Protein Powder Explained – When it comes to supplementing protein, you have two groups of people: those that are religious about it and those that think it’s completely unnecessary. While skipping your meals and relying entirely on a supplement isn’t the optimal idea, using a protein powder as a supplement is pivotal in boosting your performance and the results you see from training. Not to mention, when the clock is ticking and you just don’t have time to cook, grabbing a shake for the road can be a lifesaver!
Whether you’re a fan or not, I stand on the side that says having a good protein powder on hand can be useful for every aspect of performance, but the problem nowadays is finding one that’s actually effective and isn’t full of garbage ingredients that compromise your health rather than support it.
So, I’m giving you the ultimate protein powder breakdown for performance and giving you the science on why finding one that works can benefit your athletic abilities. I’m also going to give you the inside SCOOP on some of the many options you have to choose from!
What are proteins?
Proteins are the fundamental building block of our bodies. Proteins are formed from amino acids linked together via peptide bonds to form long chains. Essentially, proteins resemble a string of beads on a necklace where each bead represents a specific amino acid. And although there are only 20 individual amino acids, they link in various combinations that allow them to form thousands of different proteins in the body. All 20 amino acids are required for normal cell physiology and function – a deficiency in any one amino acid means impaired cellular function.
Proteins are classified into two major categories: essential or non-essential.
Essential amino acids are those that your body cannot synthesize de novo from precursor amino acids or are inadequately synthesized in the body relative to needs and thereby must be provided from diet to meet optimal requirements 13. They include:
** Only essential during growth and development
Non-essential amino acids are those that can be synthesized in the body from precursor
amino acids and, although they should still be consumed through the diet, are not mandatory. These include:
You’ll also see certain proteins classified as “conditionally essential”. These are amino acids that normally can be synthesized in adequate amounts in the body, but under circumstances where utilization rates are greater than rates of synthesis, such as during or after intense exercise or training, they must be provided through diet.
Of the 20 amino acids, most people are probably familiar with what we know as the branched-chain amino acids–leucine, isoleucine, and valine which are the key amino acids for muscle protein synthesis and make up most BCAA supplements like BCAA Hyper Clear.
Why protein supplementing is important
In order for proteins to be formed and function, they require the presence of all 20 amino acids. Studies show that abnormal metabolism of any amino disrupts whole-body homeostasis, impairs growth, development, and can even lead to death.
The main roles of proteins in the human body include 13:
- Nutrient absorption and metabolism (nutrient transport, protein turnover, fat synthesis and oxidation, glucose synthesis and oxidation, amino acid synthesis and oxidation, urea and uric synthesis for ammonia detoxification, efficiency of food utilization)
- Cellular signaling (mTOR, cAMP, and cGMP activation pathways, along with the generation of NO, CO, and H2S)
- Growth and maintenance
- Enzyme production and function (
digestion, energy production, blood clotting, muscle contraction)
- Hormone synthesis and secretion (insulin, glucagon, growth hormone, glucocorticoids, prolactin, epinephrine)
- Endothelial function, blood flow, and lymph circulation
- Immune function (T-cell proliferation and B-cell maturation, antibody production, killing of pathogens)
- Structural support
- Reproduction (spermatogenesis, male fertility, ovulation, ovarian steroidogenesis, embryo implantation, placental angiogenesis and growth, fetal growth and development, lactogenesis)
- pH balance
- Antioxidative defences
- Tissue regeneration and remodeling
All of this to say that proteins, made of amino acids, are the backbone of almost all biological processes and tissues – a deficiency in protein could mean a mess of problems! Here are some of the most important processes to be concerned with as an athlete.
Protein and muscle protein synthesis
One of the biggest things we hear protein linked to is muscle growth. It’s why bodybuilders and athletes go crazy for the stuff, and it’s why the common belief that “more protein means more muscle growth” exists. While dietary protein is essential for muscle growth, it’s not the be-all and end-all of it.
However, while over-consuming protein may not offer extra benefit, your body needs protein to maintain and enhance muscle protein synthesis, especially when it is rebuilding from training. Many athletes struggle with conditions like RED-S and lack nutrients while Vegan athletes sometimes struggle with getting full proteins in as well! With insufficient amino acids, your body enters a more catabolic state whereby it breaks down existing muscle tissue to access amino acids. And for all the athletes out there, the last thing you want to do is compromise your muscle mass and performance because you’re not consuming adequate protein…
The reason why amino acids and protein are so crucial for muscle is that resistance training and any sort of strenuous physical activity cause microtears in muscles that require repair during periods of rest. This is the exact mechanism behind the growth of muscles in both size and strength. The amino acids derived from dietary protein are used to facilitate muscular repair and remodeling, which ultimately enhances post-exercise strength and hypertrophy-related adaptations 11.
In order for protein synthesis to occur, the body needs the right resources, which means all amino acids must be present to build a functional protein. When muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown, that’s when you see gains in muscle strength and size. Studies do suggest, however, that overall net protein balance is more essential for muscle gains than anything else! Nutrient supply dictates whether you’re in an anabolic or catabolic state 4; and lack of amino acids needed to build functional protein results in a negative net protein balance, while sufficient amino acids result in a positive net protein balance.
Contrary to what most health publications will tell you, the so-called “anabolic window” of opportunity isn’t the right way to plan your protein intake. Research shows that as long as you’re consuming enough amino acids throughout the day, you’re likely not interfering with muscle protein synthesis; it’s more about ensuring your amino acid pool is full and you have enough protein in your daily intake – supplement or food. So, as long as you’re eating within a few hours post-training, or before, your body has what it needs to stimulate MPS and repair those damaged tissues.
Simply put, when you increase amino acid availability, you enhance net balance at rest and even more so immediately following exercise, which results in better muscle repair and recovery 12.
“the last thing you want to do is compromise your muscle mass and performance because you’re not consuming adequate protein…”
Whey is the highest standard for protein powders. Whether it’s an isolate, concentrate, or hydrolysate, it’s always been ranked as #1 for muscle building. That’s because whey is a highly concentrated, full, source of the branched-chain amino acids, especially leucine, which are known to trigger muscle protein synthesis via the mTOR pathways. Isolates are top of the food chain in this respect and have excellent mixability and digestibility as well. One study found that male bodybuilders following a 10-week training program gained an average of 11 pounds of muscle compared with the 2 pounds of muscle gained in people supplementing with casein 2. In a study focussing on the biomarkers of prolonged muscle damage and inflammation, whey protein was shown to attenuate the effects for faster recovery as well 7. Not only that, but in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on the effects of whey protein on long-term muscle protein synthesis, researchers found that, in comparison to collagen peptides, whey protein was significantly more effective in acute and long-term muscle protein synthesis in healthy, exercising older women 9. Although whey is the king, diet and nutritional preferences and needs change for everyone, so it’s important we talk about the other options as well, so let’s talk about beef protein!
Protein powder options
When it comes to choosing a protein powder, you want to find the best. That means minimal ingredients and no artificial colours or flavours, but it also means finding one that works with your body. Many people stick to the standard recommendation of whey protein, and for good reason – it’s the only true full protein source aside from food, but making sure you choose the right whey protein is essential. Some choose protein powders that cause digestive upset and leave you feeling bloated, gassy, or uncomfortable. While they don’t want to admit it, it’s likely just not the right one for them! Low quality proteins can cause low-grade inflammation and actually interfere with performance and recovery. The difference between a quality product and a cheap product is paramount to establish.
So, find a protein powder that works for you from these options! DIESEL New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate from PERFECT Sports is my absolute go-to and has never caused any digestive issues. It’s so pure, tasty and has such miniscule amounts of lactose that it’s virtually lactose free. The quality of DIESEL is unmatched and has done more for my recovery than any other protein powder.
“Clean, Simple and Non-Artifical Protein Powders, Like DIESEL, are Key to Maintaining Performance and Recovery.”
Beef protein is newer to the protein powder scene, but it is a good option for people looking for a complete protein source who are sensitive to other forms of protein (egg, legume, etc.). Because of its high concentration of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, it’s not only great for supporting joint and connective tissue health, but research actually shows that it can elicit similar effects to, but not greater than, whey in terms of lean mass and strength gains 10.
Egg white protein
Egg white protein is a far less common option than whey and plant-based protein powders, but nonetheless an option for people looking for highly bioavailable protein. However, for people that have food sensitivities, eggs can be a dicey choice, so if you find you’re sensitive, test out other options.
Collagen protein is all the rage right now and there’s some research to back it up. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body and forms the foundation for all connective tissues–blood vessels, skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones. It supplies all essential amino acids needed for MPS, and a 2019 study found the combination of resistance training with collagen peptide supplementation resulted in a more pronounced increase in body mass, fat-free mass, and muscle strength than resistance training alone 8. Although all the rage, as we mentioned before whey protein still outperforms collagen peptides in muscle protein synthesis and recovery.
And for the plant-based eaters out there, here are a few good options:
Pea protein is one of the more popular plant-based proteins available that comes in both a sole protein or as part of a vegan blend. While the protein content isn’t as high as an animal-based protein, it does offer a good amount of protein per serving, and for anyone that struggles with food sensitivities to any animal-based proteins, it’s a good alternative. Studies actually show that whey protein and pea protein promote similar strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations following 8-weeks of high-intensity functioning training 1.
Hemp protein is making its way up the ranks where protein is concerned because of its rich nutritional profile. It offers high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and essential amino acids, along with good amounts of protein and fibre, but unlike other animal-based protein sources, hemp isn’t a complete protein; it lacks adequate amounts of lysine and leucine, meaning that is may not be as effective for building muscle as other protein sources, but nonetheless is a good option taken solo or combined with other plant-based proteins.
Brown rice protein
When it comes to plant-based proteins, brown rice protein probably comes out on top. It’s one of the most effective and bioavailable vegan proteins on the market that has been shown to be equally as effective as whey protein powder for building muscle. An 8-week study that looked at the performance and physical effects of whey protein and brown rice protein found that 48 grams of rice protein or whey protein daily produced similar changes in body composition, muscle strength, and recovery 3.
Plant-Based Blends – La Pièce De Résistance
This brings us to the most logical conclusion – plant-based blends are the absolute best option in this category! We all know that the hardest part of choosing a plant-based diet is making sure that every nutrient finds it’s way into your diet, especially protein! Animal proteins are full sources of all amino acids, but we have to stack plant diets to get those same amino acids. That is why the most important factor to take into account with a plant-based protein is the variability of the protein sources and the nutrients that it holds 5! The absolute best plant-based protein blend on the market right now is PERFECT Sports DIESEL Vegan, without a doubt. It’s packed with 6 ancient organic grains and 5-blanaced protein sources like Organic Buckwheat, Quinoa, Amaranth, Oat Bran, Millet, Chia, Fava Bean, Canadian Pea protein, sprouted brown rice protein, organic pumpkin seed protein – the list goes on and on! You really can’t miss with this option if you’re choosing a plant-based protein blend.
What to look for and what to avoid in a protein powder
Now that we’re on the topic of ingredients, let’s take a look at some of the important considerations you’ll need to make beyond the source of protein. While you may be tempted to grab a tub of the banana or cookie flavoured whey protein that’s catching your eye, you may want to take a look at what’s inside… not all protein powders are created equal! There are a few things you’ll want to consider before jumping the gun and buying the best-tasting flavour:
What to look for
- Bioavailability: If you want to build and repair muscles, you need a protein that’s actually going to do its job, which means your body needs to be able to absorb it. If it’s not absorbed, it can’t be used, so you need a protein that’s bioavailable. Most animal proteins have a high bioavailability, whereas plant-based proteins are somewhat less. But in any case, ensure that the protein is complete, meaning it contains all essential amino acids needed to efficiently and effectively stimulate muscle protein synthesis and build functional proteins.
- Clean: When it comes to fitness supplements – you want to make sure it’s free of junk–artificial sweeteners, flavours, colours, bulking agents, and thickeners. What you see on the label is the only thing you want to be getting, and you want that ingredient list to be as short as possible. With supplements, less is sometimes more. Look for certifications like the European Dairy Certification and Informed Choice Checkmark to ensure that the products are top quality – each of these are extremely thorough and trustworthy certifications of quality.
- Serving size: How much protein are you actually getting in one scoop of your serving? You don’t want to be loading up on protein, so look for one that’s actually going to be worth its while and give you a decent amount of protein. If it’s any less than 15-20g per scoop, put it back.
- Taste: Besides having a protein powder that works, you want one that tastes good. No one wants to knock back a scoop of cardboard tasting chalk, so make sure you’re buying one you like that’s still free of nasty ingredients. Choose natural and non-artificial flavours to keep it clean! DIESEL is very good for natural flavours!
What to avoid
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners: If you look at the ingredients on most conventional fitness supplements you’ll probably be bombarded with all sorts of ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Sweeteners like Aspartame can have negative effects on your health and should be avoided when possible.
- Vegetable oils and other long-chain fats: Some types of fats are one thing you don’t want in a protein powder because they could slow down the absorption of amino acids, but they’re often added to supplements to increase richness and creaminess, especially in something like a protein powder. Aside from impeding absorption, the fats in these supplements are often hydrogenated and contain trans fats, which are substantially more harmful than any other type of fat. Fats that are OK in this respect are ones like
A protein powder is necessary as a tool in an athlete’s stack, when in conjunction with an already healthy diet – it can come in handy during times when maybe you need to increase your protein intake, or you’re in a crunch for time and need something quick after training. And while protein plays a major role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis for growth and repair of tissues, that’s not the only role it has, so getting enough daily is critical to support optimal body function.
Whether you’re looking for an animal-based protein or a plant-based protein, you want to ensure it’s highly bioavailable and as clean as you can find for the best and most effective results.
Shea Pierre – Coach and Owner of Pierre’s Elite Performance
A Father & Loving Husband First, Sports Performance Coach, Former Professional Football Player, Entrepreneur and Motivator. Shea went from training athletes in his basement, to being head college strength and condition coach to be the head strength and conditioning coach of the Toronto Argonauts. He has now spread his knowledge to 50,000+ elite athletes worldwide and continues to be a go-to strength coach for professional athletes.
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