What Protein Should I Get?
For my first article on GymTalk, I figured I’d start with something relatively straightforward:
“What protein should I get?”
This is a question I’ve been asked time and time again and one a beginner will inevitably consider when embarking on the road to supplementation.
I’m always amused by the marketing of protein products.
Step into your local GNC and you will be bombarded with outrageous claims of increased anabolism and muscle and strength gains.
No wonder the regular joe is confused.
As a byproduct of this, there even seems to be a negative stigma associated to protein supplementation amongst non lifter:
“Yeah he’s big, but he takes protein shakes – so it’s not natural.”
Excuse me while I spit my protein shake in your face from laughter.
A key point that is often overlooked with these products is that they are supplements.
They supplement your diet.
There is nothing in protein shakes that cannot be obtained from a well planned diet regime.
However, not all of us have the time and patience to prepare chicken breasts/tuna/milk/egg yolks – and time their consumption at the most opportune times throughout the day.
Is higher protein intake even necessary?
This is a question you might very well ask.
Indeed, it’s an oft-debated and hard-to-prove point.
In a clinical setting, I will routinely give patients with burns and post operation higher relative levels of protein to hasten their recovery.
There is, however, not enough quality data on weightlifters to make strict recommendations.
1.4-1.8g per kg of bodyweight per day is an effective safe range.2
This isn’t that much at all – so don’t let supplement companies fool you into thinking you should be going through 5kg of their protein each month.
Also if you have any kidney problems, consult your doctor before upping your protein intake.
The absorption of protein
Now keeping this in mind, I believe the supplement industry have blown the importance of timing completely out of proportion.
Food absorption is a long process.
That sausage roll you ate 15 minutes ago hasn’t magically made its way into your bloodstream.
I’ve come across a number of weightlifters that carry around protein shakes to consume at two hour intervals for fear of the dreaded catabolism of muscle.
I’m not here today to discuss the physiology of the digestive system or processes of muscle wasting but rest assured that there is no need for such an approach.
Our ancestors often made due with one very big protein rich meal a day.
The human body is an incredible contraption and it is smart enough to take precautions to hold on to our hard-built muscle.
Therefore the goal of protein supplementation should be to meet our macro requirements at inconvenient times (such as with high protein, low carb diets) and to increase protein synthesis.
Or, in other words, to increase the rate at which muscle mass is gained by timing protein intake.4
Hence we are back to our original question…
Which protein should I get?
There is no definite answer, of course, and it will depend on other factors such as cost, taste and mixability.
But the most important consideration when buying protein should be the ingredient list.
When we look at the ingredient list of protein powders we’re told the source of the protein.
Now this is commonly whey concentrate/isolate/hydrolysate, egg albumin, casein and soy.
1) Whey Protein
Whey is by far the most common source of protein in supplements.
Coincidentally, before the advent of the lucrative bodybuilding industry and the Weider empire, this by-product of the cheese making process was often simply discarded as a clear soluble layer formed during curdling of milk.
Now that is not to say that it is rubbish – far from it.
Significantly, whey protein is rapidly absorbed by the body, and this is exactly what we are looking for post workout.
However, first we need a basic understanding of the three different commercial forms of whey protein in order to evaluate products before making a purchase.
This is the cheapest form of whey protein by far.
It is the least processed, and contains other bio compounds such as cholesterol and lactose.
This means it can be as little as a third of actual protein by weight.
Now whey concentrate isn’t bad but it does have its disadvantages.
Digestibility is the main one.
Your body will need to process these protein sources more extensively, which can lead to ammonia production and bloating.
If your significant other is having issues with your rectal gas, it might be time to invest in some better quality protein.
Whey isolate is processed whey.
This is accomplished by varying methods, usually microfiltration.
The protein is purified and the isolate is usually over 90% pure protein by weight.
This means it is quickly absorbed by the body and gas or stomach cramps are not much of a problem.
Remember basic chem?
When hydrolysis translated to breakdown with water?
In this case, it means our proteins our enzymatically predigested.
When it comes to bodybuilding supplementation, this is great, as it means even more rapid absorption.
Hydrolysed protein is a fantastic choice for those that get a lot of gas issues with regular protein.
So why not just have pure hydrolysate?
The answer is, of course, cost.
And by getting rid of all these additional components present in concentrate we nullify any of the additional health benefits.
2) Egg Albumin
Ahhhh, egg whites.
Now this is the standard by which proteins are measured.
All proteins aren’t actually 100% bio-available.
That is to say, if you take 10g, not all of this will be utilised by your body.
EXCEPT with egg protein.
As such, I rate it highly.
The problem with egg protein, however, is that it can be hypoallergenic.
Although this is rare, I would, consequently, not advise making egg protein your sole source of protein.
I’ve taken 100% casein for a few months as a before-bed shake.
This stuff – which is the main constituent of dairy products – is thick, gooey and makes an absolute mess.
Think of it as a slow release protein (no wonder that blob will sit in your gut for hours).
4) Soy Protein
Soy Protein has quite good digestability and mixability.
However, it’s gotten some bad rep in the past few years due to supposedly lowering testosterone levels, and anything of the sort is instantly shunned by the bodybuilding industry.
Ironically enough, I recently came across a study showing that soy protein raises testosterone to a small extent.
Science, it’s a funny thing.
There are other sources of protein – rice and hemp come to mind.
However you are much less likely to come across these than those mentioned above.
Now what about the fats/carbs/etc in the products?
Fats are not too much of a concern as they are generally low.
Look for high quality MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) if possible.
Typically a higher fat content = better taste.
Now I could go on about carbs for pages and pages.
However, the bottom line is that if you’re using a protein shake as a meal replacement then you’ll need complex carbs (or no carbs, depending on your diet) and for a post-workout shake you’ll want simple carbs.
Glucose (dextrose) is best.
Of course we’re doing this in an effort to spike insulin.
This handy hormone will help shuttle the amino acids from your bloodstream into muscle tissue.1
Putting this information to good use
So now you know why you should supplement your diet with protein and you have some clue about the different sources and ingredients.
So let’s put this information to some use.
Which protein should you buy?
Well, as most things are concerned, it comes down to cash.
Are you a broke student scraping by from loan to loan?
Go buy – from somewhere basic like Myprotein – a cheap whey concentrate and some dextrose powder for post-workout.
Also, load up with some cheap chicken, eggs and tuna and you’ll be on the right track.4
Note: you can save cash on your supplement shop by taking advantage of GymTalk’s discount codes and exclusive offers.
Got money to burn?
Then I could recommend all sorts of different regimes.
Fast acting wheys with glucose for post-workout, casein before bed, and a protein blend as a meal replacement.
Of course, if you are a high level athlete this will also depend on your specific goals and training regime.
But this article is aimed at the beginner weightlifter.
My personal recommendation
So what do I, Professor Wendowski, use?
After trying just about every protein on the market, from blends to pure whey, egg, casein, etc, I’ve settled on a quality blend as my favorite.
For a post-workout shake I add in some simple cards to get an insulin spike and fora meal replacement I leave it as it is, as this gives me flexibility.
Either with skimmed milk or water, the taste of these protein shakes is fucking amazing.
What’s more, protein blends such as these have been shown to actually promote protein synthesis a bit better then pure whey.3
Therefore I get the best of both worlds – good taste, mixability, low GI issues, protein synthesis boost post-workout, and a meal replacement when I need it.
All this without breaking the bank and having a supplement cupboard resembling Jay Cutler’s kitchen.
Maybe not the best value but it works for me.
And that’s entirely the point.
Remember, above all, that protein supplementation is not rocket science.
This article outlines all the basic information necessary to pick up a protein supplement and read past the hype.
The rest is all about personal preference.
It’s protein – you can’t go far wrong!
If you have any questions about the points I raised in this post – or if you need any advice on training, diet and supplementation – I’d love to hear from you.
Just get in touch via the comments section below!
1. Hasselgren PO, Warner BW, James JH, Takehara H, Fischer JE (1987). “Effect of insulin on amino acid uptake and protein turnover in skeletal muscle from septic rats. Evidence for insulin resistance of protein breakdown”. Arch Surg. Feb;122(2):228-33.
2. Lemon, PW (1995). “Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids?”. International journal of sport nutrition. 5 Suppl: S39–61. PMID 7550257.
3. Paul T. Reidy et al. (2013) “Protein Blend Ingestion Following Resistance Exercise Promotes Human Muscle Protein Synthesis” J. Nutr. March 1, 2013 doi: 10.3945/jn.112.168021 jn.112.168021
4. Stark M, Lukaszuk J, Prawitz A, Salacinski A. (2012) “Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training”. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. Dec 14;9(1):54. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-54