Navigating Protein and Protein Supplements


Even if you have never been to the gym a day in your life, I’m sure you have heard that you need to eat protein to build muscle.

Here’s why:

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our body can make some amino acids on its own, but there are some that we need to get from food or supplements. When we eat protein, it is broken down into amino acids, which are then absorbed and distributed to different places in our bodies – including muscle cells. Amino acids accumulate in our muscle cells after exercise, especially weight training exercise, which signals muscle-building or anabolism.[1]

Protein is important well beyond completing your workout. It’s important to eat moderate amounts of protein throughout the day.

Here’s why:

  1. There is no place to store protein in the body as protein, therefore you need to give your body a steady supply. If you eat your entire days’ worth of protein at once and think it is going to last you the entire day, think again. Since excess protein cannot be stored as protein, it is stored as fat. Yes, excess calories, even from protein, are stored as fat!
  2. Too little protein or infrequent protein intake starves our muscles and can lead to muscle breakdown or catabolism.

So how much is enough?

Everyone has unique protein needs depending on their age, activity level, body composition goals, injury factors, anthropometrics, etc. Start by incorporating protein in all meals and snacks throughout the day (every 3-4 hours) to help avoid catabolism. Aim to keep your protein intake between 20-30g protein per serving. Studies show that maximal rate of muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth) occurs between 20-30g of complete protein depending on your age.

Protein supplements (aka protein powder) are not necessary to build muscle, however they can be useful tools to help to achieve your protein goals throughout the day. When considering a protein supplement, there are a few factors to consider.

Not all protein is created equal!

As mentioned earlier, there are some amino acids that our bodies can’t make. They are called “essential” amino acids because it is essential that we eat them! There are 9 essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.[2] A “complete protein” contains all nine of the essential amino acids. An incomplete protein does not. It is important to know if your protein is complete or not so you know if you are missing out on any of the essential amino acids that you should incorporate later on in the day.

Different types of protein are also digested and absorbed at varying rates. Some are digested quick, some slow, some are poorly absorbed, and some are absorbed very efficiently.

Overview of common protein supplements:

  • Whey protein – There are 2 major classes of protein found in milk: whey and casein.[3] Whey protein supplements contain only whey protein. Whey is highly digestible and is more quickly digested than casein. It is a complete protein and is especially high in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).
  • Casein – As mentioned before, casein is one of the major proteins found in milk. Milk protein is 80% casein and 20% whey. While whey protein causes a short-term, dramatic increase in amino acids in our blood, casein causes a prolonged, moderate increase in amino acids in our blood.[4] For this reason, casein is not often used as post-workout supplement, but may be useful as a lasting protein source between meals.
  • Soy – A fantastic source of essential amino acids when compared to other plant proteins. The digestibility of soy protein is close to that of animal proteins. It is digested slower than whey protein, but faster than casein. It causes a moderate increase in blood amino acids, similar to casein.
  • Pea protein – This protein has recently gained attention as an alternative plant protein supplement. While pea protein is a complete protein source, it is low in two essential amino acids: tryptophan and methionine. However, peas contain higher levels of lysine and tryptophan than grains, which may make pea protein a higher quality plant protein source compared to brown rice protein.

For more information about protein, supplements, and the science behind the digestion kinetics, keep an eye out for our soon-to-come supplement guide! If you would like a personalized nutrition program, contact us today to learn how we can help!


[1] Babault N, Paizis C, Deley G, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF SPORTS NUTRITION. 12. doi:10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5.

[2] http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Organic/essam.html

[3] EBSCO CAM Review Board. Whey protein as a dietary supplement. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health. 2017. https://login.dax.lib.unf.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=94416315&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed February 19, 2019.

[4] He T, Giuseppin MLF. Slow and fast dietary proteins differentially modulate postprandial metabolism. International Journal of Food Sciences & Nutrition. 2014;65(3):386-390. https://login.dax.lib.unf.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=95475924&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed February 21, 2019.

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