There is a ton of information—often contradictory, and certainly overwhelming—about protein intake and protein supplementation, especially as it relates to athletes. We created this guide to the ins and outs of protein for gym-goers just starting out on a fitness path, and for more advanced athletes looking to navigate the endless stream of information. We’ll cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
What Is Protein?
Before we start exploring the basics of protein, let’s make sure we can all answer this key question: What is protein, anyway? To quote Encyclopedia Britannica, protein is a “highly complex substance that is present in all living organisms. Proteins are of great nutritional value and are directly involved in the chemical processes essential for life.”
Yes, friends, protein is powerful stuff.
WHY PROTEIN MATTERS
Protein has numerous important functions in the body. Your organs, muscles, skin, hair, nails, and bones all contain protein. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of tissue and cells, it helps support a healthy functioning immune system, and it plays a role in manufacturing hormones.
For athletes, protein’s role in muscle growth and repair is perhaps its most important function. A protein-focused diet is critical for anyone looking to bulk up. If your aim is to lose weight and you’re reducing your caloric intake, you still need to consume enough protein to prevent your body from turning to muscle tissue for energy, rather than burning unwanted fat. Even individuals who train purely for improved health and fitness (as opposed to targeted weight loss or muscle gain) should pay attention to protein intake, as it is critical in helping counteract the damage done to muscle fiber during strenuous workouts.
In addition to helping the body burn fat, rather than break down muscle tissue, protein benefits weight loss and weight maintenance efforts in a number of ways. Protein consumption increases the feeling of satiety (fullness), which helps reduce cravings and limit over-eating. Protein also has a higher thermic effect (the calories used to digest and metabolize food) than carbs and fat, which leads to a boost in metabolism. High-protein intake has been linked to reduced belly fat, as well as to long-term prevention of weight regain after weight loss.
WHAT ARE MACROS?
You’ve probably heard the buzzword “macros” and you’ve probably wondered what this cryptic fitness language is all about. “Macros” is simply slang for macronutrients—the nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts to create energy and fuel the activities of every physiological system. Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the primary macros. We need each of these macros in our diets in order for our bodies to function properly.
Tracking macros—specifically, measuring the ratio of protein, carbs, and fat consumed—is an increasingly popular nutrition trend in the fitness community, geared to help reach specific body composition or fitness goals. For example, if your focus is on building muscle, you need enough protein to enable that muscle growth. If you train intensely, you need enough carbs to fuel those hard sessions. Macros work together, so the percentage of protein, carbs, and fat is the focus of many diet plans.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO I NEED?
There’s no single clear answer, as an individual’s protein needs vary based on lifestyle, activity level, and fitness goals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that adults obtain 10–35 percent of total calories from protein. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (that’s 56 grams daily for the average sedentary man and 46 grams daily for the average sedentary woman). For active adults, protein needs are understandably higher; a commonly recommended, yet broad range is 0.8–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.0–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training volume and intensity.
There may be reasons to caution against ingesting too much protein. Although widely disputed, extremely high protein intake is rumored to be associated with kidney problems, excess weight gain, and other health issues. In reality, these risks are more likely to be related to the source, rather than the volume, of your protein intake (for example, getting the majority of your dietary protein from fatty, highly-processed meat can be an obvious cause for concern). It’s possible that any nutrition plan, if taken to an extreme, may result in ill effects—ranging from lack of proper nutrient balance to potentially dangerous conditions. Protein intake is critical, however the right amount for you depends on numerous variables. Your best bet, as with any diet plan, is to consult with your doctor or a registered dietician to determine the amount of protein that will healthily support your body and your individual goals.
WHOLE FOODS VS. SUPPLEMENTS
Our bodies need amino acids, which are organic compounds found in proteins, to function properly—22 of them, to be exact. Of these, we make 13 (the non-essential amino acids) within our bodies; the other nine (the essential amino acids) must come from our food. Food protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids in adequate quantities are considered “complete proteins.” Examples of complete proteins include lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, quinoa, and chia seeds. Incomplete proteins—or proteins that lack some of the nine essential amino acids—include legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and grains. Eaten in combination, incomplete proteins can work together to provide all the essential amino acids.
While most experts agree that the majority of our protein should come from a mix of real food sources, and that it is possible to obtain all of our protein requirement from food, supplementation with protein powders is an easy, convenient, and often quicker-to-digest alternative to solid protein sources. Protein powders are beneficial for people who don’t have time to prepare complete protein meals, or who want to take their protein to go. And for people who follow vegetarian or vegan diets, supplements can help increase their intake of high quality complete proteins.
WOMEN AND PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTATION
If you think protein shakes are just for the guys, think again. Women are equally in need of high-quality protein to help build and maintain muscle mass—whether they’re running after the kids or chasing Olympic gold. For many women—from athletes looking to build lean muscle mass and enhance recovery, to busy professionals wanting a nutritious and delicious meal on the go, to moms short on time for self-care—protein shakes are an excellent way to boost daily dietary protein intake.
TYPES OF PROTEIN POWDER
Visit the supplement section in any store and you’ll see a vast array of protein powders. So how do you know what to look for when buying protein powder? It depends on a number of factors—your goals, your dietary restrictions, and the amount you’re willing to spend, to name a few.
Let’s examine several of the most common types of protein powder to help determine which one may be best for you.
Dairy proteins are complete proteins, and therefore are a quality choice for protein consumption. Whey proteins are generally considered the most effective for building muscle. Whey protein concentrate is by far the most well-known and widely-used milk protein, followed in popularity by whey protein isolate. In comparing whey concentrate vs. whey isolate, there are pros and cons to each, depending on your specific needs. Other, lesser-known but still important milk proteins include hydrolyzed whey and casein. Of the two, casein is of particular interest to athletes due to its distinct benefits.
Let’s get to know the key benefits and drawbacks of each type of milk protein.
Whey Protein Concentrate. Whey protein concentrate is one of the most affordable and widely available protein sources. It contains all nine essential amino acids and breaks down relatively quickly. However, it contains more carbohydrate and fat than its whey isolate counterpart, and it is not lactose free.
Whey Protein Isolate. Whey protein isolate is considered a higher quality protein, in that it contains more pure protein (and less non-protein components) than whey concentrate. This makes it notably more expensive, but also more appealing to many protein powder consumers. Although sourced from milk, whey protein isolate is virtually lactose-free, therefore it is well tolerated by many people with dairy sensitivities. Whey protein isolate is also fast acting in the body.
Hydrolyzed Whey Proteins. Both whey concentrate and whey isolate can be hydrolyzed, or turned into hydrolysates, by various processes that partially break down the protein. The benefit of whey hydrolysates is that they are absorbed even faster than already quick-digesting whey concentrate and isolate; the drawbacks are a bitter taste and added cost.
Casein Protein. Also a milk protein, casein is a slow-release protein, meaning it takes from five to seven hours to break down in the body. For this reason, casein protein powders are an ideal option for use at bedtime to optimize overnight muscle regeneration and recovery.
Non-Dairy and Plant-Based Proteins:
Plant proteins and other non-dairy proteins come from a number of sources. In regards to protein powders, the most popular of these are eggs, soy, peas, and rice. Just like their milk protein counterparts, plant proteins come with plenty of pros and cons. In particular, these options work well for anyone with a dairy allergy or intolerance. Some non-dairy and plant proteins are naturally incomplete proteins, but may be mixed with other powders or food sources to create complete proteins.
Let’s get to know the key benefits and drawbacks of each of these non-dairy and plant proteins.
Egg White Protein. Egg white protein (also called egg white albumen) is simply egg whites that have been dried and turned into powder. This protein source digests more slowly than whey, but is an excellent high-quality complete protein to supplement a non-dairy diet.
Soy Protein. A complete protein, soy is considered the most effective plant-based protein, and like egg white protein, digests at a moderate rate. Soy is an excellent source of glutamine, an amino acid which occurs naturally in the body but may be beneficial in greater amounts during muscle building to limit muscle damage and speed tissue repair. Soy consumption is controversial, however, with potential links to disruptions in natural hormone levels and hormone-related cancers.
Pea Protein. Pea protein compares to whey protein in regards to its high rate of absorption. It is an incomplete protein, so in order to reach full effectiveness, it should be paired with another protein, such as hemp or rice.
Rice Protein. Brown rice protein is high in B-vitamins and fiber and is lactose and gluten free. Rice protein should also be paired with another protein source in order to make it complete.
AMINO ACIDS VS. PROTEIN
Many people are confused by the distinction between amino acids and protein. Are they the same thing? The answer: not exactly.
Amino acids are actually the building blocks of protein. Proteins are formed by a chain of amino acids linked together. Our bodies naturally produce 13 of what are known as “non-essential” amino acids. There are also 9 “essential” amino acids; these we can only get through our diet, from whole foods or supplements. Two types of amino acids that are of special interest to athletes are BCAAs and collagen.
The acronym “BCAAs” stands for branched-chain amino acids. BCAAs benefit athletes in a variety of ways, including enhanced recovery, delayed fatigue, and even improved mental clarity. It’s easy to see why endurance athletes in particular find BCAAs appealing, since BCAA-supplementation can potentially help them perform better, longer, and more frequently.
Collagen is another type of amino acid. While it is produced naturally in the body, collagen production slows as we age. Collagen is considered the glue that holds our bodies together, and in addition to medical and cosmetic applications, collagen is gaining popularity among athletes hoping to benefit from stronger muscles and connective tissue.
IS PROTEIN POWDER SAFE?
The safety of protein supplements was called into question in 2010, following a Consumer Reports’ investigation into a number of ready-to-drink liquids and protein powders. The report showed that several of the products tested contained toxic heavy metals in volumes considered unhealthy and potentially dangerous for human consumption.
As with any manufactured product, the quality of the many protein powders available today varies greatly. To protect your health, opt for all-natural or organic protein powders, free from additives such as hormones, steroids, stimulants, pesticides, grain-fed byproducts, and artificial sweeteners, flavors, thickeners and colors. Plenty of high-quality protein powders exist, so research before you buy.
Additionally, competitive athletes will want to make sure the protein powders they choose (along with any supplements they consume) are free of any substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Look for products certified by NSF International (marked “NSF Certified for Sport”) to ensure that the listed ingredients are accurate and do not contain unsafe levels of contaminants, prohibited substances, or masking agents.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO DRINK PROTEIN SHAKES?
Protein timing can be as tricky a subject as protein intake. Just poll the weight room at your gym and you’re likely to hear a range of conflicting opinions. Many of us live by the “magic window” rule, taking care to consume quality protein within a 30-minute window immediately after hard exercise for optimal muscle repair and recovery (some people view this window as 45 minutes; others allow it to stretch to 60 minutes).
It’s a fact that your muscles are more receptive to protein synthesis in the period directly following hard training; however, they remain receptive for several hours. So although the peak time for protein is within the immediate post-workout window, don’t stress if you initially forget your protein shake. Still, it’s a wise practice to pack protein in your gym bag. You’re likely to be hungry after your workout, and a protein shake will not only help support your hard-worked muscles, it will also keep you more satisfied—and less likely to reach for a fast food fix—until your next meal.
It’s also important to spread your protein intake throughout the day. Muscle protein synthesis—or the amount of protein your muscles can actually put to good use—maxes out at around 20–30 grams, so consuming more than that at one time is pointless. It won’t hurt you to have more, but the excess protein will go to waste. Rather, aim to ingest protein with every meal and most of your snacks, spreading your total daily intake across four to six feedings.
As mentioned earlier, another time that may be beneficial for protein consumption is just before bed. If you’re looking for a protein nightcap, go with slow-release casein, which works with your body at rest to rebuild muscle tissue as you sleep.
HOW TO MAKE A PROTEIN SHAKE
You’ve set your fitness goals, consulted your doctor or nutritionist, and determined which protein powder appeals most to you. Now what? It’s time to make a protein shake, of course.
By now you’ve selected your protein powder, so in a sense the rest is secondary. But wait—there are plenty of ways to make a protein shake that is wonderful, and also plenty of ways to make one that’s not so great. Let’s aim for wonderful—and here’s how we can help.
Protein Shaker Bottles and Shaker Cups
You need the right tool for mixing your protein shakes. That’s where BlenderBottle® products come into play. Our shaker cups utilize our BlenderBall® wire whisk—found only in BlenderBottle® brand shakers—to mix the smoothest shakes imaginable. The leak-proof caps keep your gym bag and car seat dry, making on-the-go protein intake easy and stress free. Get started with the original BlenderBottle® Classic, or try one of our newer innovations, like the push-button, lockable, insulated stainless steel Strada shaker.
Protein Shake Recipes and Ingredients
In addition to recommending key ingredients—like yogurt, honey, and cinnamon—that enhance the flavor of any protein shake, we have a wealth of protein shake recipes you can try. Browse our Recipes page and you’ll find fruity shakes, chocolatey shakes, breakfast shakes, decadent shakes, and more. We’ve done the taste-testing for you—all you need is to add the ingredients to your BlenderBottle® shaker, pop in the BlenderBall® whisk, close the leak-proof lid, and mix until smooth.