Type in ‘protein supplements’ into your search bar and the list is endless. You’ll be skimming through a plethora of products that claim to be ‘just what you need’. Even if you do enjoy extensive reading, chances are you’ll still be no closer to making an informed choice than when you sat down. Well, that doesn’t need to be you! There’s more than the number of grams of protein per serving that you to consider when buying a supplement. Sure, you could look at the reviews and let unknown people over the internet guide your decision. Alternatively, you can take matters into your own hands and buy a protein supplement that is right for you. An almost obvious choice isn’t it? So here’s what you need to ask yourself…..
What am I looking for in a protein supplement?
This is the basic question any newbie lifter needs to ask themselves. Your physique goals, timeframe, current progress, age, and health condition should guide your decision. You don’t just buy a tub because your ‘Gym Bro’ bought one. So, here what you need to look for, you need a protein supplement that:
- Is a complete source of protein
Complete sources of protein are needed by your body as they contain all the essential amino acids. Read Protein 101 for more information on amino acids and protein. In essence, a complete source of protein supplement is one that contains all essential amino acids. Ensuring that you need not mix and match other sources of protein/ products. A single scoop of the right protein supplement can provide your body with all the amino acids it needs. Luckily, most companies take care of this as protein powders are usually animal-based products (including milk and yogurt).
- Is giving you a decent number of grams of protein per serving
This is a no-brainer, pay close attention to the label behind and ensure you are getting an adequate amount of protein. An adequate amount of protein is your personalized requirement that macros indicate when set in accordance with your physique goals. You can use a macronutrient calculator to get a ball-park figure. The human body can comfortably digest more than 30 grams of protein in a single sitting. There is a debate going on as to what is the upper limit after considering factors such as muscle size, recovery, training age, drug use, and more. But as a general rule, you want a protein supplement that can provide adequate nutrition in a single scoop.
This means when making a choice, aim for a supplement offering 20g-24g of protein per serving. On the upper-end 30g of protein per serving is what most companies will offer but this comes with an increased price tag. The price may not justify the added 6 grams of protein so stick to the 24g. Just crack open an egg, if you’re adamant on going all the way! A sufficient amount of protein will increase protein synthesis and because of its easy-to-absorb state, a protein shake after a workout will prevent muscle breakdown.
- Is matching your goals
This will vary based on your goal whether it is getting leaner, putting on mass, growing stronger, or simply maintaining your current physique. Protein supplements come with diverse functionality and products to help you reach your goals. You can buy mass gainers (which are mainly carbohydrate-heavy i.e 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio), whey protein, whey isolate, or whey hydrolysate based on your desired outcome. Read Protein 101 to know their differences and select the one that is right for you, based on your physique goals your caloric requirements change. Remember reaching your goals requires consistency and effort over an extended period of time, fat loss or muscle gain isn’t waiting for you at the bottom of the protein tub. Ideally, you should aim for a 1:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.
If your goal is to lose weight or enter a ‘cutting’ phase you need to keep your body in a caloric deficit. During this time it is common to battle hunger-pangs which are tempting to give into. Slow digesting proteins without added carbohydrates such as casein can help you surpass these cravings and reach your goal with relative ease. Due to its slow-digesting nature casein leaves you feeling fuller for longer. Alternatively, you can cook using whey protein which allows you to make healthy snacks and remain satiated. Try a protein brownie or pancake if you have a sweet tooth.
On the other hand, if you are bulking up or need to put on some weight you need to be in a caloric surplus. If you have a small appetite it can be difficult to consume so many calories. Search for supplements like mass gainers in addition to including ‘healthy fats’ in your diet. Since fats contain 9 calories per gram they can help you reach your goal faster. Avocado, walnuts, macadamia nuts, olive oil, and macadamia oil are some great fats to include in your diet. As far as supplements go, check the label to find out how many calories are contained in each scoop. You will still need to hit your protein requirement for the day, so do not compromise, it isn’t a trade-off.
What are PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score)?
An oversimplified answer-PDCAAS is a method to understand the quality of a protein source based on the levels of the 9 essential amino acids by the body. In addition to the bodies ability to digest it. In a nutshell, it comes down to digestibility and availability. The highest score a protein source can get is represented as 1.0 and should be a deciding factor when you choose the right protein supplement. Luckily, any trusted protein supplement with a red circle/dot is from animal sources and will offer high PDCAAS.
Here is a chart that represents that digestability and availability of protein in most commonly consumed foods that are high in protein.
The right protein supplement’s PDCAAS
|Grains, nuts, & seeds||1.0|
|Rice & peas||1.0|
|Legumes, nuts, & seeds||1.0|
|Grains, legumes & seeds||0.93|
|Tree nuts & peanuts||0.52|
As you can see above, casein, whey, soy, and egg whites offer you the most bang for your buck. It is no surprise that nutritionists and trainers consider them as the right protein supplement to add to your meal plan. Soy, on the other hand, isn’t as popularized due to a considerable amount of isoflavones. Similar to the hormone estrogen in humans and large amounts could impact female fertility and reproductive development. For men, there are no health risks but the plant does contain high amounts of phytoestrogens which have myths surrounding it. Mainly related to lower levels of testosterone.
The takeaway? Include eggs into your diet. In doing so, you can get by with having a single scoop of whey protein to meet your protein requirements for the day. Plus, eggs are an economical option.
Can I find vegetarian protein supplements?
If you are a pure vegetarian and do not even eat eggs then you may not be getting the needed amino acids. As seen in the chart above the PCAAS of vegetarian foods such as chickpeas (0.78) and black beans (0.75) is relatively low. This is because most plant sources are incomplete protein sources, thus lacking the essential amino acids. So you will need to find the right protein supplement for a vegetarian. Does this exist you ask?
Lucky for you though, the answer is yes. With a little research, you can buy mixed protein supplements that have a combination of legumes, nuts, sprouts, and other plant-based produce. As seen in the table above the right combination of vegetarian sources of protein can give you all the needed amino acids in the required amount. Just take a look at the ingredients list. To be sure that your product does not contain any animal produce, search for the green circle/dot on the product to ensure it is vegetarian. Further, this is vital as supplements may contain allergens that can prove to be troublesome.
Other options to consider
- Brown rice protein supplements
- Hemp protein supplements
- Pea protein supplements
Buy authentic protein supplements
Steer clear from unknown labels as there are counterfeit products in the market. Some companies offer you the ability to match the product code or scan the code on their website upon delivery to ensure its authenticity. Other’s come with nifty little seals to ensure the product cannot be tampered with. Beware of counterfeit products, fake packaging, and third party websites.
Supplement, do not substitute
As someone with a deep passion for the sport of bodybuilding let me take you aside from the commercial drama. No supplement powder, bar, capsule, or liquid can help you lose weight or build muscle on its own. Furthermore, the name is self-explanatory. Supplements should not be considered as a replacement for a healthy diet. Chugging down 6 protein shakes and 3 tomatoes a day isn’t the way to live a healthy life nor will it help you build a physique worthy of admiration.
The key lies in having a balanced diet and concrete training plan! It doesn’t matter whether you are following an Atkins diet, ketogenic, intermittent-fasting approach, or IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). What is important is that you remain consistent. Micronutrients are just as important to keep yourself healthy and active. In the end, the only diet that will work is one that you can stick to.
- Incorporate lean meats such as chicken breast into your plan.
- Start your day with eggs and have them around for a snack as well.
- Cheese, fish, lean beef, and 5% fat mince are also a great addition to your diet.
- Vegetarian protein sources with all amino acids include legumes and nuts, rice and peas, and grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Cottage cheese, avocados, and tofu are great foods that will leave you feeling fuller for longer.
- When supplementing with protein eat fiber-rich food, it helps you keep the hunger at bay.
Once you have a strong and healthy meal plan only then should you consider supplementing. To summarize, find a supplement with 20g-24g of protein per serving, has a 1:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. The right protein supplement should also match your weight and physique goals. Opt for high-quality whey, casein, or soy protein supplements from trusted brands as they have the highest digestibility and availability.