Protein Supplements: Everything You Want to Know (and the biggest mistake I see athletes make!)
After posting last week’s Wellness Wednesday Blog, which was focused on meal replacement smoothies, I got a lot of questions about protein powders!
First off, questions are GREAT! I love to hear them, so keep them coming. They help me tailor my information to YOU. But I realized that a quick post on social media wouldn’t suffice for a topic as large as protein powders, so I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to it.
First, let me be CRYSTAL CLEAR that in most circumstances, I am a REAL FOOD FIRST person.
Typically, the less processing we do to any natural food, the more nutrient dense that food will remain. That means, not only will we get our dose of protein, but we will also benefit from the other nutrients in that food such as vitamins and minerals. Both which are important in the utilization of the macronutrients, including protein!
Just check out the chart below from Stephan van Vliet, who conducted a review of research with colleagues on the efficacy of whole foods supporting muscle remodeling and recovery:
Now that I’ve talked a bit about the importance of real food taking the front seat, let’s get real!
Sometimes eating a real food meal, especially post workout, isn't always an option for a variety of reasons. That means, our second best option is a meal replacement smoothie you make from scratch with as many real food ingredients as possible.
It's pretty easy to get a natural liquid base (homemade nut milk, coffee, tea, or even plain water), natural fiber (from things like chia seeds, ground flax meal, and vegetables), natural carbohydrates (from things like cooked sweet potato, cauliflower and leafy greens), and even natural fats (from things like raw nuts, seeds and avocado).
But protein. Who wants to blend a steak into a smoothie.
Enter, the protein powders!
Since we're trying to stay as close to REAL FOOD as we possibly can, I'm going to avoid even talking about protein powders that are full of chemicals and additives. You know, the ones made with junky ingredients such as gluten, soy, dextrins (such as maltodextrin), artificial sweeteners (such as saccharin), thickeners and gums (such as cellulose and xanthan gums) and emulsifiers (such as polysorbate 80).
These ingredients are usually added to protein powders to improve the flavor and to make the powder mix easier, but they often come with a price of gastrointestinal distress, inflammation, headaches, bloating, and even disrupt our hormone balance. Those are the things I highly recommend you steer clear of.
There are so many great natural options out there like whey, casein, hydrolyzed beef, hemp, pea, and rice. I really don't see the point in using a bunch of synthetic ingredients.
So, let's look at the different protein powder options (pros and cons) and you can decide which is best for you and your needs....
A PRIMER ON PROTEIN
Before we get into the powders...we have to talk about protein itself!
Protein is a macronutrient (along with carbohydrates and fats) that we consume in our diet. As a food, proteins are comprised of long chains of amino acids.
These individual amino acids are what are taken up by cells throughout our body to do their jobs at that particular location. Whole proteins can not be taken up by cells, they MUST BE broken down!
That means, a HUUUUUUUUUGE part of making sure our body has all the protein it requires is having optimal digestive function! We can be consuming all of the protein we need but if our GI tract isn’t digesting it properly, we won’t be able to utilize them (I’ll save the topic of digestion for a whole other post!)
There are 20 different amino acids that make up all the different types of proteins in our diet. Out of these 20, 9 are considered essential. That means we have to get them from our diet, in the right quantities, in order to be healthy. The other 11 amino acids can be manufactured by our body.
The only food sources that naturally contain all 9 essential amino acids come from animals, such as meat, dairy and eggs.
Plant foods contain some of the essential amino acids, but not all of them. If animal based foods are being avoided in the diet, eating a wide variety of plant sources is recommended to ensure you get all 9 essential amino acids in the diet from different plant sources.
POST WORKOUT RECOVERY IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE WORKOUT ITSELF
The fact is that we all workout in order to create a healthy stress on our body, but the GAINS from that workout comes from that workout's recovery!
Yes, you read that right. We break down muscle during our workout, and build it up in our kitchens and our beds!
AFTER the workout has finished, our body does the biggest job of all...it adapts to stresses from that workout. It's trying to respond to the stress you just created by making metabolic changes so next time that same stress is created, you are more equipped to handle it (in other words, you are stronger next time).
For example, in the time after a workout, protein synthesis increases, muscle fibers are rebuilt, fluid is restored to help deliver nutrients to organs and muscles, and metabolic waste products (such as the acids built up during a workout) are eliminated.
So many endurance athletes spend so much time focusing on nutrition during their workout, and completely fail to address the most important fueling (AND HYDRATING) window of all...post workout.
Now of course there is more to optimizing recovery than just food (like sleep, hydration, and stress reduction), but for this conversation, we are going to focus solely on protein intake post workout.
WHAT DO AMINO ACIDS HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Extensive research has been done on optimizing post workout recovery and much of the evidence keeps coming back to protein. Besides supporting the rebuilding of muscle, protein intake shortly after a workout can actually help with the development of new muscle.
Much of the benefits we experience from protein is due to amino acids. Besides being considered the “building blocks of protein”, our body needs the full spectrum of amino acids (all 20) to build cells, support muscle growth, and promote energy production.
As I already mentioned, our body can make 11 of the amino acids. That means we want our post workout focus to be on consuming all 9 essential amino acids (EAA) that our body CANNOT produce.
Of those 9 EAA's, 35% of what makes up our muscles are the three “Branched Chain Amino Acids” (BCAA).
These BCAA's help preserve muscle glycogen stores and reduce the amount of protein breakdown. When it comes to muscle growth and recovery, leucine has been shown to be the most important BCAA of all while Isoleucine has been shown to play a role in blood sugar regulation.
All of these amino acids (essential and non-essential) are present in different amounts in different types of protein sources. But since getting an adequate amount of them in post workout is key to optimizing recovery, just eating protein isn't always going to cut it.
Making sure you are consuming a protein source that has a complete complex of essential amino acids, and especially high in leucine, can optimize recovery.
Foods that are naturally rich in leucine include:
But if you aren't able to do this due to time constrictions or preferring a plant based diet, protein powders can come in handy!
MY PROTEIN POWDER TIPS!
To get the most out of your protein powder, you need to know WHAT benefit you are trying to get out of it.
It is always best to pick a protein powder that you love, that loves your body back, and meets your health and fitness goals.
Sure, whey protein has been hailed by many as the best protein powder out there, but if your body doesn't like whey, it is NOT the best one FOR YOU.
Here is my list of favorite protein powders, for different goals, as well as their pro’s and con’s:
GOAL = WEIGHT LOSS
Casein is a slow digesting dairy protein that is often considered by many as a "time release" protein. Casein makes up approximately 80% of milk protein (the other 20% being whey).
MY FAVORITE BRAND:
Naked Nutrition Micellar Casein Protein Powder which is made from rBGH free dairy cows from the US. It is gluten free, soy free and made with non-GMO ingredients. It has no Artificial Sweeteners, Flavors, or Colors.
GOAL = MUSCLE GROWTH
Option #1 - WHEY PROTEIN
Whey protein is the other 20% of protein derived from dairy sources. Research has consistently shown that whey protein powder is the best for promoting muscle growth and recovery.
Excessive consumption of whey protein can potentially cause digestive distress. Similarly, many people have a dairy sensitivity, and some don't even know they have it. If your body doesn't love dairy, using whey protein powder can create an underlying level of inflammation that will negate the benefits of working out!
MY FAVORITE BRAND:
Vital Proteins Organic Whey which is a cold pressed organic whey protein, with no added ingredients or fillers. It has 5g of BCAAs and a complete complex of amino acids in each serving.
Option #2 - HYDROLYZED BEEF PROTEIN
A protein derived from an infusion process of beef that preserves critical nutrients, amino acids, peptides, nucleotide fractions, vitamins and minerals. It’s a complete protein derived from a 100% natural, Non-GMO, raw beef with absolutely no hormones or other additives.
It contains less leucine than whey protein does (and remember, leucine is the BCAA known to support muscle building and recovery)
It often doesn't blend well without a blender and it can become gelatinous fairly easily when it has sat for a few hours. So, if you blend your smoothie in the morning before your workout, let it sit, then go to drink it later, you may need a spoon.
MY FAVORITE BRANDS:
Equip Prime Protein which is gluten, dairy and soy free; made from hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef; has no artificial flavors or preservatives; and is made from just 3 ingredients: grass-fed beef, natural cocoa powder and stevia.
GOAL = MEET THE DAILY REQUIREMENTS FOR PROTEIN... without eating a bunch of meat!
MIXED PLANT PROTEIN POWDERS
Since we're aiming for complete amino acid profiles, and no plant source has this by itself, it is best to look for a protein powder that has blended 2 or more of the following plant proteins. This ensures that you obtain the adequate amino acids needed by your body post workout:
These blended protein powders are free from animal products for those that are looking for a vegetarian or vegan option.
These blended protein powders are often blended with many other fillers too, so read the labels carefully!
MY FAVORITE BRAND:
Thorne MediPro Vegan protein supplement which has a complete multi-vitamin/mineral, digestive enzymes and probiotics. MediPro Vegan is more like a multi-vitamin/mineral daily protein supplement, which makes it great for a meal replacement shake. It also contains a complete amino acid profile, so it is great for a post workout shake.
COLLAGEN... A BIG NO NO!
I can't leave this post without addressing the BIGGEST MISTAKE I see athletes make when using a protein based shake post workout.
And that is...using collagen as their only protein source post workout.
The reason for this is that collagen protein, although being the most abundant protein in our body, is made up of a different mix of amino acids and does not include all essential amino acids. Collagen is high in three amino acids - glycine, proline and hydroxyproline - which are important to building collagen in your body, a protein that provides strength and structure.
Whereas post workout protein focuses on building and repairing muscle, collagen intake leads to improved connective tissue function. This actually lends itself to supporting muscle and can help in the post workout recovery process. However, you still need a complete source of protein to support protein synthesis and exercise performance otherwise you’ll have strong connective tissue without any muscle to support.
You can certainly continue to use collagen post workout, but timing of collagen intake is less important than timing of a complete protein source. So if your goal is to improve athletic performance, gain muscle, or lose fat, then utilizing one of the protein sources I listed above should be priority whereas collagen can be used as an additional support supplement.
If I am being honest, I can write tons more on the topic of protein and protein supplements. But at least now you have a fantastic starting point to understand why a complete protein post workout is essential to reaching goals and what sources of protein are best for you to choose from.
Personally, my body doesn't love dairy. My protein powder of choice right now is the Equip Prime Protein and I will add in a scoop of Clean Carb Vanilla if I need some added carbohydrate and I can’t add in a real food option, like a green tipped banana or pre-cooked sweet potato. I use a little battery operated handheld blender (like THIS ONE) to mix it up , but honestly, it is still a little chunky.
There are so many great, natural protein powders out there. Do you have a favorite that I didn't mention? Leave me note in the comments about which one you use. I'd love to give it a try!
We’ve made it to the end of the month! Which means, many of us are on our final days of our New Year’s detoxes, cleanses, dry January, etc.
How exciting is that?
I am very much an advocate for doing diet based resets throughout the year. They allow you to give your body a break, as well as yourself! Because technically, when you limit your diet, you also want to focus on slowing down a bit and giving yourself some love.
I just finished a 15 day liver detox myself that included 2 shakes per day. The focus over the course of this detox was lifting the burden off of my liver so that it can rest and re-energize. (If you want to learn more about my particular program, you can click here to shoot me an email).
The shakes, which were used as meal replacements, were packed full of nutrients! This allowed me to eat minimally while still getting in the appropriate nutrients to support my body’s natural detoxifying capabilities.
Now here’s the truth: by day 15, I was completely sick of the flavor of these shakes and so glad to be moving on to more dynamic real food meals!
But what I found was that it didn't take long before I was missing the ease of a so-called “meal in a bottle”!
I know I'm not the only one who is busy and needs a quick meal in liquid form from time to time, so I wanted to talk a little bit about making meal replacement shakes/smoothies that you can use in the long term. Not just during a detox or reset!
Meal replacement shakes certainly have their place, but in certain circumstances, they shouldn't be used. I want to make sure we’re clear on when that is!
On the flip side, they are incredibly convenient and can be a great way to get a ton of nutrients into a small, easy to drink meal.
REAL FOOD SHAKES OVER STORE BOUGHT SHAKES
I’m sure most of you are thinking “oh, I just buy X brand!”. Yes, there are so many brands of pre-packaged meal replacement shakes available on the market. But have you looked at the ingredients?
If I am going to be relying on these more often, I want to know that the ingredients in the shake are just as high quality as the food I put on my plate.
So since I have yet to find the perfect pre-packaged meal replacement drink (maybe it exists? If you found it, please let me know!) I am going to continue buying clean ingredients and making my own.
Yes, I hear you over there shouting “but you can just buy a smoothie at a smoothie shop!”
Of course I can, but again...have you ever looked at the nutrition facts of a fruit smoothie from somewhere like Jamba Juice (or really any place similar to it)?
I agree, they're super tasty! You know why? Because they are overloaded with SUGAR!
For example let's look at their Whirl'd Famous Mango-a-go-go Smoothie: a small (16oz) has 73g of carbohydrate, which includes 63g of sugar!!!!
OMG! That one small drink has over 3x more sugar than the FDA recommends a woman get in an entire day!!!!
And in liquid form which means it's going to hit the bloodstream FAST!
Talk about cutting the entire line and jumping on the blood sugar roller coaster! And just as fast as your blood sugar goes up, it will come shooting down leading you to experience excessive hunger and reaching for MORE SUGAR!
That's not the type of meal replacement smoothie I'm talking about here.
MAKING YOUR OWN NUTRIENT DENSE
Let's explore how to make a balanced smoothie that can act as a meal replacement that is low sugar and perfectly suitable during a REAL FOOD RESET… and beyond!
TIME SAVING TIP
Use small mason jars to pre-measure all of your dry ingredients at the start of the week. If that sounds annoying to you or like it isn’t going to save THAT much time, just try it!
You will be glad you did that prep when throwing your smoothie together at the last minute! Every minute counts when we are trying to get out the door.
THE PROS AND CONS
As with anything in the nutrition world, meal replacement shakes are NOT for everyone!
So let’s go through a few scenarios where meal replacements could be a great idea and then talk about when they might be a bad idea!
If you aren’t sure and want more guidance, let’s get on the phone!
WHEN MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA
When you have poor digestion. Blending real food into liquid form is a little bit like thoroughly chewing your food, which is always great for digestion!
Especially since so many of us shovel food into our mouths! Smoothies can act like a shortcut for you!
When you are in a hurry. Consuming your meal in 5 minutes is awesome when you don't have time to chew an entire meal like a salad.
That being said, try not to guzzle your smoothie! Drink it slowly so that you don’t overburden your system.
Sure it’s pre-chewed due to blending but can you imagine what your body would feel like if you just ate an avocado, spinach and a banana all at the same time? Yeah, not great!
So don’t slurp it down all in one shot. Take your time with it as much as you can!
When you need to get a lot of nutrients into a small meal. If made properly, you can pack a serious nutrient punch into a smoothie.
Even more exciting, for those of you who aren’t fans of leafy greens, smoothies can be the perfect place to hide them and reap their benefits without having to actually “eat” them!
When you need to get a lot of calories in. This is great for people who need to gain weight.
By adding full fat nut milks, MCT and other healthy fats, along with raw nut butters, you can make a seriously caloric dense meal replacement!
WHEN MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES AREN'T SUCH
A GOOD IDEA
When you have poor digestion. I know, I just said it was great for that. But the problem with DRINKING your meal is that you aren't chewing your food!
Chewing is a signal to our brain and digestive organs to release digestive enzymes and juices like hydrochloric acid into our stomach to help break the food down.
Without chewing, we get less enzyme release which is problematic for digestion. If you have poor digestion and want to use meal replacement smoothies, consider taking a digestive enzyme complete with your smoothie.
When you are in a hurry. Your body can only properly digest food when your parasympathetic nervous system (aka - rest and digest system) is active!
So just as I mentioned above, while shakes are quick and easy to put together, you still want to drag out the time it takes to drink them so that you don’t hit your system with too much too quickly!
This will allow your digestive system to actually work through the contents of your smoothie.
When you forget that a complete meal includes fiber and fat. Fiber and fat are the 2 most commonly forgotten nutrients in a meal replacement shake.
A complete meal is NOT just carbs and protein (that’s more of a post workout shake, which I will get to below).
If you are going to be making meal replacement shakes, you absolutely have to replace the nutrients you’d normally get in a real food meal so that you do not end up malnourished!
When you are trying to be mindful about eating too much. You can pack A LOT of calories into a smoothie if you aren't careful, so if you are trying to be mindful about caloric intake, pay attention to your ingredients and their quantities.
This is especially important with things like nut butters, avocados, bananas, and even seeds!
When the bulk of your meal replacement shake is mostly processed foods. The idea behind a meal replacement shake is to, well, replace your ACTUAL meal.
This means REAL foods need to make up the bulk of your ingredients. If you do choose to use powdered mixes, pay attention to the ingredients.
My suggestion is to only use those powders that are made from real foods that have been processed into powders.
While this is still technically a “processed food”, it is still okay! If you think of it on a “good-better-best scale”, drinking quality nutrients, even if it includes some not ideal ingredients is GOOD; clean (chemical free) powdered real food is BETTER; and REAL food is BEST!
MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES VS POST WORKOUT
There is a difference between a meal replacement smoothie and post workout shake to get necessary recovery nutrients in.
Again, if we are truly going to be replacing a meal, we must consider all of the nutrients we would be getting from food and translate those into our smoothie!
However, a post workout refuel shake is different. This is when we typically focus on replenishing lost glycogen and utilizing protein to help build and recover our muscles.
From time to time, I will mix together a post workout shake that is very basic:
30g whole food carbs
I hardly call that a meal replacement because it's lacking a lot of healthy meal necessities like vegetables, fiber and fat.
And that is okay because post workout recovery shakes are considered “snacks” that can be used to provide the appropriate recovery nutrients while knowing you are a few hours away from a real food meal!
MY FAVORITE SMOOTHIE RECIPE (of the moment!)
I wouldn't dare leave you with at least one recipe for inspiration so I am sharing with you my current favorite recipe for meal replacement shakes:
1/2 cup Native Forest Coconut Milk Simple (or another whole fat coconut milk free of guar gum)
1 scoop Designs for Health PurePaleo Protein Unflavored (or another clean protein powder)
1 handful organic greens (spinach, or chard)
2 tbsp raw cocoa powder
1/2 green tipped banana
1 tbsp chia seeds
1 tsp organic Dr. Formulated Brain Health MCT oil (or other organic MCT oil that is mostly C8)
1 tsp beet root powder (or 1/2 cup roasted beets)
Water and ice to desired consistency
Still unsure about this whole approach?
Let’s chat - we can get on a free discovery call to discuss what your goals are and if meal replacement drinks are appropriate for you!
Tiana Rockwell is a certified nutritional therapist, avid endurance athlete and dark chocolate lover. She believes that by eating REAL food, we can balance our body and reach optimal health and wellness!