Protein is an essential nutrient for the human body, and the building blocks of body tissue. Protein is made up of several amino acids: essential, and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are readily manufactured in our liver, and these comprise approximately 80% of the amino acids. The essential amino acids are the remaining 20%, and we can only get them from our diet, or in supplement form.
Regardless of age or activity level, protein is an important nutrient for everyone. Not only is it helpful for the growth and maintenance of the human body, and our body organs, it also has a role in the function of hormones, enzymes, immune response, and brain neurotransmitters. Basically, protein is needed by every tissue and cell in our body for survival.
Because protein is helpful for building and repairing muscle tissue, protein is an essential nutrient for athletes and weekend warriors alike. Whenever we exercise, or do any form of physical exertion, our muscles are damaged and need more protein to help with recovery. If we don’t have enough amino acids in our blood, the body will take from its own healthy muscle tissues to heal. If this happens, our metabolism drops, and our ability to heal slows down.
In order to prevent our bodies from breaking down our muscles, we need to have a constant intake of protein in our bodies. The most ideal situation is to ingest protein 2 to 4 times per day. The most important times to ingest protein are in the morning, since we haven’t eaten for at least 8 hours, and within 30-40 minutes of exercising. These are the two times that the body is most prone to muscular wasting. The next most important time to take protein, especially to aid in fat-burning and/or muscle building, is shortly before bed. At this time (unlike after exercise) it should be taken with no carbohydrates. Taking protein at bedtime is a way to satisfy snack cravings (protein mixed into yogurt is a tasty low-carb pudding), while giving the body the nutrients necessary to support healthy muscle growth. Remember that carbs (especially before bed) build fat, except after exercise, and muscle burns fat.
Protein can be found in a wide variety of food. Animal sources, like meat, dairy, fish, and eggs are sources of complete protein, providing all the essential amino acids needed for our bodies. Vegetarian sources are also available. Some vegetarian sources include legumes (or pulses), nuts, seeds and soy products. Ultimately, having a blend or combination of a variety of these sources of protein, provides the right amount of amino acids that is beneficial for our bodies.
The most popular of all the powdered proteins, Whey protein is a by-product of cheese made from cow’s milk. Previously thought of as a waste, it was found that whey had a superior amino acid profile, and was highly digestible. Some studies have found that whey protein may even have possible anti-inflammatory or anti-cancer properties.
Of all the proteins, whey is a dynamic protein because it mixes well, is tastier, and because it raises glutathione levels, it enhances the immune system, and is an internal antioxidant that also helps with detoxification. Whey is also high in glutamine, and branch chain amino acids, which both help to repair muscle. Rather than whey protein concentrate, people who are lactose intolerant can use whey protein isolate, which contains no lactose.
Once milk is processed, and the whey is separated and filtered, the remainder is whey concentrate. This concentrate has a varying amount of fat, carbohydrates in the form of lactose, and up to 80% protein. It’s been found that whey concentrate does have up to 5% lactose, which will give people with lactose sensitivities or intolerance, some troubles. With further processing and purifying, using ion-exchange or cross-flow microfiltration, protein isolates are created. Whey Isolates have been found to have much lower amounts of lactose, roughly less than 1%, that it is even more favourable for people with lactose sensitivities.
There is now a wider variety of vegan or vegetarian protein powder available on the market. Soy protein, especially fermented, was previously the most popular, though soy has since fallen out of favour due to negative press. Soy, when it is organic or at least Non-GMO, can be a healthy protein source, when it is not relied on as the sole source of protein.
Other plant-based protein available as powders include brown rice (preferred by naturopaths since it is hypoallergenic), hemp (which contains a good amount of fibre and essential fatty acids), and pea protein.
Pea protein is gaining popularity, in part due to its high nitrogen content. High nitrogen proteins are particularly good for building and maintaining muscle, as well as for keeping the blood vessels and arteries open.
Many plant based protein powders are made up from a blend of the above mentioned proteins (sometimes with the addition of alfalfa, savi seed, or potato protein). Blending plant proteins allows for a more complete nutritional profile, and can also create a better tasting product.
Vegan proteins aimed at the athletic market now come fortified with Branch Chain Amino Acids, to create a muscle-building and repairing formula that is closer to whey in its amino acid profile.