So you’ve just started working out, in hopes of looking like Inosuke from Demon Slayer:
And all you’re eating after your workout is one whole head of cabbage?!
Well there’s absolute no whey that you’re going to get that physique without some protein in your diet! Cooking chicken for every post-workout can be pretty time-consuming, so why not use protein powder? Unfortunately, there are so many different options, it can be pretty confusing as to what to choose. Here are some guidelines on what to avoid and what to look for in a good protein powder. Also, if you think that there is no whey that I will do any more protein jokes, you will be very disappointed.
Whey vs. Casein
You’ve probably noticed that protein shakes or protein powder products contain different types of protein in them — most notably, whey and casein. So what’s the difference? Firstly, whey and casein are both derived from milk, with the former constituting 20% of milk protein and the latter making up the remaining 80%. This is why you might see ratios of 20:80 on ingredient lists for products that include ultra-filtered milk. For example, Core Power’s protein shake includes a 20:80 split on whey to casein, which is the same ratio that naturally occurs in milk.
One of the key differences between whey and casein is how quickly we are able to digest them. Whey is absorbed much faster than casein, since casein forms curds when reacting to your digestive system’s stomach acid. This lengthens the process of breaking down the protein into amino acids, which your body can then use to repair muscles fibers and help your body recover from a workout.
This is largely why whey is the protein option to pick for post-workout. Since casein takes longer to digest, you’ll want the option that gets absorbed into your body faster right after a strenuous workout — whey.
But that isn’t the only reason that whey is the better pick for building muscle compared to casein. Whey has a better amino acid profile, and although both whey and casein are complete proteins (they contain all nine essential amino acids), whey has more of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, while casein has more of the remaining essential amino acids. Studies have shown that taking BCAA supplements post-workout leads to greater muscle mass and strength. This makes sense, considering that leucine regulates protein synthesis and most importantly, tissue regeneration.
This isn’t to say that casein is entirely inferior to whey, however. Casein is a good option to take when you won’t have access to calories for an extended period of time. This is why a search for “when to take casein” will yield suggestions to take casein right before going to bed. Due to the slower absorption rate, taking casein before you go to bed can provide a slow and steady release of amino acids for muscle recovery as you sleep.
Just to be clear, if you had to pick one and go without the other, pick whey.
Types of Whey
Now that we’ve clarified that whey is ideal, you might not be surprised to find out that there are different types of whey protein. Though there can be some variation on their names, here are the three types of whey that you might see on protein powder ingredient lists:
- Whey Concentrate — Created by concentrating the milk proteins in whey. Through microfiltration, the milk proteins are processed, but not entirely isolated from fats and milk sugars, like lactose (something to be aware of if you’re lactose intolerant). Whey concentrate digests fairly quickly in comparison to casein, but is the slowest out of these three in terms of absorption rate.
- Whey Isolate — Made in a similar fashion to whey concentrate, but through ion exchange and ultrafiltration, the milk proteins are isolated even further into a purer form that includes virtually no fats and milk sugars. Whey isolate digests faster than whey concentrate due to the lack of fats and milk sugars.
- Hydrolyzed Whey — Also known as hydrolyzed whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate, this form of whey protein is essentially whey isolate that has been hydrolyzed, or exposed to an enzyme solution/heat/acid that breaks down the protein even further, turning the amino acid chains into shorter ones called peptides. This is why some protein powders will call this “whey protein peptides.” This form of whey protein digests even faster as the smaller structure of the peptides allows our bodies to absorb them more quickly.
So which one should you pick? If absorption rate is all that matters, then you should go with hydrolyzed whey — and just to be clear, absorption rate is quite significant. If you’ve just finished a workout, then it’s ideal for your body to get proteins that will aid your recovery period, and whey isolate and hydrolyzed whey offer faster absorption rates than whey concentrate.
That being said, not everything is the same price. Whey isolate and hydrolyzed whey are typically more expensive than whey concentrate, so that’s definitely something to consider.
What’s that ingredient?
Up until now, we’ve only discussed one of the ingredients that protein powders contain: the protein itself. But protein powders aren’t always “pure.” Sure, you can get some unflavored, pure whey isolate with nothing else (or close to nothing else), like this product, which just has soy lecithin alongside whey protein isolate, but that’s not the norm in the protein powder market. Besides that, being able to enjoy your protein shake because it actually tastes like something can help you maintain consistency with your workout regimen. If your protein powder is completely unflavored, you may be less inclined to take it after every workout, as obvious as that may sound.
With flavoring comes sweeteners, and with sweeteners comes potentially dangerous ingredients. Here are just a few that you should avoid or at least be wary of:
- Acesulfame potassium — An artificial, zero-calorie sweetener that contains methylene chloride, a confirmed carcinogen. Although it has been approved by the FDA since 1988, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from this ingredient.
- Sucralose — Another artificial, zero-calorie sweetener which can potentially raise blood sugar levels while decreasing insulin sensitivity. This downside is more common in people who are obese/have diabetes. For healthy individuals with normal BMIs, small doses of sucralose are not harmful. You may also know this ingredient as Splenda.
- Natural flavors — This ingredient is a bit tricky to decipher. “Natural flavors” is pretty vague, and it’s vague because it can mean anything. If you see this on an ingredient label, there’s really no easy way to confirm what “natural flavors” have been used. Natural flavors are substances extracted from plant or animal sources to enhance flavor value rather than nutritional value in a product. Natural flavors can come from many sources, including spices, fruit juice, seafood, etc. Though it’s ideal to not see natural flavors on an ingredient list just so you can have a better understanding of what’s exactly in a product, it’s not the worst thing you’ll see in protein powders.
- Lecithin — This one isn’t necessarily bad. Lecithin is a mixture of fats that are essential to our cells, but is functionally included in foods to serve as an emulsifier, or a thickener. It’s better if the lecithin is sunflower lecithin, rather than soy lecithin, although this one’s not a deal-breaker. Soy lecithin can cause hormonal imbalance and/or allergic reactions while sunflower lecithin is a natural extract and is safer to ingest.
Here are also some good ingredients you might find in protein powders:
- Stevia — Stevia is a natural sugar substitute made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It has been used to sweeten beverages and teas for hundreds of years and is associated with some health benefits like reduced calorie intake, blood sugar levels, and chance of cavities.
- Monk fruit — Monk fruit is not particularly easy to grow, and as a result, ends up being a pretty expensive option for companies to use as sweeteners for their products. Monk fruit is a small, round fruit native to southern China that is rich in antioxidants that can reduce chance of heart disease and cancer. Since it’s not pure sugar, it also comes with the added benefit of reducing calories as well.
What if I’m vegetarian?
You’ll still be fine to consume all the aforementioned products if you’re a vegetarian. Whey and casein are derived from milk, which is an animal product, not meat itself. If you’re vegan, however, you might have to look toward pea protein, a relatively inexpensive and vegan substitute to whey and casein.
Pea protein digests slower than whey but not as slow as casein, meaning it’s a great option for supplementing with meals or just consuming throughout your day.
Although this is quite the overgeneralization, it might give you a better sense of how each protein source can play to its strengths: Whey digests quickly, pea protein digests at a “medium” rate, and casein digests slowly. So whey should be consumed immediately after a workout, enabling your body to quickly absorb the amino acids/peptides and help your body along its recovery process. Pea protein should be consumed throughout the day, since it digests at a “normal” rate, like some of the foods in your diet. Casein should be consumed before bed, when you go without calories and nutrient intake for upwards of 8 hours, as its slow absorption rate will make for a steady, slow-release form of protein as you go to sleep (which will especially help with muscle recovery if you worked out earlier in the day).
But since pea protein doesn’t digest nearly as slow as casein does, it’s still a decent option for consumption after a workout. It also doesn’t digest as quickly as whey does, so taking it before bed is a fine option as well. Pea protein, though seemingly more versatile than the other two options, is still trumped by whey. As mentioned earlier, whey is the whey to go if you could only pick one. A fast absorption rate means that there’s no time that it’s necessarily inappropriate to take it. For example, it’s not very effective to take casein after a workout, since it digests so slowly. But taking whey before bed isn’t inherently bad — you’ll still digest it, just not as slowly and steadily as casein.
Water or Milk?
This is a question that is often asked when it comes to protein powder. Should I mix my powder with milk or water? Here’s one guideline that will make this decision easier:
Are you trying to cut? If so, mix it with water. Are you trying to bulk? If so, mix it with milk.
Typically, protein powder tastes better when mixed with milk, but that means you’re adding, at minimum, 100 calories to your daily caloric intake (I’m assuming a serving size of roughly 6 fl oz). Protein powder also tends to foam up more when mixed with milk, although that can be avoided entirely if you do some research on the stabilizer ingredients found in protein powders. Stabilizers like xanthan gum and sunflower lecithin can cause protein powders to foam up more, which can be somewhat annoying, since foam isn’t as easily consumed as liquid.
This isn’t to say that you can’t cut by taking your protein powder with milk, or that bulking is a lot harder when you take your protein powder with water, but it’s just a simple rule of thumb. Choose whatever works for you.
Protein isn’t Everything
By now, you should have a better understanding of what protein powder to choose. There’s a balance to strike with what you end up picking. You can’t have all the best ingredients in your protein powder — you would have to make that yourself. You also can’t expect to go with the cheapest option and expect the ingredient list to not contain some dodgy ingredients, like acesulfame potassium.
It’s also important to not overcommit to one option. Most protein powders have various sizes that you can purchase. Sometimes you can buy a fairly small, 1 pound bag of protein powder just to try it out, or if you’re sure it’s an option that you like, go ahead and purchase their 5 pound tub. You can also experiment with what you add to the powder, whether that’s milk, water, berries, peanut butter, etc. You can even cook with protein powder if you wish.
But protein isn’t everything. You’re not going to get as much out of taking a scoop of whey protein everyday if you’re not lifting weights and really pushing yourself. You also won’t get much out of protein powder if you aren’t getting enough sleep, and I can’t stress this part enough.
Not only does sleep really help your muscles recover from a workout, but can help increase testosterone, the natural muscle-building hormone. People often fret about boosting their testosterone levels, researching medical options, like testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), or even eating a raw onion a day (this one is actually not a bad idea), but the easiest way to increase your testosterone levels is to get a solid 8 hours of sleep every night. Without sleep, you won’t be able to exercise effectively, and if you can’t exercise effectively, how are you going to look like this guy?
As the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov once said: “Go sleep.”