quality protein.
2. Minimal ingredients list. The first ingredient should obviously be protein. Common additives include:
- Soy or sunflower lecithin, which helps to improve the miscibility of your shake. These are largely accepted as being safe for your health and even have some purported benefits.
- Sweeteners: sucralose, acesulfame potassium, acesulfame K, stevia, aspartame
Flavor compounds: artificial colors and artificial flavors, vanilla extract or vanillin, cocoa or cacao, etc.
There really is no need for much else to be in the protein powder. If you are looking for “natural” proteins, stevia is the closest to natural you will find in the sweeteners. Better yet, try an unflavored protein and mix it with fruit or juice. The amounts of artificial sweeteners and colorants/food additives are generally regarded as safe in moderate consumption. If you will be consuming multiple scoops per day, it may be best to avoid high intakes of artifical sweeteners from certain powders. Remember, we are trying to supplement with protein, not a party bag of potentially harmful substances. If the list of ingredients exceeds 10 things, you are better to keep looking.
3. Enjoyable taste. Since you will be consuming this frequently, make sure to get a flavor you enjoy. I always opt for naturally-flavored powders like, which often only requires cocoa and a sweetener, whereas strawberry-creamsicle-explosion doesn’t necessarily have a natural source. Of course, an unflavored powder will give you the purest and most concentrated protein. The flavor is easily masked in a smoothie but may not be ideal on its own. Again, try it out for yourself! Many stores will hand out sample packs of products they carry, and online stores often have “flavor packs” that you can buy to sample different flavors. Ask, try, and then decide.
That’s all for the protein starter pack! I said I was going to make your life simple, but the truth is that the world of supplements is complex.
Do you already use a protein supplement? Have you noticed any benefits? What is your favorite type and why? We would love to hear more in the comments below. Also, let us know if you would like us to cover a specific supplement in the upcoming articles of the series! 😊
Peter is a travelling fitness junkie, always on the search for new opportunities, places, and optimal physical and mental health. He has an academic background in chemistry and environmental science, and a passion for music, creating, and exploring!