Can protein powders help you lose weight? Can they help you build muscle? And does it matter which kind you buy?
The short answer to all these questions is, "Yes."
But before I talk about protein powders, I need to explain why the heck protein is so important to begin with.
Protein: The Crucial Macronutrient
The word protein comes from the Greek and means “of prime importance.” Without protein, your body starts breaking down precious muscle tissue, literally “eating” itself. Protein helps make enzymes, hormones, antibodies and about a zillion other things your body requires to function optimally.
So, you want to make sure that every meal and snack contains optimal protein.
But all proteins—and all protein powders—are not created equal. Vegetarians and vegans, take note: plant-based proteins overall have an inferior amino acid profile compared with animal proteins. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just means you’ll want to include plenty of higher-protein plant foods like quinoa and legumes at every meal.
Meat eaters, you’re not off the hook. You can really screw up a high-protein diet by using crappy deli meats and ballpark franks. Sure, they’re high in protein—but they’re also filled with other stuff that can be health robbing like sodium, artificial fillers and antibiotics. Skip the processed meats and consume clean protein sources like free-range chicken (and their eggs), wild-caught fish, and grass-fed lamb and beef.
One more thing, meat eaters: when I say higher-protein diet, I don’t mean all-protein diet. I don’t want you just noshing on grilled chicken breasts all day. I also want you to incorporate plenty of alkalinizing veggies, low-glycemic fruits, healthy carbs like quinoa and sweet potatoes, and nuts and seeds.
Now, let's get to the powders.
1. WHEY PROTEIN and Weight Management
Whey protein is hands down my favorite form of protein powder. In protein quality and bioavailability scores, it consistently gets high marks. Not only that, but studies suggest whey can help you lose weight and gain muscle, and it provides powerful support for your immune system.
In one study, subjects consumed a liquid meal containing equal amounts of either casein (milk protein) or whey protein. Then, 90 minutes later, they were let loose in a buffet and told to eat anything they wanted. Those who consumed the whey protein ate significantly fewer calories. So whey protein powder may well be a great tool in the battle to control appetite naturally.
Drinking whey protein is one of the best methods for coaxing the body into making more glutathione, arguably the most important antioxidant in the body. Unfortunately, glutathione is very badly absorbed when you ingest it orally. To get a healthy dose of glutathione, you need to provide the body with the amino acid “building blocks” it uses to produce it. Enter whey protein. Whey protein—because of its particular amino acid profile—has been shown to be one of the best ways ramp up glutathione production. For that reason alone, whey’s a great immune system supporter.
2. PEA PROTEIN
As consumers continue to look for alternatives to traditional proteins, pea protein is becoming more and more popular. One selling point of pea protein is that it seems to support healthy blood pressure levels. Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that consuming a pea protein supplement for three weeks was associated with a 6 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure. Note: avoid pea protein if you have gout, since it contains purines, which can aggravate the condition.
3. HEMP PROTEIN
Yep, it’s actually made from the same plant that produces marijuana, but you won’t get a buzz from eating hemp protein. (Sorry!) Well-known for its nutty, rich flavor, hemp protein has all eight essential amino acids (and in greater quantities than egg whites, tofu or cow’s milk) (3). It’s also extremely digestible and has a very favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
For me, the big selling point of hemp protein is its high fiber content. Hemp can be a fiber heavyweight (typically 5-14 grams per serving!). But hemp powder is typically lower in protein than, say, whey protein. And although I personally like it, some people find “gritty.”
4. SOY PROTEIN
Soy—the poster child for all things “healthy”—is in fact, quite controversial in the health community. Detractors point to the presence of enzyme inhibitors (which block the action of enzymes needed for digestion), haemagglutinin (a clot-promoting substance), phytic acid (which can block the uptake of essential minerals) and the fact that 99% of our soy is genetically modified. Supporters point to the presence of phytoestrogens, phenolic acid (antioxidant), isoflavones and compounds that lower cholesterol. My opinion: I think the dangers of soy have been somewhat exaggerated, but so have the health benefits. Small amounts of soy protein should pose no danger for most people, but I wouldn’t make soy my only protein shake.
5. BROWN RICE PROTEIN
The main selling point of brown rice protein is that it is not made from dairy or animal products. It’s hypoallergenic and is suitable for anyone wanting to avoid dairy, soy or gluten. Rice protein is not a complete protein, due to insufficient levels of the amino acids threonine and lysine, though these are sometimes added to rice protein products to correct the imbalance. The protein in rice is digested more slowly than whey or egg protein, if this is a concern for you. Two of my favorite rice protein-based formulas are Jarrow Formulas Brown Rice Protein Concentrate, which is made using a process that does not involve the use of chemical solvents, and Sunwarrior’s Warrior Blend Raw Protein, which has the distinction of being one of the few protein shakes endorsed by the raw foods crowd.
6. SACHA INCHI
Sacha inchi is one of the most exciting new sources of plant-based protein I’ve come across, though it’s hardly new. It’s been used medicinally by the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon for literally thousands of years. The seeds of the sacha inchi plant are very high in omega-3’s. A few combo products—such as Vega One—use sacha inchi as one of their protein sources. Look for a lot more sacha inchi products to appear soon.
7. COMBO PRODUCTS
Several manufacturers of high-quality plant-based protein powders use a mix of protein sources for their complementary qualities. One manufacturer of vegetarian protein powders, Vega, uses a mix of pea protein, hemp seed protein, sacha inchi and brown rice protein (plus some chlorella, just for good measure) to get a complete protein blend. Vega One’s Nutritional Shakes also contain over six grams of omega-3 fatty acids (from flax and chia seeds), as well as quite a number of additional vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and probiotics. WF
NOTE: The statements presented in this column should not be considered medical advice or a way to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. Dietary supplements do not treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of a medical professional before altering your daily dietary regimen. The opinions presented here are those of the writer. WholeFoods Magazine does not endorse any specific company, brand or product.
Posted Aug. 18, 2014