Why Use a Protein Powder or Shake?
Protein is necessary to build, maintain and repair muscle. To increase protein in the diet, you could turn to meats, which are complete protein sources because they provide all the essential amino acids. The downside to meats, especially red meat, is that they can also provide significant amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. Another way to increase protein intake is by combining servings of incomplete proteins such as legumes and grains, but this can increase carbohydrate and calorie intake. Some powders and drinks can offer a protein alternative without significantly increasing consumption of fats, carbohydrates, cholesterol or calories.
Protein supplementation before, during and/or after resistance-type exercising can increase post-exercise muscle protein synthesis and inhibit muscle protein breakdown.
What Type to Use?
There are four main types of protein in powders and shakes – whey, casein, soy and/or rice. Whey and casein are both derived from milk (the protein in milk is 80% casein and 20% whey). Most protein products are made with whey, which is a “complete” protein and contains the highest branched chain amino acid (BCAA) content found in nature. The branched chain amino acids tend to become depleted following exercise and are needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue. Whey protein is believed to be digested faster than casein and more completely than soy protein. So whey is often your best bet. Before bed, however, some athletes choose casein due to its slower metabolism – potentially supplying amino acids throughout the evening.
Meanwhile, soy and rice tend to be the only two sources acceptable to vegetarians. Soy is also the most “heart healthy” source of protein, as eating 25 grams a day (in addition to a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet) can reduce the risk of heart disease. Anyone with thyroid disease or a predisposition to thyroid dysfunction, however, should limit the intake of soy-based protein food, due to its potential to affect hormone balance. Rice protein is not a complete protein because it lacks one of the essential amino acids, isoleucine. However, it can be combined with other protein sources to provide all the essential amino acids needed in your diet.
What to Avoid:
Some protein products contain ingredients that you may not expect or want. For example, added herbs or whole foods may be contaminated with heavy metals, such as lead. Excess vitamins or minerals may cause you to get “too much,” exceeding recommended Tolerable Upper Intake Levels and increasing your risk of toxicity. Also, be aware that products promoted for “energy,” might include caffeine-containing ingredients, such as coffee extract, guarana, mate or cocoa, which really don’t give you energy, just stimulation. Powders and drinks may also contain an array of sweeteners, giving you added calories and sugar alcohols, which can cause bloating and gas. It’s generally best to avoid these added ingredients and stick to the protein you’re looking for.