What is a protein?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. The body breaks down the protein you eat into its amino acids and then reuses each amino acid to build and rebuild in the body. There are 20 amino acids and nine are generally considered essential— this means that the body doesn’t make these amino acids- thus, we need to eat these. All amino acids, however, are essential to the optimal functioning of our body.
Different foods have different amino acid profiles. To be considered a complete protein, however, the food must have all 9 essential amino acids. Complete proteins come from animal and dairy sources primarily. However, soy, quinoa, and buckwheat (not a wheat) are also complete proteins. Furthermore, when you eat a variety of foods throughout the day the body is really good at combining amino acids to get the completed amino acids it needs each day.
Why did you say proteins are not equal?
When we want to function at a higher level, we need to examine the amino acid profile of the foods we eat, because each amino acid has a different role in the body. We also need to consider the bioavailability of the protein. Bioavailability is how much gets absorbed or used by the body. While we like to say “you are what you eat.”, but really, you are what you absorb. It just doesn’t matter how much protein you eat if your body can’t absorb it. In performance nutrition we also really care about how fast your body is absorbing the nutrients.
Sometimes we want the body to access the amino acids of a protein quickly. During recovery we want this to be as fast as possible. Other times, say at dinner, or that 3pm hunger strike, we don’t necessarily need or want quick absorption. Instead, we want protein to slow absorption and help with satiation. Still other times, we look to amino acids for their calming effects. So, when we want to optimize, we need to look at these specifics.
So, what and when??? Get to it Lisa!
We are almost there. Since there will always be exceptions and nuances in nutrition let me first tell you a bit about each protein that we commonly consume.
Highlights of common proteins
Whey is a milk protein (the other is casein). It is a complete protein and is HIGHLY bioavailable and digestible. Therefore, whey is great for a post-workout recovery drink.
Whey comes in two commonly accessible forms: Whey concentrate and whey isolate. Whey isolate is the more pure form and worth the extra money it may cost.
Whey is less reactive than casein but those with dairy sensitivities still need to be aware that this does come from milk and may cause a reaction. I also must warn that since this product comes from an animal, the quality of the product is very important here. Whatever goes into that animal ends up in the whey. Cheaper is not always better in the long run.
A third, less common form is whey hydrolysate. This is a ‘pre-digested’ form which is absorbed more quickly than whey concentrate or whey isolate. Furthermore, whey hydrolysate contains minimal lactose, making it an option for many with lactose intolerance. It is worth a try for some people with lactose intolerance because of the recovery benefits.
Nutrition Pros: Complete protein, highly digestible, high leucine values
Eggs provide a complete protein package and are highly bioavailable and digestible. The yolk slows things down a bit but before we had whey, eggs were the gold standard and they remain at the top.
Egg whites are great recovery foods- but may be tough in practical application to eat your protein needs in egg whites post workout.
Nutrition Pros: Complete protein, highly digestible
Nutrition Cons: Low to average leucine values
Beef and Chicken
All animal proteins are complete proteins. These two have about the same bioavailability, both of them about 10% less than that of eggs. Chicken is slightly lower than beef and the fattier cuts of both have slower absorption rates due the fat.
Nutrition Pros: Complete protein, fairly digestible, high average leucine values
Soy protein is still another complete protein. It has a bioavailability of about 10-15% less than eggs, at about 75%. However, soy has the lowest leucine content in comparison to the others above, so is not considered an optimal choice for recovery, particularly not for girls and women.
Nutrition Pros: Complete protein, fairly digestible
Nutrition Cons: Low leucine values
Pea protein does score fairly high as far as protein quality. However, it is not a complete protein and therefore was overlooked until recently in these conversations. Some manufactures add rice to a pea protein powder to complete the amino acid profile. Others assume that consumers get enough of methionine (the missing amino acid) throughout their day.
Nutrition Pros: Highly digestible, high leucine values
Nutrition Cons: Not complete protein, optimal if consumed with rice blend or BCAA ferments
What and When – the Answers
Now that we have the basics on the common sources of protein for athletes we need to get into specifics of what when. Really, the pressing issues are around recovery and daily fueling. Endurance athletes also need to consider some protein during the workout.
The body NEEDS leucine to signal a stop to the breakdown of muscle from exercise and to start building muscle, called muscle protein synthesis. The more efficiently we can stop the breakdown and start the rebuild, the sooner the athlete will ‘recover’ and be able to effectively train again.
So, post workout protein needs to have a complete amino acid profile and a high level of leucine. We particularly need these after a workout that has been highly muscularly demanding, such as on heavy weight training days and HITT days, oh and during overload blocks.
The first choice here is whey. Again, the first choice here is whey. 😉
The second choice is a pea/rice blend.
Another option for increasing the leucine value of a post workout fuel is to supplement your choice of lean protein with BCAA ferments.
Protein throughout the day should come from a variety of sources and optimally from whole foods. If you are having a whey smoothie post workout be sure to have other sources throughout the day. If it’s a light day, take the benefits of the pea/rice blend for your smoothie and have a variety of other proteins during the day.
During long workouts athletes add protein to their fuel to support the amino acid needs and mitigate the breakdown of muscle. Some athletes can also use protein to slow digestion and lessen hunger. This becomes very individualized to minimize any GI distress.
Casein is slow digesting and therefore is a great protein for the evenings. Athletes that are searching for ways to get more healthy protein and calories in, try some yogurt as your last snack for muscle protein synthesis in the evening.
** It’s common for competitive athletes to want more- but don’t get ahead of science or try to outsmart your body by just taking a bunch of leucine post workout- the mechanisms involved in MPS are complex and to-date it is safe to stick with the recommendations above rather than hyper- loading with just leucine 😉
(I.e., Van Vilet, et al.; 2018; https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP276504 )
My information comes from a variety of sources, but if you want to read a bit more about protein, try these two easy to read sources. *Do remember, these are from retailers and while I believe the information to be accurate, the information is written to support their products.