If you frequent a gym, you've probably heard people talking about the protein shakes they drink after a workout and what kind of shake they prefer. Protein powders made into shakes (or really, consumed however you like) are getting more and more popular as a nutritional supplement pre- and post-workout. They are also becoming more and more mainstream for people searching for a healthy meal replacement. Protein shakes are consumed by bodybuilders, workout enthusiasts, athletes and now, everyday people who just want to lose some weight in a healthy way.

Want to lose some weight? Yes, calorie impact is controversial, but several recent studies point to the benefit of protein on weight loss. In one study, protein was increased from 15% to 30% of calories and fat reduced from 35% to 20% (carbs remained constant). The increase in protein resulted in reduced appetite and fewer calories consumed, which ultimately led to significant weight loss.

In another study of dieters who lost 5-10% of their body weight, the weight regain was less in the high protein group compared to the normal protein group. The high protein group only gained back 2 pounds of the weight that was previously lost compared to 7 pounds for the normal group. Not only was weight regain less in the high protein group, they also gained only muscle and not fat.

Protein also keeps your metabolism revved up. Several studies have shown protein to generate more heat than carbs and fat. This means calorie for calorie, more energy from protein is given off as heat and less is available for storage as fat.

Regardless of whether you're an elite athlete, a weekend warrior, or just Suzy/Sam Smith wanting to shed a few pounds, chances are you have a tub of protein powder sitting in your kitchen. Or, if not, chances are you want to start the regimen, but the choices are confusing.

Protein powders are abundant. You can buy them at health food stores, grocery stores, drug store chains and, of course, on the Internet. And, oh, the choices! There are many, and they are made from various sources — from whey to soy to pea to eggs. How do you choose? Which is the healthiest?

What to avoid

You can narrow your choices by knowing what to avoid first. Reading the label is ultra-important. Some manufacturers use fillers to make the powders look like you're getting for a lower price. Fillers would include cheaper protein sources that are hidden away in the fine print. Among others, look for words like collagen and soy lecithin. Also, some powders include artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose.

What is the original source of the protein? Look for products that are non-GMO. Or, in the case of whey protein, were the cows raised in an environmentally friendly area? Were they free and allowed to roam? Were they fed their natural diet of grasses instead of a grain-based diet? Are they hormone- and antibiotic-free? Are the cows milked only according to season? Is the protein undenatured?

A fear often expressed is that too much protein is bad for the kidneys. For individuals with known kidney disease, high protein diets can exacerbate pre-existing conditions, but healthy individuals without any underlying kidney issues, should have nothing to worry about.

For the healthiest results, it's good to do some research beyond the claims made by the manufacturers on their tubs, which are really only designed to sell the product. So, let's look at some choices. We'll explore various protein sources, how they are processed, the pros and the cons of each. From the following, perhaps you can make an informed decision about which is right for you.

Whey Protein

Whey is the watery portion of milk that separates from the curds when making cheese. Contained in that whey is protein - a "complete protein" that is easy and fast to digest. When a source of protein has all 9 essential amino acids (which your body needs to get from food) that source is said to be a 'complete protein'. Foods like meats, dairy, eggs and rare vegetable proteins like quinoa are complete proteins. On the other hand, most vegetables, rice and starches are not complete proteins because they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.

Biological Value (BV) is a measure of protein absorption. Whey protein has the highest possible score with a BV of 100, meaning that in addition to containing all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein, it is also very easily digested.

The benefits of a high quality whey protein are numerous and range from assisting in weight loss to aiding in the decrease of triglycerides and total cholesterol while increasing HDL. It can be great for seniors, whose protein needs rise with age. Undenatured whey can also increase immune system function and increase glutathione levels. What your body mainly uses as an antioxidant to scavenge free radicals is glutathione, which makes it one of the most important substances in your body. Most of the benefits of whey protein are usually attributed to the increase in glutathione production.

Whey protein risks are minimal and are mainly just annoying possible complications like gas, bloating, etc. Are you lactose intolerant? Whey protein contains a relatively low amount of lactose, notes sports scientist Jim Stoppani, though whether you experience the same symptoms as you would with high-lactose foods depends on the level of severity of your intolerance. If you do consume whey protein, Stoppani suggests taking a lactase enzyme before drinking your shake. Actually, some whey shakes come with digestive enzymes already added. As with all healthrelated questions, check with your physician.

There are three main types of whey protein: 1) Concentrate, 2) Isolate and 3) Hydrolysate. The differences between these three basically come down to how processed the protein is, and hence, the amount of protein present.

Whey protein concentrate is generally the least expensive and has the lowest amount of protein per 100 grams, though it still has a high percentage, ranging from 55-89%. The other 11 - 45% is made up of fat, lactose and higher amounts of various immune-enhancing peptides.

Whey protein isolate is processed more than concentrate and has an average of 95% of its weight coming from protein, thus lower fat and lower amounts of immune enhancing peptides. Whey protein hydrolysate is a further degraded and processed protein. It digests very quickly and has about 99% of its weight coming from protein. This is the most expensive and the worst tasting!

Opinions differ about which of the three types are best, however there seems to be a valid argument in favor of whey concentrate. Here's why: protein isolate and hydrolysate go through more processing and filtration. The manufacturers who make these argue that this results in a purer protein product. However, this extra processing also removes many of the amino acids and immune factors from the whey protein. The additional processing and filtration also remove the fat, which sounds good, but all of the IgG immunoglobulins (an excellent source of glutamine and cysteine) are bound to the fat globules. Remember, healthful fat provides more than just calories.

When choosing your whey protein, do your homework. Make sure it's made from the milk of pasture- and grass-fed cows; not from cows who consume GMO or pesticide-treated grains.

Look for whey that is undenatured. During processing, many companies denature the whey through the use of high heat of about 161.6 F during pasteurization, through prolonged exposure to oxygen and through the fast spinning or agitation during filtration and packaging. During this denaturization, the end product is still an easily digestible whey protein, but it no longer possesses its immune boosting qualities.

High quality undenatured whey protein is the protein extracted from milk without the use of high heat filtration. These whey proteins, in their undenatured form are potent glutathione precursors because of their remarkably high bonded cysteine content. Undenatured whey preserves the molecular structure of bonded cysteine leaving it intact throughout the entire manufacturing process, and thus serves as a cysteine delivery system for boosting glutathione levels and improving immune health.

Egg Protein

Egg protein has been a favorite supplement for years. It can be both a body building and muscle repairing nutrient, and is lactose-free, which makes it a good alternative for those who have a lactose intolerance. If the protein is guaranteed to be made from pure egg whites, one scoop provides about 24 grams of protein, which is four times the amount found in one whole egg. Egg protein powder, especially those made from free range eggs, is a good source of vitamins A, B and D. It contains a minimal amount of carbs (about 2 grams/scoop), so including it in your diet can help in your weight loss goals. It has been found, too, that eggs sourced from pasture-raised chickens have higher amounts of vitamin E as compared to eggs harvested from factory-farmed poultry.

Egg whites are low in calories, carbs and fat and high in protein. In fact, like whey protein, egg white is a complete protein, providing your body with all of the essential amino acids needed for growth and repair. One of its key amino acids is Arginine, which stimulates nitric oxide production. This helps dilate the blood vessels, improving blood circulation and oxygenation.

Egg white protein digests at a moderate rate, so it falls somewhere between very-fast-digesting whey protein and very-slowdigesting casein. This is likely why egg whites have been shown not only to boost protein synthesis, but also prevent muscle protein breakdown. For maximum benefit, many people add egg protein powder to their whey protein shake.

Egg white protein powder is typically made from dehydrated egg whites that have been processed into a fine powder. Many manufacturers use a spray-drying process. It also goes through a pasteurization process to prevent salmonella and deactivate the avidin protein. By heating the eggs during the pasteurization process, the avidin is denatured and it will not bind with biotin. This is important, because when avidin binds to biotin, it escorts it out of the body and can result in a biotin deficiency.

The risks of egg protein powder? It is so very important to know that the source eggs were from free range, pasture raised chickens and not from factory farms. Egg protein powder runs the risk of containing pathogens like Salmonella. This is especially true if the eggs were sourced from factory farms where the chickens often live in crowded, toxic and polluted environments sothey (and their eggs) end up carrying diseases and infections. Traces of antibiotics, hormones and other pharmaceuticals may be present in the egg protein powder if the source chickens were factory-farm raised, as well. When choosing an egg protein powder, please scrutinize the source and stay away from factory raised eggs.

So, is egg white protein powder good for you? The answer is "Yes" – if the eggs are pasteurized and are sourced from free range, pasture raised chickens.

Plant Based Proteins

Pea Protein:

Becoming more and more popular, a key selling point for pea protein is that it appears to lower blood pressure. Typically made from yellow peas, this powder is naturally fat- and cholesterol-free (it comes from a plant after all). While pea protein is affordable and contains similar levels of protein per same-sized serving as whey, it has been shown to be deficient in one amino acid (cystine). So, unlike whey and egg, pea protein is not a complete protein, but it does rank high in the branch chained amino acids (BCAAs), which aid in recovery after strenuous exercise.

In addition to protein, peas contain vitamin A, vitamin B3, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and vitamin C. Pea protein is also vegan by nature (but, check the label for added ingredients), is lactose-free and low in carbs (about 2 grams per scoop), and is a good choice for vegans.

Very inexpensive, pea protein is a good way to maintain a minimum standard of quality while reducing costs. Different manufacturing processes can result in very different amounts of phytic acid, which can affect nutrient absorption.

Avoid pea protein if you have gout, though, since it contains purines, which can increase the amount of uric acid in your blood, potentially leading to a gout flare up.

Processing peas into protein could lead to contamination by fertilizers, chemical solvents, and other ingredients. Also, peas can be genetically modified, and should be avoided if so. Make sure you're buying a high-quality certified organic, non-GMO brand. Another potential negative when adding pea protein to your diet is weight gain. If you're working out to gain muscle, this may be a positive side effect. If you're trying to lose weight or maintain, pea protein may not be for you.

Soy Protein:

Soy used to be the poster child for all things healthy, but now is quite controversial, particularly among integrative physicians. Pro-soy protein folks point to the presence of eight essential amino acids, phytoestrogens, isoflavones and cholesterol-lowering compounds. Detractors point to the presence of enzyme inhibitors (block the action of enzymes needed for digestion), phytic acid, and isoflavones.

Yes, the presence of isoflavones is both praised and vilified, depending on which side of the fence a protein expert sits. Isoflavones are classified as phytoestrogens—plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity. And, soybeans are the richest source of isoflavones in the human diet. The negative? Isoflavones can interact with hormones, like estrogen, and potentially skew hormone levels when taken in excess. And for men, the fear is that increased soy intake could reduce testosterone levels.

There are many, many potential negatives about soy, perhaps a main one being that 99% of our soy is genetically modified. You may not be negatively impacted by soy, but given the plethora of other healthy choices in protein powders, you may want to get your soy fix elsewhere.

Brown Rice Protein:

Brown rice protein powders are made in a similar process to hydrolyzed whey protein. The powder is made by extracting the protein from the rice, which is mostly a carbohydrate. Like other plant based protein powders, brown rice has become popular with vegetarians, vegans, and people with allergies. Surprisingly enough, this plant-based protein stacks up well against the competition. In an eight-week study comparing the benefits of both whey and rice protein supplementation, researchers concluded that both offered nearly the same benefit.

A downside to rice protein, though, is that it tends to be low in certain amino acids — namely, lysine. Pairing rice protein with other sources of animal or plant-based proteins is the best way to incorporate this supplement in your diet without experiencing the downsides of missing out on essential amino acids.

One other downside is that the protein in rice is digested more slowly than whey or egg protein. The hydrolyzed processing actually extracts protein from the rice, which is mostly a carb.

Hemp Protein:

Known for its nutty, rich flavor, hemp protein has eight essential amino acids. It's also very digestible and is high in essential fatty acids (EFAs), with a favorable ratio of the omega-6 to omega-3 EFAs. Unlike most other protein powders, hemp has a very high fiber content (5-14 grams per serving).

On the downside, hemp possesses a high carb content - around 5 grams per serving. Conversely, whey protein has just 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per serving. So, if your goal is to lose weight, you'll want to consume less hemp and more whey. Hemp protein contains a high amount of iron, but a low amount of essential vitamins and minerals. Perhaps the biggest negative, though, is both the small amount of and low quality of the protein contained in hemp. Low quality protein indicates that only some of the protein present is actually absorbed.

When it comes to protein powders, there really is something for everyone. Just keep in mind that when it comes to buying protein, as with everything, "You get what you pay for." Low-cost proteins often use inexpensive protein blends and fillers that may not be very healthy or easily digestible.

It's difficult to call any protein powder the "best" because what's best for one person may not be best for another. Everyone - not just bodybuilders - can benefit from the quick hit of amino acids provided by a protein supplement, bar, or shake. The most important thing to do is READ THE LABEL. It's also important to note that the amount of protein required by the body depends on a person's activity level, physical size, and gender. Protein powders are supplements, best used to supplement a healthy diet of nutritious whole foods.

Written by Julie Milunic, Natural Triad Magazine. Need more info? Email editor@naturaltriad.com. Sources provided upon request.


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