Best Protein Supplement Guide: Powders, Gainers & Meal Replacement

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If you’ve been looking for the ultimate guide on protein supplements, look no further.

This guide will begin by discussing the basics of protein as a macronutrient, and information on protein supplements. We’ll then provide information on, and compare and contrast a comprehensive list of protein supplement sources.

Afterwards, this guide will discuss how to find the right protein powder for your needs. You will also learn how to best implement protein supplements based on your goals. Lastly, you’ll have access to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about protein and protein supplements, as well as the references used to create this guide.

Without further ado, let’s delve in to the basics of protein as a macronutrient.

Protein 101

Protein ScooperWhat is Protein?

Protein is a chain of amino acids found in every cell within the human body. Often called the “building blocks of life,” protein is an essential macronutrient. This means it’s necessary for survival. [1]

Proteins make up nearly 50% of a cell’s dry weight and are more complex than both carbohydrate and fat molecules. [2] Protein has roughly 4 calories per gram. You may have read that the human only requires 20 amino acids to create thousands of protein variations, but scientists recently discovered a 21st amino acid. [3]

The table below shows the three different amino acids classifications, corresponding definitions, and corresponding amino acids that fall within each category:

Amino Acids
Amino Acid Category Definition Amino Acids
Essential Cannot be created by the human body and must be obtained via food Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine
Nonessential Can be created by the human body using essential amino acids or obtained via normal breakdown of protein sources Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic Acid, and Glutamic Acid
Conditionally Essential Needed when the body is undergoing exceptional stress or illness Arginine, Cysteine, Glutamine, Tyrosine, Glycine, Ornithine, Proline, and Serine

Protein sources can either be complete or incomplete. A complete protein source contains adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids whereas an incomplete protein source contains significantly low levels of one or more of those nine essential amino acids. [4] You can add a complementary protein source to make an incomplete protein source “complete.” This complementary protein source has larger amounts of the amino acids lacking in the incomplete protein source.

Now that we’ve discussed protein in general, let’s delve in to its health benefits.

mts-whey

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Benefits of Protein

As previously mentioned, protein is an essential macronutrient that your body needs to survive. Beyond its life-sustaining properties, let’s examine the benefits of protein. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the benefits of protein: [5] [6] [7]

  • Helps body to repair and create new cells
  • Supports normal growth and development in children, teens, pregnant women
  • Enhances immune function and recovery
  • Acts as building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, blood, enzymes, hormones, vitamins
  • Increases ease of muscle mass gain (in a caloric surplus), fat loss (in a caloric deficit), and strength gains
  • Decreases hunger pangs, caloric intake, body fat, risk of osteoporosis, blood pressure, and recovery periods due to injury
  • Improves brain function, quality of sleep, bone density, and tendon strength

In short, protein is an exceptional macronutrient with a plethora of benefits. Now let’s examine the optimal protein intake to ensure you maximize these benefits without gaining unnecessary fat. (Spoiler Alert – More isn’t always better!)

Recommended Protein Intake

When you ask 100 people about the optimal protein intake, you’ll likely receive 101 different answers. The recommended protein intake is largely influence by activity, bodyweight and fitness goal(s).

The United States Center of Disease Control and Prevention recommends 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men ages 19 to 70+. These numbers are quite low and fail to account for differences in bodyweight; we can assume that these are absolute baseline recommendations for sedentary individuals to maintain what little muscle they have and ensure normal growth and development.

One study suggests that “The daily requirement for dietary protein is defined as the minimum amount resulting in a whole-body net balance of zero.” [8] If you’re an active individual looking to increase lean mass consuming 0.68-1 gram per pound/1.5-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a good goal. [9] For those looking to maximize fat loss whilst preserving lean mass should consume 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram/1.05-1.41 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. [10]

When researchers compared the required protein intake to maintain nitrogen balance (nitrogen intake minus nitrogen loss), a key indicator of homeostasis, bodybuilders required 1.12 times and endurance athletes required 1.67 times as much protein as sedentary individuals. This study further confirms that athletes need more protein than the CDC baseline. [11]

At 4 calories per gram, protein can be a delicious source of extra calories, but you’re not going to gain significantly more lean mass if you consume 1+ grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. However, unless you have pre-existing renal disease, you shouldn’t worry if you consume more than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. [12] This excess protein, if not used for protein synthesis and recovery, will be converted to glucose which the body uses for short-term, easily-available energy.

One study compared consuming 4.4 grams to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight and found that those in the 4.4g/kg/day did not gain any more lean mass. [13] Consuming 2+ grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is taxing on the wallet and typically only beneficial if you’re on performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS).

Quest bars top the list as the best-selling protein bar on the market. With 17 flavors to choose from, you’re sure to find more than a few that satisfy your cravings. Learn more by clicking here.

Protein’s Impact on Lean Mass

Adequate protein intake is a key driver of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is a crucial component for lean mass gain. Muscle growth occurs when muscle protein synthesis is greater than muscle protein breakdown (MPB). [14] Consuming adequate amounts of protein ensures MPS remains greater than MPB during the majority of the day.

There’s a direct relationship between the frequency of consuming quality protein sources (those which provide at least 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs)) and lean mass (LM), bone mineral density (BMD), and body mineral content (BMC). [15] The more times participants consumed at least 10g of EAA per meal in a 24-hour period, the higher the LM, BMD, and BMC values.

Another study also confirms that amino acids, specifically EAAs, are the primary stimulators for MPS; it also found that non-essential amino acids don’t affect MPS. [16] To reiterate, EAAs include the following: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine.

During the normal aging process MPS rates decline, which can quickly allow MPB rates to be larger, which leads to lean mass loss. Additional research indicates that a per-meal leucine intake of 3 to 4 grams promotes maximum MPS. [17] For those looking to prevent and potentially reverse lean mass loss, you should regularly (re: daily) consume high-quality protein sources. [18]

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of protein for lean mass gain and preservation of lean mass, let’s discuss the impact of protein on fat loss.

Protein’s Impact on Fat Loss

Woman With Flat StomachAdequate protein intake is crucial for hunger suppression, satiety and preservation of lean mass during a fat loss phase. There’s an inverse relationship between the frequency of consuming quality protein sources (those which provide at least 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs)) and body fat percentage. The more times participants consumed at least 10g of EAA per meal in a 24-hour period, the lower the body fat percentage.

A second study found a similar inverse relationship; the more frequently participants consumed quality protein sources in a 24-hour period, the lower the levels of central abdominal fat (CAF). [19] CAF is a strong predictor of health issues, disease and mortality. Furthermore, when 46 participants consumed 30% of their calories from protein rather than 18%, they loss less lean mass and reported improved perceptions of satiety while eating a hypocaloric diet (re: calories burned > calories consumed). [20] Inadequate protein intake during a fat loss phase negatively impacts body composition via increased loss of lean mass in the torso and limbs. [21]

Another study compared hypocaloric diets comprised of 30% and 15% of calories from protein found that 15% of calories from protein led to a loss of 217% more lean body mass. [22]

Now that we’ve covered the paramount importance of an adequate protein during a fat loss phase, let’s examine the top 10 food-based protein sources.

Top 10 Food-Based Protein Sources

Below is a table of the top 10 food-based protein sources based on protein-to-calorie-ratio: [23]

Amino Acids
Rank Food Protein to Calorie Ratio
1 Poultry: Turkey & Chicken Breast 1g protein per 4.5 calories
2 Fish: Tuna, Salmon & Halibut 1g per 4.5 calories
3 Cheese: Low/Non-fat Mozzarella & Cottage Cheese 1g per 4.7 calories
4 Pork: Pork Loin & Chops 1g per 5.2 calories
5 Lean Beef & Veal 1g per 5.3 calories
6 Tofu 1g per 7.4 calories
7 Mature Soy Beans 1g per 10.4 calories
8 Whole Eggs 1g per 12 calories
9 Low/Non-fat Yogurt, Milk & Soy Milk 1g per 18 calories
10 Nuts and Seeds: Peanuts, Almonds, Pumpkin, Squash, & Watermelon Seeds 1g per 15.8 calories

As you can see, lean cuts of poultry, fish, pork, beef, and low/non-fat diary have the lowest and most efficient protein-to-calorie ratio. However, this list excludes protein powders, which based on the brand, flavor, and variety can have protein-to-calorie ratios slightly lower than that of poultry.

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Protein Supplement Basics

What are Protein Supplements?

Protein supplements are products that undergo an extraction and isolation process to eliminate or minimize carbohydrates, fats and allergens so that the protein per calorie ratio decreases and the protein per gram increases. These protein supplements may be from either animal or non-animal sources and may take the form of a powder, bar, or ready-to-drink (RTD) container.

All three varieties come in a plethora of flavors and are sold both online and at brick-and-mortar (re: in-store) retailers. Protein supplements are used by both athletes and the general population to supplement dietary protein intake coming from “whole” (re: unprocessed) foods.

One study examining the prevalence of protein supplement use in the gym found that 28% of individuals used or were using protein supplements and males were over ten times more likely to use a protein supplement compared to females. [24] We can likely attribute use discrepancy based on gender due to the social stigma attached to protein supplements (re: they make you “bulky”) and the bodyweight of females versus males. Females tend to weigh less than males, which decreases their protein requirements if they’re basing protein intake on bodyweight. A lower protein intake increases the ease of only obtaining protein via whole unprocessed foods because the quantity required is lower.

Now that I’ve provided you an overview on protein supplements, let’s examine their benefits.

What are the Benefits of Protein Supplements?

Protein supplements offer numerous benefits – whether you’re an elite-level athlete or weekend warrior, protein supplements can help you achieve your fitness goal(s). The non-exhaustive list below covers a number of the most impactful benefits of protein supplements.

Protein supplements…

Muscular ManAre cost effective – As of January 2015, the U.S. city average price for 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is $3.43. [25] One pound of uncooked, boneless, skinless chicken breasts provides 102.06 grams of protein. [26]

Based on this information, one gram of protein via chicken breast costs $0.0336. Comparatively, one gram of protein via a 5lb tub of Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein costs only $0.0331. [27] This may seem like a small difference at this scale, the difference adds up when you’re consuming 150+ grams of protein per day, every day, for the entire year.

Are concentrated protein sources – One pound of uncooked, boneless, skinless chicken breasts provides 544 calories. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are typically considered the “golden standard” for the most concentrated, whole, unprocessed protein source. Based on this information, chicken breasts have a protein-to-calorie ratio of 1g to 5.33 calories.

Comparatively, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein has a protein-to-calorie-ratio of 1g to 5.00 calories. Once again, this may seem like a miniscule difference, but the difference adds up over time to hundreds, if not thousands of calories.

Are portable – Protein supplements offered in bar and RTD-form are exceptionally portable. They’re prepackaged, pre-portioned and can easily be thrown in your lunch box or gym bag. If you refuse to purchase bars or RTDs you can easily scoop protein powder in to a plastic baggie or Tupperware container and dump it in your shaker for boost of protein anytime during the day.

Comparatively, protein sources like eggs, yogurt and chicken breast can be stored in Tupperware containers but can be messy and stinky if they’re not stored in the proper container at the proper temperature.

Are lightweight – Continuing with our chicken breast as a bench mark, one pound of chicken breasts weighs 453.6 grams, 335.2 grams of which are water. Based on this information, the protein-to-weight ratio is 1 gram to 4.44 grams or 22.5% protein by weight.

Comparatively, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein is 77.4% protein by weight. If you’re looking for a lightweight and portable way to increase your protein intake, the verdict is clear – protein supplements are the way to go!

Are shelf-stable – If you’ve ever examined the expiration date after purchasing a protein supplement from a high quality retailer, then you’d notice that the expiration date on the product, whether it be a bar, powder, or RTD, is multiple months if not years.

Comparatively, the expiration date of protein sources like eggs, yogurt, milk, chicken and beef have expiration dates ranging from days to weeks to at most a few months. If you’re looking for a convenient option of increasing protein intake without having to worry about spoiled food, then protein supplements are the way to go.

Cow and Milk

Increase lean mass – One study found that when caloric and protein intake are held constant, those who consumed whey protein over a 9 month period gained significantly more lean mass than those who consumed a carbohydrate control beverage. [28] A 3-month study found that consuming an EAA-only protein supplement at a dose of 15 grams per day significantly increased lean body mass over placebo. [29]

Yet another study compared 40 grams of whey protein concentrate (WPC) per day compared to placebo, paired with resistance training; those who consumed WPC gained over twice as much lean mass. [30] Compared to carbohydrate placebo, consuming a protein supplement like whey protein exhibited myofiber hypertrophy of 18% and 26% of type I and II muscle fibers respectively. [31]

Without a doubt, protein supplements are extremely effective for increasing lean mass.

Preserve lean mass during fat loss – In addition to augmenting increases in lean mass, protein supplements are a powerful tool for preserving lean mass whilst eating at a caloric deficit. When overweight/obese adults consumed 20 grams of whey protein 3 times per day and incorporated exercise for 16 weeks they decreased visceral adipose tissue (re: fat mass) and increased lean body mass independent of restricting caloric intake. [32]

Two studies found that after reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day and consuming a protein supplement, those consuming a protein supplement lost more body fat and less lean mass compared to control groups. [33] [34]

Lastly, consuming a 56 gram whey protein supplement rather than a carbohydrate control helped to significantly decrease both body weight and fat mass in overweight/obese, but otherwise healthy adults. [35] Losing fat is difficult enough and nobody wants to lose their hard-earned lean mass. Protein supplements, particularly whey protein appear to be very effective in maximizing fat loss and minimizing lean mass loss.

Increase satiety and decreased perceived hunger – Protein supplements can facilitate fat loss and preservation of lean mass, but also increase satiety and decrease perceived hunger (re: fullness). Consuming 45 to 50 grams of whey or soy protein 1-2 hours prior to a high carbohydrate, high fat meal significantly suppressed food intake. [36]

Whey protein supplementation significantly decreased perceived hunger, triggered to a lower blood glucose response, and suppressed subsequent meal food intake up to 4 hours post-ingestion compared to tuna, turkey, or egg meals. [37] Consuming whey protein compared to a casein or carbohydrate supplement provides more satiety and fullness during a 12 week study of 70 individuals. [38] Consuming 56 grams of whey protein significantly decreased fasting ghrelin levels compared to those who consumed 56 grams of soy protein or a carbohydrate control beverage.

Based on this research, protein supplements can positively influence satiety and perceive hunger, but the protein supplement source affects the magnitude of these effects.

Increase strength – Many readers probably knew that protein supplementation can assist in lean mass gain and fat loss, but there’s also a growing body of research to support the notion that protein supplements can aid in increasing strength. Consuming a protein supplement (EAA + arginine) significantly increased the 1-repetition maximum (1RM) in individual knee flexor and extensor exercises compared to the control group (re: consuming nothing). [39] The increase of squat 1RM for 21 collegiate athletes was 250% greater in those who consumed a protein supplement compared to placebo when caloric intake was held constant. [40]

It also appears that the type of protein supplement affects strength gain; those who consumed a casein beverage increased their chest, shoulder and leg strength nearly twice as much as those who consumed whey protein (59 +/- 9% vs. 29 +/- 9%). [41] Isometric knee extension strength significantly increased in 17 untrained males who consumed a whey protein isolate beverage compared to a carbohydrate placebo. [42]

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Who Should Use Protein Supplements?

In short, everyone.

As per Food and Drug Administration regulations, protein supplements are considered a dietary supplement so they’re “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” [43] And of course, you should check with your doctor or healthcare provider before using protein supplements to ensure there’s no preexisting medical conditions preventing use from using them.

As previously discussed, protein supplements are a cost-effective, concentrated, portable, lightweight, and shelf-stable option for increasing dietary protein intake. Protein supplementation can assist you in reaching any fitness goal.

How do Protein Supplements Compare to “Real” Food Protein Sources?

Both protein supplements and “real” food contain high quality amino acid sources which supplies your body with the protein it needs to not only survive, but thrive. Nearly all protein supplements are formulated to provide you with a complete and balanced amino acid profile whereas real food has a naturally occurring amino acid profile which may make it a complete or incomplete protein source.

Protein supplements, especially protein powders mixed in a liquid, may not leave you as full or satisfied compared to eating a real food like chicken or steak. This is partly due to the impact on ghrelin (re: hunger hormone). Drinking your calories provides less satiety and decreases in ghrelin than consuming calories in solid form. [44]

Furthermore, because protein supplements are processed to be highly bioavailable they’re typically digested faster than real food protein sources. This allows you to consume a protein source almost immediately before, during, or after your workout without gastrointestinal distress.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather drink a protein shake 30 minutes before a max effort lift attempt than eat an 8 ounce steak. I’d save the steak for a post-workout victory meal.

There is typically a significant difference between preparation times for protein supplement and real food sources. With protein supplements you typically only have to scoop a powder in to a liquid and shake or mix, peel back the foil of a protein bar, or open the lid of an RTD. Real foods typically require processing of some form, whether it’s boiling, grilling, poaching, microwaving, frying, etc…

Even raw protein sources like nuts require extraction from the shell. This processing takes up your time, energy and resources, which you may pay a premium for when you consume a protein supplement.

Cracked EggCompared to real foods, protein supplements are a more cost-effective, concentrated, portable, lightweight, and shelf-stable option. However, there is a social stigma that comes along with using protein supplements; those who don’t live a fitness-oriented lifestyle may immediately assume these protein supplements are steroids, may make you “too bulky too quickly”, and/or will just be excreted via urine. If you encounter these people I encourage you to remain calm and only provide your opinion or try to educate them if you feel the time is right and the information would be well received.

This guide will not only expand your knowledge on protein and protein supplements, but hopefully act an introductory reference guide for those who may try to talk down to you. Now that we’ve compared protein supplements to whole foods, let’s cover some protein supplement terminology.

Protein Supplement Terminology

Before we discuss different protein supplement sources let’s cover some terminology. These words refer to the way in which a protein source is processed to obtain the desired purity.

Concentrate – The process by which a protein source is processed to contain 35%-89% protein, 3-7% fat, and 2-6% lactose by weight. [45] [46] This is typically the cheapest version of a protein powder because it requires the least amount of resources and effort to produce. However, concentrates are also the lowest purity in terms of protein by weight.

Isolate – The process by which a protein source is processed to contain 90+% protein, <1% fat, and <0.5% lactose by weight. These protein powders undergo additional extraction and purification processes to decrease non-protein contents and allergens. These protein powders are more expensive than concentrate products due to their improved purity.

Hydrolysate – A protein powder undergoes hydrolysis, which involves separating intact amino-acid bonds using water. As a result, smaller amino acid chains called peptides are produced. The human body’s blood stream absorbs hydrolyzed protein faster than both free-form amino acids and in-tact proteins. [47] These proteins have purity nearly identical to or slightly better than isolate powders, but are more expensive than isolate proteins due to the additional resources and time involved with processing.

Micellar – Using microfiltration all whey protein peptides are removed to yield a slowing digesting protein. [48] These powders absorb water to a greater degree compared to concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. Micellar protein supplements have the purity around that of isolates and hydrolysates.

Biological Value (BV) – BV indicates how efficiently the body utilizes a protein source. This is a measurement of “the nitrogen used for tissue formation divided by the nitrogen absorbed from food. This product is multiplied by 100 and expressed as a percentage of nitrogen utilized.” [49]

Biological value increases as the concentration of essential amino acids in a food increases.
Net Protein Utilization (NPU) – NPU is similar to BV in that it’s an indicator of how efficiently the body utilizes a protein sources. However, NPU is calculated based on nitrogen ingested whereas BV is calculated based on nitrogen absorbed.

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Analysis of Protein Supplement Sources

In this section we will analyze a variety of dairy and non-dairy protein supplement sources.

Dairy Sources

Whey Protein

Whey protein is the most well-known and consumed protein supplement source. It’s one of two main protein sources in cow’s milk (80% casein and 20% whey protein). Cow’s milk undergoes varying degrees of processing, filtration, and isolation processes to create three primary whey protein varieties – concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. These three varieties differ in their protein, carbohydrate, fat, and allergen contents.

Whey protein has been widely studied and praised for its ability to aid increases in lean mass, decreases in fat mass, and improvement recovery. Furthermore, whey protein is used for treating allergy, asthma, high cholesterol, obesity, late-stage cancer, and colon cancer as well as increasing glutathione (re: important antioxidant) in people with HIV disease. [50] Whey protein is a complete protein source high in not only BCAAs but also EAAs.

Concentrate

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is the most widely consumed variety because it’s the least expensive source of whey protein. On average, WPC is 70-85% protein and up to 5% lactose by weight. [51] Lactose is a sugar found in dairy products that can cause gastrointestinal issues if large quantities are consumed or if your body doesn’t have the proper enzymes to break it down.

WPC is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as a component of protein powder blends like MTS Machine Whey Protein, Elite 100% Whey Protein, and ON Performance Whey.

Isolate

Whey protein isolate (WPI) is the second most widely consumed whey protein variety. WPI undergoes additional processing and filtration to increase protein content, decrease carbohydrate and fat content, and remove nearly, if not all lactose. WPI and WPC have nearly identical impacts on MPS, muscle building, fat loss, and recovery but WPI is digested quicker than WPC. The primary difference between WPI and WPC is the protein-to-calories ratio, which is lower for WPI.

WPI is sold as a standalone protein in products like Dymatize ISO-100 and Nature’s Best Isopure Zero Carb as well as a component of protein powder blends like MTS Machine Whey Protein and ON Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein

Hydrolysate

Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) is the lessen known of the three whey protein varieties; it’s the most expensive of the three, the most pure (i.e. the highest protein content and lowest carbohydrate/fat/allergen content), as well as the fastest digesting. WPH is extremely expensive when offered as a standalone protein by bulk supplement retailers.

WPH is a component of protein powder blends like Inner Armour Blue Lean Muscle Series Whey, Beverly Muscle Provider, and Universal Nutrition Proton 7.

Casein Protein

Protein ScooperCasein protein comprises about 80% of the protein in cow’s milk. Similar to whey protein it undergoes varying degrees of processing, filtration, and isolation processes to create three primary whey protein varieties – micellar casein, calcium caseinate, and casein hydrolysate. These three varieties primarily differ in their digestibility, protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Casein proteins can have up to 5 times more calcium per serving but otherwise has a similar macronutrient profile to that of whey protein.

Casein protein is a complete protein source that fitness enthusiasts typically consume prior to bed because of its slower digesting qualities. A slower digesting protein doesn’t increase MPS as quickly as whey protein but does exhibit a positive impact on MPS over a longer time period.

Micellar Casein

Micellar Casein (MC) is formed by processing cow’s milk so that it yields roughly 75-85% protein by weight making it similar in profile to whey protein concentrate. Unlike whey protein, MC’s chemical structure absorbs much more water which can give a protein supplement a much thicker consistency. MC is the most common of the three casein sources to be included in a casein protein supplement.

MC is sold as a standalone protein in products like Universal Nutrition Casein Pro and ON Platinum Tri-Celle Casein as well as a component of protein powder blends like Muscletech ES 100% Casein and SAN 100% Casein Fusion.

Calcium Caseinate

Calcium Caseinate (CC) is created by using processing techniques such as acid or rennet precipitation or filtration to create a casein product greater than 90% protein by weight. [52] Calcium caseinate is the second most commonly consumed form of casein protein but is also more expensive per serving due to the addition processing required to increase protein content and decrease filler content (e.g. carbohydrates and fats). CC is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as a component of protein powder blends like SAN 100% Casein Fusion and Beverly Ultimate Muscle Protein (UMP).

Casein Hydrolysate

Casein Hydrolysate (CH) is the most expensive and least used casein protein because it requires the most amount of processing and filtration. Hydrolyzing a protein breaks the bonds of the protein molecule which keeps the protein in-tact but dramatically increases speed of digestibility which makes it an excellent intra-workout and post-workout protein source.

CH is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as a component of protein powder blends like VPX Fast 5 Peptidex.

Milk Protein

As opposed to casein and whey protein supplements which separate the two protein components in cow’s milk, milk protein keeps the natural casein (80%) to whey protein (20%) ratio in-tact. Milk protein supplements have a calcium and lactose content between that of whey-only and casein-only protein supplements.

Milk is also an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium; crucial minerals for normal growth and development, teeth health, and prevention of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. [53] Milk protein is a complete protein source high in BCAAs and EAAs.

Concentrate

Milk protein concentrate (MPC) is typically derived from skim milk and can contain anywhere from 40 to 90% protein by weight. [54] As the protein concentration increases, the lactose, carbohydrate, and trace fat content decreases. MPC digests somewhat faster than a pure casein protein supplement but slower than a whey protein supplement. MPC is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as a component of protein powder blends like SAN 100% Casein Fusion and Dymatize Elite Gourmet.

Protein Powder

Isolate

Milk protein isolate (MPI) is also typically sourced from skim milk but undergoes additional processing and filtration to ensure protein content is 90+% by weight; this yields a product with little or no lactose but also a number of key minerals found in milk. [55] As expected, MPI costs more per serving than MPC due to the increased processing required but it does digest faster and is more suitable for those sensitive to lactose.

MPI is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as a component of protein powder blends like BSN Syntha 6 Isolate and SAN Meta Force.

Goat Protein

Goat protein is technically a dairy protein because its protein structure is extremely similar to cow’s milk protein and it contains lactose; if you’re allergy to cow dairy there’s a 90+% chance you’ll be allergy to goat dairy as well. [56] Goat’s milk has the same fatty acid profile and casein to whey protein ratio (80%:20%) as cow’s milk. Goat’s milk has more Vitamin A, B6, D, calcium potassium, manganese, chloride, and copper but less vitamin B12 and zinc. [57]

Goat protein is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers.

Non-Dairy

Beef Protein

In the past few years beef protein has dramatically increased in popularity as a non-dairy animal-derived protein source with a stellar amino acid profile that costs less per serving than its main competitor, egg protein. Beef protein is a complete protein but there seems to be concern around how beef protein is manufactured.

Tiger Fitness author Steve Shaw mentioned that hydrolyzed beef protein isolate, the most popular beef protein source, “comes from parts and pieces such as hooves, bones, skin, connective tissue, joints, hide, ligaments, ears and more.” [58] Isolating protein from these sources is much less expensive than isolating protein from the beef cuts we typically consume (e.g. tenderloin, filet mignon, NY strip, etc…).

Furthermore, beef protein typically has added creatine, in addition to the naturally occurring creatine in beef, as well as glutamine which can offer a number of health benefits but is also an inexpensive way to increase the protein content per serving.

Beef protein is sold as a standalone protein in products like MHP IsoPrime 100% Beef Protein and Muscletech ES 100% Beef Protein as well as a component of protein powder blends like MHP Paleo Protein.

Egg Protein

Eggs are an exceptional high-quality protein source that is both animal-derived and vegetarian-friendly. The edible portion of the egg is comprised of two components – the egg white and the egg yolk. The protein content of the egg white and yolk are 60% and 40% respectively. The yolk contains a majority (90%) of the fat and cholesterol, but it also contains nearly all of the omega-3 fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K), B-vitamins, and minerals (Calcium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Copper, & Iron), Manganese, and Selenium. [59]

Eggs are considered one of nature’s “Golden Standard” protein sources because of their high biological value and net protein utilization.

Whole Egg

Whole egg protein is a complete protein source created by dehydrating and processing whole eggs in to powder form. Unlike egg white protein, whole egg protein retains all of the fat and cholesterol so it has a higher protein-to-calorie ratio which may not be ideal if you’re on a calorie-restricted, low fat, and/or low cholesterol diet. Because whole egg protein requires less processing than egg white protein, it is typically cheaper per serving.

Whole egg protein is sold as a standalone protein by bulk protein powder retailers as well as in protein powder blends like Beverly Provosyn.

Albumin (Egg White)

Egg albumin protein, also known as egg white protein, is a complete protein source created by separating the egg white from the egg yolk and then dehydrating and processing the egg white in to powder form. Egg white protein contains almost no cholesterol and fat as well as a much lower protein-to-calorie ratio compared to whole eggs. Due to the increased processing egg white protein is more expensive per serving than whole egg protein.

Egg white protein is sold as a standalone protein in products like ON Gold Standard 100% Egg Protein, MRM Egg White Protein as well as a component of protein powder blends like Universal Nutrition Milk & Egg Protein and MHP Paleo Protein.

Soy Protein

Soy Bean SproutSoy protein supplements are the most popular vegetarian/vegan/non-animal protein source. Soy protein is a complete protein source created with isolation and filtration processes to dehull and defat soybeans; this yields both isolate and concentrate. Soy protein concentrate is typically 70% protein by weight whereas soy isolate is about 90% protein by weight.

Soy protein contains phytoestrogens, specifically isoflavones, which are plant compounds with hormone-like effects. [60] There is some concern around these phytoestrogens and potential impacts on normal hormonal function, growth, and development. In addition to muscle building, fat loss, and recovery benefits, soy protein in place of animal protein has been shown to decrease total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides as well as offer anti-obesity, anti-diabetes, and anti-cancer properties.

Soy protein is sold as a standalone protein in products like ON 100% Soy Protein, Universal Advanced Soy Protein and Twinlab Vege Fuel as well as a component of protein powder blends like Dymatize XT Extended Release and MHP Probolic SR.

Pea Protein

Pea protein supplements are typically created from yellow peas (Pisum sativum) by undergoing a series of isolation and filtration processes to remove excess carbohydrates and trace fats. Pea protein is high in the sulfur-contain amino acid lysine but low in cysteine and methionine; it is therefore not considered a complete protein source.

Pea protein also exhibits a number of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunoprotective properties. [61] One study studied 161 males aged 18-35 who underwent 12 weeks of resistance training and consumed either 25g pea protein, 25g whey protein, or 2g placebo twice per day. All three groups increased muscle strength with no statistically significant difference. Those who consumed pea protein increased their biceps brachii thickness a significantly larger amount compared to placebo. [62]

Pea protein is sold as a standalone protein in products like Naturade Pea Protein and OL Pea Protein as well as a component of protein powder blends like SAN Raw Fusion, AI Sports No Whey Protein, SDC Nutrition About Time Ve, Rightway Nutrition VeggiFitt, and BodyLogix Vegan Protein.

(Brown) Rice

Rice protein supplements are typically created from brown rice by undergoing a series of isolation and filtration processes to remove excess carbohydrates and trace fats. Rice protein powders are typically 75-85% protein by weight, 36% EAAs, and 18% BCAAs.

Rice protein is high in the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine but relatively low in lysine; it is therefore not considered a complete protein source. [63] An 8 week study examining college-aged resistance-trained males dosing either 48g of rice or whey protein isolate per day found that both experienced improved body composition, post-workout recovery, and exercise performance. [64] There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups, which suggest rice protein and whey protein supplements are equally effective.

Rice protein is a component of protein powder blends like SAN Raw Fusion, AI Sports No Whey Protein, SDC Nutrition About Time Ve, BodyLogix Vegan Protein, HPN Pro Zero, and Rightway Nutrition VeggiFitt.

Uncommon Non-Dairy Protein Sources

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein is isolated from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.) by removing the hemp seed shells, pressing the seeds so that the oil is extracted, and using the remaining seed meal. This process increases the protein content from 25% to 34% and decreases the oil content by 66%. [65] Additional processing can increase protein content but carbohydrate content may be relatively high compared to other powders due to the dietary fiber content.

Hemp protein is not a complete protein source because although it contains all essential amino acids it’s relatively low in Leucine but high in Tyrosine, Arginine, dietary fiber, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (up to 10% by weight). [66] The hemp used to make hemp protein has little to no THC and assuming you ingest reasonable quantities, will not cause you to fail a drug test. Hemp protein offers promising antioxidant and cardioprotective benefits. [67][68]

Hemp protein is sold by bulk protein powder retailers and is a component of protein powder blends such as BodyLogix Vegan Protein and Body Nutrition Gardenia.

Wheat Protein

Wheat protein is a gluten protein isolated from wheat grain found in both isolate and concentrate forms. Wheat gluten is very high in protein (75 grams per 100 gram serving) as well as a great source of selenium, phosphorus, and iron. [69] Wheat protein is not a complete protein due to its low lysine, threonine, isoleucine, and tryptophan amino acid content. [70]

Consuming wheat protein with a complementary protein source high in those three amino acids like lentils will increase the bioavailability of this protein source. To reach the same bioavailable amino acid content as animal products like beef and eggs you would need to consume about 150% more wheat protein.

Wheat protein is sold by bulk protein powder retailers and is a component of protein blends in protein bars like Labrada Cold Bar, MuscleMeds Carnivor Bars, MET-Rx Big 100 Colossal Brownie Bars, Premier Titan High Protein Cookies, and Lenny & Larry’s Complete Cookie.

Sacha Inchi Protein

NutsSacha Inchi/Inca Inchi/mountain peanut is a legume native to tropical Peruvian jungles with star-shaped fruit and dark oval seeds that are ~50% oil and ~30% protein by weight. [71] The oil content of Sacha Inchi seed is about 93% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), high in essential Omega-3 fatty acids (α-Linolenic acid (ALA)) and Omega-6 fatty acids (Linoleic acid (LA)), healthy phytochemicals. [72]

Sacha Inchi oil dosed at 2 to 4 grams per day for four months decreased average total cholesterol and non-esterified fatty acids as well as increased high-density lipoprotein (re: good cholesterol). [73] Although Sacha Inchi is naturally only ~30% protein by weight, researchers have created defatted flour, aptly named Sacha Inchi protein (SIP), which is about 53% protein by weight. [74]

Sacha Inchi protein has the second highest total amino acid count compared to soybean, peanut, cottonseed, sunflower protein. It’s second only to soybean protein, which has larger amounts of leucine and lysine. Compared to the amino acid profiles of other oil seeds it’s higher in methionine, cysteine, tyrosine, threonine, and tryptophan, but lower in phenylalanine content; it is considered a complete protein. Generally speaking, Sacha Inchi seeds are also high in aspartate and glutamine amino acids.

Sacha Inchi protein powder is sold by bulk protein powder retailers and is a component of Vega Sport Performance Protein powder.

Collagen Protein

Collagen protein is found in the skin, bone, muscles and internal organs of the human body. Hydrolyzed collagen, the most popular from of collagen protein, is isolated from gelatin, which comes from broken-down animal byproducts like bone and cartilage. [75] Collagen in its dry form offers 86 grams per 100 gram serving but it is not a complete protein because it lacks tryptophan and is very low in methionine, cystine, tyrosine, and histidine. [76]

Collagen protein is high in proline/hydroxyproline, glycine, and glutamic acid. [77] Research on oral ingestion of 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen protein per day suggests that it may decrease joint discomfort and increase the body’s natural production of collagen. [78] [79]

Collagen protein is sold as a standalone protein source in products like Wfit Nutrition Tendon & Ligament Protein and Vital Proteins Collagen Protein.

Potato Protein

Potatoes are naturally high in carbohydrates, vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium and fiber (if you eat the skin) as well as low in fat and protein. [80] However, raw, unprocessed potatoes are a complete protein source. [81] To increase protein content processors need to dry the potatoes, remove excess carbohydrates, and ground in to a fine powder.

There isn’t much research on human consumption of potato protein, but one study on pigs found that potato protein lowers total and LDL cholesterol more effective than casein protein. [82]

Potato protein is sold in protein powder blends like BodyLogix Vegan Protein, Nutrition53 Vegan1, and Naturade Soy Free Veg Protein Booster.

Chia Seed Protein

Chia seeds are small black or brown seeds that come from a plant in the mint family and are high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. [83] Dried, unprocessed chia seeds are relatively low in protein (16 grams per 100 gram serving), but are a complete protein high in calcium, phosphorus, and manganese. [84] In its processed form, protein content can be increased to 35% by weight. Chia seeds can help to decrease triglycerides and LDL cholesterol as well as increase HDL cholesterol and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids levels in the body. [85]

Chia seed protein is sold in protein powder blends like BodyLogix Vegan Protein, MRM Veggie Protein, and Rightway Nutrition VeggiFitt.

Chia Seeds

Chlorella/Spirulina Protein

Chlorella is a single-cell fresh water sea algae that may help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as improve immune function and decrease wound healing time. [86] Spirulina is a blue-green algae found in fresh water lakes that may help to decrease allergy symptoms, decrease LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, and improve immune system function. [87] Studies examining the health benefits of chlorella and spirulina use 6 to 10 gram-per-day and 1 to 3 gram-per day dosing protocols respectively. [88][89]

Both chlorella and spirulina typically harvested, dried, and made in to tablets, powders, or liquid extracts. Dried, unprocessed chlorella and spirulina are complete protein sources with 57-58 grams of protein per 100 grams, high in magnesium, iron, and B vitamins. [90][91]

Chlorella and spirulina proteins are sold by bulk protein retailers as well as in protein powder blends like Nutrition53 Vegan1 and Naturade Soy Free Veg Protein Booster.

Pumpkin Protein

Pumpkin protein is derived from the raw, slimy pulp, found attached to the pumpkin seeds as well as the pumpkin seeds inside the pumpkin shell. It’s not a complete protein as it contains only 18 amino acids, but does contain moderate amounts of key essential amino acids like leucine and valine as well as non-essential amino acids like glutamic and aspartic acids. [92] The amino acid profile varies based on the pumpkin strain used, but it’s safe to say that this incomplete protein source is more effective as a component of a protein blend rather than a standalone protein.

Pumpkin protein is part of protein powder blends in products like SDC Nutrition About Time and Omega Nutrition Pumpkin Protein Powder.

Artichoke Protein

Artichoke protein is significantly higher in essential amino acids compared to potato and chicory protein, specifically sulfur amino acids (re: cysteine and methionine), and has a higher essential to total amino acid ratio compared to pumpkin protein. [93] In its raw form, artichoke is 10% protein and 76% inulin, prebiotic and carbohydrate. [94] However, the isolation process increases protein concentration and decreases carbohydrate content.

Artichoke protein is part of protein powder blends in products like SAN Raw Fusion and PlantFusion.

Quinoa Protein

Quinoa exploded in popularity in the past decade because it’s one of the only grains classified as a complete protein source, due to its above-average lysine and isoleucine content. [95] Quinoa can help to protect cell membranes, improve brain function, and provide a source of phytohormones. [96] Milling quinoa seeds in to a flour consistency improves digestibility of protein, carbohydrate, and fat components. [97]

I couldn’t find any bulk source suppliers of quinoa protein powder but quinoa protein is part of protein powder blends in products like Rightway Nutrition VeggiFit and Body Nutrition Gardenia.

Alfalfa Protein

In its unprocessed state, alfalfa is 12-20% crude protein, 20-28% fiber by weight, and 1.4% calcium by weight. [98] In its isolated state, alfalfa protein is high in lysine but low in sulfur amino acids (re: cysteine and methionine) and tryptophan, which mean it has an amino acid profile similar to that of soybeans. [99] Alfalfa contains phytoestrogens which have been shown to decrease risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer, and menopausal symptoms, but also disrupt the endocrine system, which can cause a plethora of harmful health effects. [100]

Alfalfa protein is sold by bulk protein powder retailers and is a component of Vega Sport Performance Protein powder.

Looking for alternative (non-dairy) protein powder choices? Consider HGN Pro Zero, Muscle Meds Carnivor, 100% Soy Protein, 100% Egg White Protein and King Beef by RCSS. Click here to explore ratings and prices.

Individual Amino Acid (AA), Branch-Chain Amino Acid (BCAA), and Essential Amino Acid (EAA) Supplements

AA, BCAA, and EAA supplements are powders, capsules, tablets, or beverages providing specific amino acids in specific amounts. Through processing, manufacturers can provide more precise ratios than the amino acid ratios naturally found in whole, unprocessed foods. Individual amino acid products include any of the 21 amino acids in isolation.

You might consume an individual amino acid to complement an incomplete protein source so that it becomes a complete protein. BCAA supplements must include two or more of the following: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are a powerful tool for preserving lean mass on a cut and maximizing MPS during a mass gaining phase.

EAA supplements can include two or more following: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. EAAs contain not only three BCAAs, which can help to preserve lean mass and maximize MPS, but also provides your body with the six other essentials amino acids your body may be lacking if your diet isn’t on-point.

Reputable individual AA suppliers include NOW Foods, Prime Nutrition, Primaforce, and Pro Supps. Popular BCAA products include MTS Machine Fuel, Core Nutritionals ABC, Scivation Xtend, and Muscletech Amino Build. Bestselling EAA products include Universal Nutrition EAA Stack, Purus Labs AminOD, Prime Nutrition EAAs, and Controlled Labs Purple Wrath.

Protein Blends

Protein blends combine two or more of the protein sources previously discussed. By combining protein sources manufacturers offer more varieties in taste, mixability, and amino acid profile to the consumer.

Compared to standalone protein sources, blend proteins offer increased muscle protein synthesis, a steadier stream of amino acids in to the bloodstream, and improved health markers (re: hormonal and immune system). Those who consumed a 40g whey protein/8g casein blend and completed a resistance training program for 10-weeks accrued more lean mass than those who consumed 40g whey protein/3g glutamine/5g glutamine. [101]

Although whey protein increased peak and absolute branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) blood concentrations immediately (re: 0-2 hrs.) post-ingestion, consuming a protein blend provided the highest BCAA blood levels MPS rates later (re: 2-4 hrs.) in the recovery period. [102] After 20 subjects consumed 50g of one of four different protein sources (soy concentrate, soy isolate, soy isolate/whey blend, or whey blend) for 12 weeks, those who consumed the soy isolate/whey blend and whey blend experienced an increased testosterone/estradiol ratio, which indicates a testosterone increase (re: primary male sex hormone) and/or an estradiol decrease (re: primary female sex hormone). [103]

Popular protein blends include MTS Machine Whey Protein (Whey Isolate, Whey Concentrate); Beverly International Ultimate Muscle Protein (UMP) (Milk Protein Isolate, Calcium Caseinate, Whey Protein Concentrate, Casein, Egg White, Whey Protein Isolate); MusclePharm Combat Powder (Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Hydrolysate, Micellar Casein, Egg White Albumen, L-Glutamine, L-Leucine, L-Valine, L-Isoleucine); and Dymatize Elite XT (Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Milk Protein Isolate, Micellar Casein, Soy Protein Isolate, Egg Albumin, L-Leucine).

Comparison of Protein Sources

Now that we’ve extensively covered a variety of protein sources, let’s compare and contrast them. The table below provides the upsides and downsides of each protein source:

protein Comparison
Protein Food Upsides Downsides
Whey A complete protein source with the highest biological value (104) and 2nd highest protein utilization (92). The most widely available and used protein supplement source. Contains lactose, a common allergen that can cause gastrointestinal issues. It’s fast digesting nature may leave you hungry soon after consuming.
Casein A complete protein with a moderate biological value (77) and net protein utilization (76). Very high in calcium and similar macronutrient profile to whey protein. Increases MPS over a long period of time compared to whey protein. Contains lactose, a common allergen that can cause gastrointestinal issues. Considerably more expensive compared to whey protein.
Milk A complete protein with a high biological value (92) and net protein utilization (82). Keeps many crucial minerals in-tact (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium). In its concentrate form it contains more lactose than casein and whey proteins. Protein content is highly variable (40-90%).
Goat A complete protein similar in structure to cow’s milk protein (80:20 casein: whey ratio) as well as a good source of vitamin A, B, D, and key minerals. Contains lactose, a common allergen that can cause gastrointestinal issues. Hard to find and expensive compared to other dairy protein sources.
Beef A complete protein with moderate biological value (80) and net protein utilization (73). Typically contain added glutamine and creatine which offer a number of health and performance benefits. A great non-dairy animal-based protein option. Added glutamine is often considered a cheap filler to increase protein content. The creatine per serving is quite high (5g) and isn’t necessary. Hydrolyzed beef protein comes from parts and pieces of the cow not typically consumed (e.g. bones and hooves).
Egg A complete protein with the 2nd highest biological value (100) and highest net protein utilization (94). Whole egg protein offers healthy fats, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals which are crucial for normal growth and development. A great non-dairy animal-based protein option. Whole egg protein is high in fat, calories, and cholesterol which is not ideal for everyone’s fitness goals. Both whole egg and egg white protein are very expensive.
Soy A complete vegetarian/vegan protein source with a moderate biological value (74). The most cost-effective non-dairy protein supplement source. Positive impacts on key health indicators (e.g. cholesterol) and anti-obesity/diabetes/cancer properties. Low net protein utilization (61). Contains phytoestrogens which may decrease protect from heart disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis but also may negatively impact normal hormonal function if consumed in high enough quantities.
Pea A protein source high in the amino acid lysine. Exhibits a number of anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunoprotective properties. Studies indicate it’s as effective as whey protein at building muscle and strength. Complements (brown) rice protein. Not considered a complete protein because it’s low in the amino acids cysteine and methionine
(Brown) Rice A protein source high in the amino acids cysteine and methionine. Does not come from a genetically modified organism (GMO), doesn’t contain lactose, and does not come from an animal source. Studies indicate it’s as effective as whey protein at improving body composition. Complements pea protein. Not considered a complete protein because it’s low in the amino acid lysine. A high carbohydrate product in its natural state so it requires a lot of processing to increase protein content per serving.
Hemp A vegan protein source naturally high in fiber, tyrosine, arginine, and polyunsaturated fats. Offers potent antioxidant and cardioprotective benefits. Not a complete protein source because it’s low in leucine. A negative stigma associated with its use because it comes from the same plant used for marijuana. Can be expensive.
Wheat A grain-derived protein source high in protein (75% by weight), selenium, phosphorus, and iron. Can be consumed with lentils to increase the wheat protein’s bioavailability. Very inexpensive. The lowest biological value (64) and 2nd lowest net protein utilization (67). Not considered a complete protein because it’s low in lysine, threonine, isoleucine, and tryptophan. Contains gluten, an allergen that can cause gastrointestinal issues.
Sacha Inchi A complete protein source high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, Omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy phytochemicals. High in aspartate, glutamine, methionine, cysteine, tyrosine, threonine, and tryptophan, but lower in phenylalanine content compared to other oil seeds. Hard to find as a bulk protein source and in protein blends. Relatively low in protein (55% by weight) even after processing and filtering. Expensive.
Collagen A protein source high in proline/hydroxyproline, glycine, and glutamic acid that may decrease joint discomfort and increase the body’s natural production of collagen. Very inexpensive incomplete protein source that’s derived from gelatin, which lacks it lacks tryptophan and is very low in methionine, cystine, tyrosine, and histidine.
Potato A complete protein source high in vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium, fiber as well as low in fat. Consumption potentially lowers cholesterol. Requires extensive processing to decrease the extremely high carbohydrate content because it comes from a low protein raw ingredient. Not found in many protein supplements.
Chia Seed A complete protein source naturally high in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, calcium, phosphorus, manganese. Can improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Even in its processed state it’s relatively low in protein (35% by weight). Expensive per gram of protein.
Chlorella/Spirulina A complete protein source high in magnesium, iron, and B vitamins. Offers numerous anti-allergy, immunoprotective, and cholesterol-lowering benefits. Somewhat low in protein (58% by weight) and very expensive as a single protein source. Typically used only in protein powder blends.
Pumpkin Does contain moderate amounts of leucine, valine, glutamic, and aspartic acids. Useful in a protein blend and complementing other non-complete protein sources. Not a complete protein. Hard to find and relatively expensive compared to other protein supplement sources.
Artichoke Higher in EAAs cysteine and methionine compared to potato, chicory, and pumpkin protein. Contains inulin, a healthy prebiotic and carbohydrate. Very low in protein in its raw state and hard to find. Because it’s low in protein, extensive processing required to increase protein per serving.
Quinoa One of the only grains classified as a complete protein source. High in lysine and isoleucine. can help to protect cell membranes, improve brain function, and provide a source of phytohormones. Hard to find and only available in protein blend. A protein source naturally high in carbohydrates so intensive processing is required to increase the protein content per serving.
Alfalfa A complete protein naturally high in fiber and calcium with an amino acid profile similar to that of soybeans. High in lysine but low in cysteine, methionine, and tryptophan. Very hard to find and expensive. Contains phytoestrogens which may decrease protect from heart disease, breast cancer, and osteoporosis but also may negatively impact normal hormonal function if consumed in high enough quantities.
AA/BCAA/EAA Allows maximum customization of what amino acids you want to consume. Can be used to make an incomplete protein source complete. Has the lowest protein to calorie ratio for complete protein source. Rapidly digested and easy on the stomach which is helpful intra-workout and immediately post-workout. Typically more expensive per serving than a single protein source. Unless flavored appropriately they have a very bitter and acidic taste. May not mix well and leave you with “floaters” that rest on top of the liquid despite vigorous shaking.
Protein Blends A complete protein that offers the ability to obtain the best qualities of multiple protein source. Can be customized based on fitness goal, provides a steadier stream of amino acids, impact on MPS and hormonal profiles compared to a single protein source like whey or casein. Can be more expensive than and include fillers and allergens not found in a single protein source. The distribution of the protein sources are often hidden behind a proprietary blend.

Muscular Man

Which Protein Supplement is Right for Me?

Fitness Goal(s)

Your fitness goal can heavily influence which protein supplement is right for you. If you’re on a calorie-restricted diet and looking to maximize fat loss whilst preserving lean mass, then consider supplements with a higher concentration of protein and lower concentration of fat and carbohydrates per serving.

This typically limits your options to high-quality blends and isolates, which carry higher price tags and fewer flavor options, but minimize your protein-to-calorie ratio. As for product type, powders and beverages will be your best bet; most bars have relatively high carbohydrate, fat, and calorie content.

If you’re eating in a caloric surplus and looking to maximize lean mass gain then you have significantly more options. Now I’m not saying you should only consume weight gainers chock full of extra carbohydrates and fats, but the higher caloric intake affords you the ability to try powders, beverages, and bars from any reputable manufacturer. Just don’t go overboard; eating too many calories over maintenance lead to unnecessary fat gain, even if it’s from protein powders.

If you’re looking to decrease fat mass and increase muscle mass whilst maintaining your weight (re: recomposition phase), then consider a mixture of both low-calorie and traditional protein powders. The crucial component of a recomposition phase is ensuring you eat adequate protein and don’t eat too much under or over maintenance calories on a given day.

Dietary Restrictions

Dietary restrictions can significantly influence which the best protein supplements for you. The two most common restrictions protein supplement users consider are Dairy v. Non-Dairy and Animal v. Vegetarian v. Vegan protein sources.

Let’s first discuss whether you should choose a dairy or non-dairy protein. Obviously, if you’re lactose intolerant or experience any sort of milk allergy, you should choose a non-dairy option. Even if you choose a non-dairy protein like egg or beef, read the ingredient list carefully; the manufacturer may include dairy-based additives or process powder using the same equipment for processing dairy-based protein.

If you don’t have any intolerance or allergy to dairy-based protein you can still choose non-dairy sources, but these products typically come with a higher price tag. For example, on the Tiger Fitness web store, a 5lb Tub of MTS Whey Protein costs $54.99, whereas a 5lb tub of MHP IsoPrime 100% Beef Protein costs $62.86 and 5lbs of ON Gold Standard Egg Protein costs $108.73.

Protein supplement should also consider whether they want an animal, vegetarian, or vegan protein source. This decision may be influenced by allergies, health reasons, and/or ethical reasons. Beef protein is the only protein source that comes from actual animal parts.

Vegetarian/non-vegan protein sources include whey, casein, milk, goat, and egg protein. Vegan protein sources include soy, pea, rice, hemp, wheat, Sacha Inchi, collagen, potato, chia seed, chlorella, spirulina, pumpkin, artichoke, quinoa, and alfalfa protein as well as AA/BCAA/EAA supplements. You can consume all vegan protein sources if you’re following a vegetarian diet.

Additives and Allergens

In addition to the two dietary restrictions mentioned above, protein supplement users may want to consider whether they want or can physically tolerant common additives and allergens. Additives are ingredients added during the processing of the protein supplement; these may be added to alter consistency, taste, mixability, appearance, and macronutrient profile. Below is a table showing common additives and their source(s): [104]

Additives
Additive Type Source(s)
Carbohydrates High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Maltodextrin, Sucrose (Table Sugar), Waxy Maize, Fructose, Honey, Glucose, Saccharin
Fats Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs), Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
Concentrated Sweeteners Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K), Sucralose, Stevia Leaf Extract, Aspartame, Sorbitol
Artificial Colors FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2
Flavoring Natural Flavors, Artificial Flavors, Spices
Digestive Enzymes Protease, Lactase, Lipase, Papain
Anti-caking Agents Calcium Silicate, Iron Ammonium Citrate, Silicon Dioxide
Preservatives Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Calcium Propionate, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Calcium Sorbate, Potassium Sorbate, BHA, BHT, EDTA, Tocopherols
Stabilizers, Thickeners, Binders, and Texturizers Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Cellulose Gum, Gum Arabic, Gelatin, Pectin, Carrageenan
Emulsifiers Soy Lecithin, Mono- and Diglycerides, Egg Yolks, Polysorbates, Sorbitan Monostearate
Vitamin and Minerals Water Soluble Vitamins (e.g. B & C), Fat Soluble Vitamins (e.g. A, E, D, & K), and Minerals (e.g. Zinc & Magnesium)

Woman Performing Situps

Food allergens may be present naturally in the protein source and/or added due to the addition of additives. Allergens cause a defensive response by the human body’s immune system. According to the National Institute of Health, potential symptoms of a food allergy may be, but are not limited to: [105]

  • Itching or swelling in your mouth
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps and pain
  • Hives or eczema
  • Tightening of the throat and trouble breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure

Below is a table showing common allergens and their source(s):

Allergens
Allergen Source(s)
Dairy Dairy Protein Powders (e.g. whey, milk, casein)
Soy Soy Protein Powder, Soy Lecithin
Peanuts/Tree Nuts Natural Flavors, EFAs
Egg Egg Protein Powder
Wheat Wheat Protein Powder, Gluten

Price v. Quality

When choose a protein supplement, there are two primary factors to consider; price and quality. Price is fairly self-explanatory; it’s the cost of the protein supplement. You can analyze price by cost per bar/RTD/serving of powder, cost per gram of protein, or cost per calorie.

You can analyze quality based on numerous factors such as protein source (e.g. dairy or non-dairy), protein concentration (re: grams of protein per serving), protein quality (e.g. concentrate v. isolate v. hydrolysate), taste, mixability, manufacturer brand reputation, number and amount of filler ingredients (e.g. carbohydrates, fats, fiber), impurities (e.g. allergens and additives) as well as transparency of the label (re: whether the company hides behind a proprietary blend or breaks down the quantity of each ingredient).

Typically, a protein supplement with higher quality ingredients will cost more. For example, a faster digesting and higher purity source of whey protein like an isolate or hydrolysate requires more processing and resources to create compared to a whey concentrate. As a result, whey isolate and hydrolysate products are more expensive than whey concentrate products 99.9% of the time.

If you’re new to protein supplements it’s recommended you choose products that balance quality and price. If your budget allows, feel free to try protein supplements with higher quality ingredients to see if and how it impacts your exercise performance and post-workout recovery.

Taste

MTS Whey

MTS Machine Whey packs a huge taste punch and backs it with industry-leading quality. Explore flavors now.

The taste of a protein supplement can be affected by a variety of ingredients. Let’s first discuss the primary flavors used in protein supplements – chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. If you have a soft spot for ice cream, this is the Neapolitan trifecta. These are the three most common flavors of protein powders, bars, and RTDs.

Sure, you might find variations like peanut butter chocolate, or vanilla mocha, but these three flavors are the tried-and-true flagship flavors offered by most supplement manufacturers. Without a great-tasting base flavor, the protein supplement is going to be unpalatable.

If you’re new to protein supplements I recommend you choose one of the three aforementioned flavors; once you determine which base flavor you like I encourage you to branch out and try any and every flavor that sounds appealing. If you’d prefer something more refreshing than a dessert-like protein flavor, many manufacturers offer fruit-flavored proteins like raspberry and fruit punch.

In addition to the base flavor of a protein supplement, the presence and strength of artificial sweeteners, carbohydrates, free-form amino acids (AAs, BCAAs, or EAA) can alter the taste. Nearly all artificial sweeteners will increase the sweetness of a protein supplement.

Carbohydrates are a different story; maltodextrin and waxy maize don’t alter sweetness nearly as much as carbohydrates like honey, fructose, and glucose. If the manufacturer includes free-form amino acids in addition to the naturally-occurring amino acids found in the protein source, you may notice a slightly more bitter and acidic smell, taste, and aftertaste. Although this bitterness and acidity isn’t guaranteed, be mindful when selecting a protein with added free-form amino acids.

The taste of protein bars and RTDs are fairly consistent since they’re pre-made and pre-portioned, but you can alter the taste of a protein powder if you adjust the liquid to powder ratio. The more water you use, the more diluted, muted, and subtle the protein supplement flavor will be. When you first start using a new protein powder supplement, follow the recommended liquid to powder ratio on the container and adjust based on your taste preference.

Mixability

Depending on the type and quality of ingredients used, mixability can significantly vary across protein supplements. As you would expect, the presence of fiber and thickeners will make a protein supplement thicker because they absorb water. Carbohydrates may also increase the thickness of a protein supplement depending on the liquid to carbohydrate ratio.

If you’re looking to completely eliminate mixability as a factor when choosing a protein supplement then you should select a protein bar. RTDs require minimal mixing; although they’re already pre-mixed it’s recommended to briefly shake them before opening as settling may occur while they sit on shelf or in a warehouse. If you don’t shake RTDs you’ll likely encounter the gloopy sludge that slides from the bottom of the RTD container after you’ve consume a majority or all of the RTD.

As expected, protein supplements in powder form require the most mixing; however you have control over the liquid to powder ratio, which gives you control over the final product’s consistency. Cheaper RTDs and powders may not mix as evenly and uniformly after shaking or using a spoon; this circles back to the price versus quality discussion mentioned earlier in the guide.

Despite your best efforts you may encounter clumps or a lot of residual granules after filling up your shaker and trying to mix a cheaper protein supplement. However, a quick refill of the shaker or container of choice will usually ensure you get every last drop of the protein supplement.

More specifically, protein sources like casein and egg absorb more water than products like whey, which creates a thicker consistency, assuming you use the same liquid to powder ratio for all three products. If the protein supplement has added BCAAs you may notice white specks that float to the top and never completely mix despite vigorous stirring or shaking. This poor mixability is common for BCAAs, especially the amino acid leucine.

When choosing the protein supplement right for you, consider ease of and need for mixability; bars require no mixing whereas powders require the most mixing and RTDs fall somewhere in the middle.

protein Powder

Portability

As mentioned in previous sections, protein supplements are extremely portable. When deciding with protein supplement is right for you, consider the scenarios in which you’d be consuming the protein supplement.

For example, if you’re in a rush and don’t have access to liquids like milk or water, then a RTD would be your best option. You could consume a protein bar but without liquid to wash it down you risk choking. Alternatively you could pre-mix protein powder in your liquid of choice; this provides you with the qualities of an RTD without the convenience-incorporated price tag.

If you want a lightweight option that won’t weigh-down your gym-bag then choose a protein bar or protein powder. The liquid content of the RTD adds additional weight and bulk; it’s much easier to carry 12 bars or 12 servings of protein powders than 12 RTDs; that many RTDs would require another bag! If you’re looking for a spill- or mess-proof option then avoid RTDs and powders and go with a protein bar. If the container of the RTD or protein powder is accidentally punctured or opened, then the contents of you gym bag could be ruined and requires a frustrating amount of clean-up.

Post-Workout Products

Post-workout protein supplements are marketed towards active individuals looking kick-start recovery, replenish glycogen stores, and trigger muscle protein synthesis after their workout. The ingredients in a post-workout are typically fast-digesting in nature and facilitate muscle repair and rebuilding. Post-workout supplements may contain two or more of the following:

  • Fast digesting protein sources like whey protein, individual amino acids, BCAAs, and/or EAAs. These sources trigger MPS most rapidly.
  • Fast digesting carbohydrate sources like waxy maize, dextrose, and/or maltodextrin. These sources replenish glycogen stores most rapidly.
  • A source of creatine like monohydrate, ethyl ester, nitrate, or HCL. This helps to support cellular function and optimize ATP (re: energy) production. [106]
  • Water soluble vitamins (e.g. B & C) and minerals (e.g. potassium, magnesium, & zinc) excreted during exercise via sweating.
  • Antioxidants to fight the free radicals released during exercise

Post-workout supplements can an excellent all-in-one supplement but they come with a higher price tag due to convenience. Those who don’t want to pay the price tag of a post-workout supplement create their own by using a single-source or multi-source protein powder blend and adding the exact doses of whatever addition ingredients they want.

Popular post-workout products include Myogenix AfterShock, Universal Nutrition Lava, Universal Nutrition Torrent, and MuscleMeds Secret Sauce.

Weight Gainers

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Weight gainers are a protein supplement variety marketed towards hard gainers, teenagers, those who have trouble consuming the majority of their calories from whole foods, and extremely active individuals (re: active job + heavy weight training, athletes, 2-a-day training sessions) requiring a very high caloric intake. These powders, bars, and RTD are much more calorically dense compared to a traditional protein powder; weight gainers can have over 1000 calories per serving.

Weight gainers contain not only a protein supplement but also fiber, fats (EFAs, MCTs, and CLA), vitamins, minerals, significant amounts of added simple and complex carbohydrates.

Popular weight gainers include MTS Epic Gains Mass Gainer, Muscle & Brawn Huge Gainer, ON Serious Mass, Elite Mass Gainer, and BSN True Mass 1200.

Meal Replacements

Meal replacement protein products share many characteristics with weight gainers but they’re typically marketed towards on-the-go individuals looking for a balanced, healthy, calorie-controlled option. These individuals may not have time to prepare a meal during the day so they’re looking for a replacement in powder, bar, or RTD form.

Meal replacements contain not only a protein supplement but also added fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, greens powder, and a more conservative amount of carbohydrates. Whereas weight gainers may have over 1000 calories per serving, meal replacements typically have 200 to 500 calories per serving.

Popular meal replacement products include MTS Macrolution MRP, Labrada Lean Body, Core Nutritionals CORE MRP, and Controlled Labs Gold Feast.

Implementing Protein Supplements for Optimal Results

When Should I Consume Protein Supplements?

In short, there is no bad time to consume a protein supplement. You can consume a protein supplement whenever you want to supplement your dietary protein intake from whole foods, increase MPS, as well as fuel and improve your recovery from exercise. However, you may want to consider using different protein supplements based on your goal(s) and time of day of consumption.

The chart below suggests the optimal protein supplement options based on the time of day you plan to consume them:

Triceps Training
Time of Day Digestibility Speed Supplement Form Reasoning
Upon Waking/
Breakfast
Fast, Medium, or Slow Powder, RTD, or Bar After 8 to12+ hours of sleep any protein source will kick-start MPS. A faster digesting source like whey protein may leave you hungry sooner than a slow digesting source like casein.
Snack Fast, Medium, or Slow Powder, RTD, or Bar Snack-time is an excellent time to consume nearly any type of protein supplement.
Pre-workout Fast Powder or RTD If you’re looking to consume a protein supplement within an hour of lifting choose something faster digesting and light on the stomach like whey isolate or AAs/BCAAs/EAAs. This typical rules out protein bar supplements.
Intra-workout Fast Powder or RTD Similar to the pre-workout recommendation aim for something fast-digesting that helps to fight intra-workout catabolism (re: muscle breakdown). AAs/BCAAs/EAAs are most popular and those with a large budget may consumer hydrolysate proteins.
Post-workout Fast or Medium Powder, RTD, or Bar After an intense workout you’ll want something fairly light on the stomach yet hearty enough to tide you over until your next meal. Whey, soy, beef, and egg proteins are all excellent options.
Pre-bed Medium or Slow Powder, RTD, or Bar Because you’ll be asleep for the next 8 to 12+ hours you want something that will trigger MPS and keep you full until you wake up. Nobody likes to wake up in the middle of the night hungry. Soy, beef, egg, casein, and blend protein supplements are excellent options.

Protein Supplementation Plan for Lean Mass Gain

Protein supplements are a powerful tool for maximizing lean mass gains and minimizing fat accumulation during a weight gain phase. At the simplest level gaining lean mass requires you to consume more calories than you expend every day.

Below is an example protein supplementation plan for those looking to increase lean mass. Feel free to adjust based on your lifestyle, activity level, training experience and caloric intake.

Protein Supplement Plan
Meal Name Food and Supplements
Breakfast Eggs, bacon, oatmeal, orange, and coffee
Snack A banana and weight gainer protein powder mixed with whole milk
Lunch Grilled chicken pita wrap, apple, and Caesar salad
Pre-workout PB&J sandwich and a meal replacement bar, RTD, or powder mixed with whole milk
Intra-workout AAs/BCAAs/EAAs or Isolate or Hydrolysate protein and a fast digesting carbohydrate source or an all-in-one intra-workout product
Post-workout A high carb all-in-one post workout product or fast or moderate digesting protein source like whey, beef, soy, or egg mixed with a fast digesting carbohydrate source
Dinner Spaghetti and meatballs with a side of steamed spinach
Pre-bed Casein protein or protein blend bar, RTD, or powder mixed with whole milk

Protein Supplementation Plan for Fat Loss

Protein supplements are also a powerful tool for maximizing fat loss and minimizing lean mass loss during a weight loss phase. At the simplest level losing fat mass requires you to consume fewer calories than you expend every day.

Below is an example protein supplementation plan for those looking to decrease fat mass. Feel free to adjust based on your lifestyle, activity level, training experience and caloric intake.

Protein Supplement Plan For Fat Loss
Meal Name Food and Supplements
Breakfast Blueberries, almonds, greek yogurt, a vegetable smoothie, and coffee
Snack Meal replacement bar, RTD, or powder mixed with water or skim milk
Lunch Spinach salad topped with grilled steak, tomatoes, cheese, onions, mushrooms, peppers, and oil & vinegar dressing and an apple
Pre-workout A protein bar and almond milk
Intra-workout AAs/BCAAs/EAAs or Isolate or Hydrolysate protein
Post-workout A banana and a low-carb post-workout supplement or fast or moderate digesting protein source like whey, beef, soy, or egg
Dinner Grilled chicken with stir-fried vegetables served atop steamed rice
Pre-bed Casein protein or protein blend bar, RTD, or powder mixed with almond milk

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can I have too much protein?

Assuming you don’t have pre-existing medical conditions, there is technically no such thing as “too much” protein. However, as previously discussed in this guide, the law of diminishing returns kicks in for natural trainees when you consume more than one gram per pound of bodyweight.

Excess protein will be converted to glucose, which the body will use for short-term energy. If you’re eating excess protein and eating in a caloric surplus, those extra calories could contribute to fat gain if your surplus is too large.

Additionally, we can all agree protein is delicious but it tends to be the most expensive of the three macronutrients. So eating too much extra protein is just going to be draining on your wallet.

Are protein supplements bad for my kidneys?

Protein powder has gained notoriety for being harsh on the kidneys, but assuming you have no pre-existing medical conditions, this could not be further from the truth. High protein diets can cause metabolic acidosis which results in increased excretion of nitrogen and calcium via urine, however researchers believe this may be due to the increased rate of protein metabolism after a high protein meal. [107]

In layman’s terms, this means that a high protein meal can cause metabolic changes and make your body’s pH more acidic, but these metabolic changes aren’t necessarily bad, but rather a natural response by the body. Supplementing with potassium and calcium appears to offset any negative metabolic changes due to consuming a high protein diet.

In short, if you’re worried about a more balanced pH and decreasing your acidity levels due to a high protein diet, consider supplementing with calcium and potassium.

Can I consume all of my protein from protein supplements?

While you can technically consume all of your protein from protein supplements, it’s not recommended for a number of reasons.

Firstly, while protein supplements are an excellent source of protein, they’re not nearly as satisfying as whole foods. As previous discussed in this guide, consuming calories in liquid form (e.g. protein powder or RTD) does not suppress and satisfy hunger as effective as whole food sources. You might then wonder if protein bars are the next best option since they’re solid food, but I can guarantee you a 500 calorie protein bar will not be as satisfying as 500 calories of chicken, broccoli and rice due to volume differences.

Secondly, protein supplements are processed to increase protein content and decrease filler content. These fillers include fats, carbohydrates, allergens, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. While obtaining carbohydrates and fats from other sources is quite easy and avoiding allergens is more than acceptable, consuming a large majority of your protein from processed supplements decreases your intake of key vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in the unprocessed state of these protein supplements.

Finally, consuming all of your protein from protein supplements isn’t exactly cheap; sure, a protein powder might be slightly cheaper per gram of protein compared to foods like chicken breast and steak, but once you start consuming RTDs and protein bars, you’re paying significantly more per gram of protein. In conclusion, use protein supplements as they’re meant, which is to supplement and add to your protein intake from whole foods. Your body and wallet will thank you.

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Name: Nick Ludlow

Bio: When it comes to fitness I enjoy reading about historic weight lifters, non-conventional weightlifting approaches, nutritional protocols, and the science behind supplements.