The Proteins That Made Me a Better Athlete

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The sheer number of protein powders popping up in the past few years is staggering. Just a few decades ago, there were all but three types of protein powders to mix into a post-workout shake, whey, casein and egg protein powder, which many still swear by to this day. Are they still effective? Absolutely. Are they for everyone? No. which is what I hope to shed some light on in this article. As an athlete, or someone with an interest in fitness, you want the protein you consume to improve performance or increase muscle mass, which is what I discovered on my journey.

I run a company called Anabolic Health, which is aimed at helping men reach their health and performance goals through optimizing hormonal health. After experimenting with supplements and how they affect important biomarkers for physical performance (such as growth hormone; IGF-1) for well over 12 years, I've come to the conclusion that all proteins are not the same. Protein can be somewhat of an enigma in the health and fitness world — a world that’s filled with opinions, with vegetarian advocates telling us to back off on it for longevity, while the world of sports clings to it as essential for muscle repair and recovery. Which side do we take?

What has worked for me and my clients is to end up somewhere in between on the spectrum of protein intake. What everybody needs to know first off, is that all proteins are not the same. You're only going to eat so much of it in a day, so make sure you get it from a type that goes in line with your goals, let me break it down for you.

Choosing a Protein

Whey

By default, when you’re going to purchase a protein supplement for the first time, a whey-based product is virtually the gold standard. My experience with whey has been extremely good. It is a milk-based protein, offering a complete spectrum of essential amino acids and delivers on average 22 g per scoop. And while whey is ranked number one in the world of protein powders, it does have its limitations.

For example, I found that whey could heavily affect blood sugar levels and can spike insulin quite a bit. Even though it is “low carb,” the body has a way of converting some amino acids in usable glucose if the need arises. This means if you’re a diabetic, you need to pay close attention to patterns in blood sugar levels relating to its consumption. Secondly, if you cannot tolerate lactose, whey may need to be eliminated.

Whey protein works best when you need fast protein absorption, such as following your workout and immediately upon waking in the morning. This helps keep protein synthesis at its peak and the highly insulinogenic effect of whey helps shuttle amino acids into muscle.

Casein

Casein ranks in second place when it comes to protein powders, also derived from milk, having much of the same nutritional profile as whey. However, there are some notable differences. The most important one being its speed of action. In contrast to whey, which enters the blood stream very fast, casein takes a long time to be fully absorbed.

Thus, the time I primarily recommend casein is when I know I may not be able to get a scheduled meal on time, and before bed to prevent muscle catabolism during sleep or prolonged periods without a meal. According to anecdotal reports, it also stacks well with your post-workout whey shake, as it can increase protein synthesis.

Vegan proteins

Soy

If you started working out in the 80s or early 90s, chances are good that you used a lot of soy protein. Even though I didn’t start working out that early, I was still exposed to soy. It was cheap and available everywhere so it had to be good, right? Wrong! At least when it comes to men.

The two things that turned me off from soy before I knew much about it was the fact that it resulted in “subpar” results for me, and seemed to increase my nipple sensitivity. This is not normal in men, and something that should have sent off alarms. But being young, you take things for granted. Fast forward, science and medicine has discovered that soy shares a chemical structure resembling the female hormone estrogen, which can result in effects mimicking this female hormone once in the body.

Trust me. As a man, you do not want excessive estrogen levels — your sex drive can suffer, muscle gains can stall, and fat accumulation will increase. If you’re a woman, soy is OK. But men, please say no. Vegetarians and vegans have a much harder time meeting their protein needs, so be sure to consciously consider how you plan to meet your nutrition goals.

Insect proteins

Cricket

When is the last time you had some crickets with dinner? If you’re like 99 percent of the people I know, the puzzled expression I get from the question says it all. But what if I told you it’s not crazy at all? I’ve found that western cultures are more likely to stick to “orthodox” diets comprised of your typical diet fare. But in the east, anything goes.

In Asia, they have been eating insects for centuries, and it seems like the trend is slowly permeating the west. But before I go into it, the burning question everyone wants answered is: “What does it taste like?” Don’t let your imagination go wild. It’s nothing like you’d imagine. The best way to describe the taste is like that of mild peanuts. Mild because it is barely there. The texture is somewhere in between that of a smooth powder and a slightly coarser one (think of between milk power and chocolate powder), but still mixes easily.

While dairy proteins are still my top pick for muscle growth, if you have a lactose allergy, cricket protein powder can easily become your trump card. Cricket protein is significantly richer in protein on a gram-per-gram basis than even milk or beef, which means that you can consume a smaller serving and get comparable amounts of protein.

What might make insect protein superior, however, is its nutritional density — insects are incredibly rich and diverse in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and can be very effective in combating under-nutrition. The only thing is that it is not as cheap as whey, but that might change as more people start eating crickets.

Collagen

Most people underestimate the utility of collagen protein (derived from gelatin). To be honest, I did too until I actually bit the bullet and started consuming it regularly. To set the confusion to rest, collagen can and should be taken as you would any other protein powder. It can also be used in combination with any other protein source, as traditional diets were higher in gelatin then our diets are today (we focus mostly on muscle meats nowadays).

Consuming collagen means you will suffer less from joint or connective tissue issues, as collagen protein is anti-inflammatory because of its glycine content, and also contains less of the pro-inflammatory amino acid cysteine. It is not my primary protein source, but I do take 2 tablespoons per day to experience its unique insurance benefits on my joints while practicing resistance training. In addition, there are many other benefits to be had from collagen concerning anti-aging, such as reduction of wrinkles, improved hair growth, and deeper sleep.

There are lots more

The ones mentioned above are among the best options out there, though egg protein powders should also be given an honorable mention. Here are some of the less common ones you might also see in your local store:

  • Quinoa
  • Flaxseed
  • Chia Seed Powder
  • Domesticated Silkworm Powder
  • African Palm Weevil Larvae Powder

The final verdict

Depending on your individual goals, the actual proteins you consume can vary greatly. If you are after muscle gains, and you are not lactose intolerant, dairy-based proteins, such as whey or casein, are superior for their ability to elevate IGF-1 levels. IGF-1 is a strong anabolic hormone and will result in muscle hypertrophy.

But it’s not all good. Yes, IGF-1 will build you muscle and milk-based proteins can actually prolong your life (as boosting IGF-1 levels leads to a stronger anti-aging effect), but if you are at high risk of cancer they may not be ideal. IGF-1 promotes tissue growth, which can be less than ideal in individuals with a predisposition for cancer.

I would categorize the best proteins like this:

  • Whey/casein protein: athletes
  • Collagen/gelatin protein: athletes, women and seniors
  • Insect protein: people with diseases/issues that require adequate orextra nutrition

All in all, if you can and your physiology allows it, mix it up. Many proteins have unique traits not found in others, so looking at it merely from the angle of protein grams per serving is shallow. I personally use whey, casein, collagen, and cricket from time to time, to increase muscle protein synthesis, safeguard my health, and reduce reliance on any one type. It’s worked up to now, why not try it yourself?

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