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Experts say a high-protein diet is the key to losing weight, but what are the differences in protein sources, and why does it matter? Our healthy living columnist explains.

What is the best when it comes to protein powders? As a nutrition supplement, protein offers one of the biggest bangs for your buck and is most convenient. Protein powders are everywhere; it’s plentiful at every grocery store. You can even find them at gas stations. Plus, food companies are becoming “smarter” by marketing more protein in their products. Thirty-five grams of protein per serving compared to 20? Whoa – that must mean more muscle or faster weight loss! Isn’t that how it goes? More protein means better quality and better results? Not even close.

I feel protein is seen as that miracle supplement that will shed weight and keep you full. Plenty of research does support it can promote both, but it’s not absolute. It’s much more than that. Therefore, what’s the best and healthiest option? There are different protein powders for a reason, and it’s largely based on one’s goals and preferences, not just for taste and the highest amount you can consume at once. So before you make the investment in another giant tub of powder, you ought to first understand some basic protein principles.

Most realize protein helps with muscle synthesis and growth, but there’s more to it. Like carbohydrates and fat, protein is a critical macronutrient your body needs daily. Protein can also help with repairing damaged cells and tissue throughout the body, synthesizing hormones, and is supportive in metabolic activities. Despite these important reasons to include protein in your diet, a main reason why protein is in the media is because it provides satiety to aid in weight loss. Since protein helps you stay full, it makes it easier to stay within an ideal caloric range.

Just as carbohydrates come in different forms (simple and complex carbs; fibrous and starchy carbs), there are different protein sources that have different effects on metabolism and exercise performance. Having an understanding of eating the right kind of protein at the right point in your routine, you can maximize its benefits and your goals. I’ll focus on three of the most common protein sources found in stores today: whey, casein, and pea. Do keep in mind the principles are the same for sources, such as soy, dairy, beef, hemp, and rice.

Whey Protein
This is among the most widely consumed protein supplements. It comes from the translucent, liquid part of milk that’s left over from cheese-making and is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the amino acids humans need.

Whey is a fast-digesting protein because once consumed, your stomach assimilates it quickly. This leads to an increased rise in the amino acids circulating in your blood, making it a good choice for a post-workout snack. About 1-2 hours after you exercise, your body experiences a spike in protein synthesis, during which it works harder to repair the muscles you worked. If you consume whey within 60 minutes of your workout, your body can quickly absorb the amino acids to take advantage of this anabolic window and supply your body with what it needs.

Unless you plan to sip whey throughout the day and evening, its quick-absorption make it less than ideal for a mid-day snack or meal replacement. That’s where most protein powders are a fusion of whey and whey protein isolate, or casein, to slow down the absorption; therefore, you feel fuller longer and maintain a steadier, positive nitrogen balance for your muscles (to encourage growth).

Casein Protein
The cousin of whey; casein is the main protein component in cow’s milk. It, too, is a complete protein. Unlike whey, which is quickly digested, casein forms a gel once it reaches the stomach. As you could predict, this chemical reaction makes it relatively insoluble, so it takes the body longer to break down. This is a similar reaction when eating insoluble fiber. Casein is a slow-digesting protein, therefore. It provides a steady release of amino acids over several hours. Having said that, casein can still be another good option as a post-workout snack.

Studies have found a synergistic effect to be created when whey and casein are combined. Classically, taking whey within 60 minutes of your work out and then taking casein right before bed is the ideal combination. Because of its steady release, casein helps create an “anti-catabolic” environment in your body when you body synthesizes protein. The nature of casein provides a steady supply of amino acids to make the most of that window and promote muscle growth/recovery.

Caution, caution, caution: both pure whey and casein come from cow’s milk, so neither is well suited for individuals with dairy allergies. The more isolated the whey protein is, the better it’s tolerated.

Pea Protein
For the unlucky ones who cannot tolerate dairy, here comes their salvation. Pea protein has been appearing on store shelves more frequently, and it’s an excellent alternative to traditional protein sources if allergies exist or if an individual prefers plant-based nutrition. Pea protein holds middle ground as it is digested at a medium rate, providing satiety levels that are about the same as whey and casein. Therefore, it can be used as either a post-workout supplement or meal replacement. One downside to pea protein is that it isn’t a complete protein and shouldn’t be used as your main source of dietary protein. It is a supplement after all.

Even with all the existing protein supplements on the market – and there are many – research continues to flourish with new sources and combinations. You can even buy beef-based or egg white-based protein powders. Therefore, explore what’s out there. Be curious about learning and what can maximize your health and fitness goals. Unlike a lot of over-hyped, unsafe supplements, protein really does help within context. Since you’re going to be eating it anyways to stay alive, you might as well make smart protein choices that help meet your goals.

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