In the fall of 2000, I wrote my first article ever for the Debra’s newsletter, an ode to and an appreciation for whey protein. Obviously, it was a favorite! 20 years later, and I still like whey. But some things have changed. So let’s talk about protein again.
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Why do I want protein at all? Protein is great! It “sticks to the ribs,” as they say – it keeps you satisfied in a way that fruits, vegetables, and starches don’t. It supports muscle growth when you’re exercising, and weight loss when you’re dieting. It helps us grow when we’re young, and maintains fitness as we age. It gives a steady release of energy to smooth over blood sugar fluctuations, so you don’t have that “crash” (emotionally, physically, cognitively) you can get after starchy, sugary foods.
But do I need a protein powder? Can’t I just eat food? Protein powder is food! Not to say you can’t get your protein from lentils, fish, eggs, tofu, seeds, etc. But protein powder is easy, durable, efficient, and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Okay, so what kind of protein powder should I use? The first question to ask yourself is: how am I going to use this? Am I going to use it at home, in a blender? If so, you may opt for a simple protein powder – unflavored, unsweetened – a blank canvas for whatever flavors and ingredients you want that day. If, on the other hand, you want something you mix with plain water at the gym, you might opt for something already flavored and sweetened, with built-in thickener.
Everyone is talking about “plant protein” – should I get a plant protein? Not necessarily. I’m not aware of any inherent advantages to plant protein vs. dairy, and at least one disadvantage. Protein is composed of amino acids. You want these amino acids in a certain ratio, so the body can use them. Too much of some, and not enough of others, and you have an incomplete protein that the body uses inefficiently. Animal proteins tend to be complete. Plant proteins, less so. There is a way around this, though. Grains and beans are incomplete in complementary ways. In other words, grains have what beans are missing, and vice versa. So you can choose a plant protein that is a blend, or simply one that complements the rest of your diet.
Types of Protein (in alphabetical order):
Casein Protein is a dairy protein, much less well-known than its dairy cousin, whey protein. That’s because whey absorbs faster. And it absorbs better. Whey absorbs so quickly, it can really push muscle growth following a workout. Meanwhile, casein absorbs slower than any other protein on this list. And that is exactly what makes it special! By absorbing very slowly, it provides a slow, steady release of amino acids to the bloodstream that keeps you feeling fuller, longer. This is great for kids, adults on the run, and dieters. Bodybuilders use it, too. They use whey right after a workout, and casein right before bed, to carry them through the night.
Collagen Protein: Collage protein is made from animals – bones, hide, fish scales, etc. Different kinds of collagen are different, but the take-home message is they are all high quality, mostly complete proteins. They are usually odorless and flavorless.
Collagen proteins come with a raft of side benefits, by supporting healthy and strong collagen throughout the body. Consistent, long-term use of collagen supplements has been show to promote healthy and strong hair and nails, and increase skin hydration, which can in turn lead to reduction in wrinkles. Collagen can also improve degenerative arthritis and help heal a leaky inflamed gut.
Hemp Protein: respectfully, this one is gritty and has no discernible advantages. Okay, I take that back. It does have fiber, and hemp is a wonderful plant, ecologically speaking. But I’ve never enjoyed a smoothie made from it.
Pea Protein: is my favorite among the plant proteins. Peas are easy to grow without a lot of inputs. They are also easy to extract the protein from (technologically speaking, i.e you don’t need chemical solvents). Pea protein is probably the most environmentally-friendly protein (except for maybe a truly grass-fed and pastured whey). Pea protein is also a good plant protein choice to complement or counterbalance a standard American diet – high in grains, low in legumes like peas and beans.
Rice Protein: a nice “light”-feeling protein that mixes easy. It tastes mildly rice-y, which is to say it takes on the flavor of whatever you mix it with. Nothing special.
Soy Protein: Not bad, but no special properties unless you’re one of the few that sees a reduction in menopause symptoms. Harder to digest than some. You can do better.
Whey Protein is the dairy fraction that absorbs quickly and efficiently. It’s ideal for a quick boost, and perfect for right after a workout. It tastes pleasantly of milk.
Store manager Grady B has been going back to the gym, and is a fan of whey. “I find it’s the best for my morning workout, or if I just miss breakfast. It’s great for replenishing my protein needs when I work out hard. It also just tastes the best. Other proteins don’t make me feel as full, or they leave me filling a little bloated. That’s the worst: you’ve worked out all morning, you feel all accomplished, then you drink something that makes you feel weighed down again. I normally mix it with oatmilk, a Tbsp of local honey, and a little bit of cinnamon, to add a nice little flavor, and post-workout the cinnamon may reduce inflammation just a little bit.”
Whey protein comes in different forms. A whey protein isolate is the most concentrated. A whey protein concentrate, less so. The difference won’t matter to most of us, but an isolate may feel lighter to some. It is also worth looking at a grass-fed, low temperature-processed whey, which maintains more of its side benefits. These benefits are slight, but not entirely insignificant. Immune strengthening, blood pressure, and liver health.