Protein is perhaps the considered the most important macronutrient in your diet. Protein is the building block of muscles and tissues. Protein makes up a large portion of your metabolic and detoxifying co-factors. In other words in order to use energy, repair tissues, and remove waste from your body you need protein. The average person requires about 30 grams of protein per day just to run their immune system. Getting in enough protein is no doubt important, and depending on your goals, the sources of this protein are important as well.
The easiest protein food to point out is meat. Meats are, on average 20% protein by weight, and have almost zero carbohydrates. There are other food sources of protein like nuts, seeds, legumes, and some veggies, but the amount and quality is not comparable. When looking for a quality protein food the things your should be concerned with are:
- Is it a complete protein?
- Is it a highly bioavailable protein
Complete proteins are those that contain all the amino acids our body use. This means that no matter what our body needs to do, it will be getting the materials to do so. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Our body can create some of them from others, while 9 essential ones must be obtained from our food. If you are missing some essential amino acids because you chose to use limited plant source proteins over meat, you might be wasting your efforts because you are missing the amino acids you need. For optimal results complete proteins like meat and dairy are the best option.
The other advantage meat has over other foods is that the fats in grass fed meats work synergistically with protein to promote energy production and metabolism. Proteins with the right fats in a meal are much better for burning fat and building muscle than protein alone.
Protein bioavailablity basically means how well the proteins in the food are digested and utilized by our body. It doesn’t matter how good a protein looks on paper if we can’t actually use it. Here is a comparison of some protein sources and their relative bioavailability.
Protein powders come in all forms these days. Whey and Casein proteins from dairy, isolates from meat and eggs, as well as vegan protein powders. The two biggest difference between protein powders and protein foods is digestion, and fat content. When you eat a steak, the amino acids are slowly digested and taken up as your body breaks the protein in the meat. This allows for a slower more steady release of amino acids into the blood stream. The is most important when your goal is to lose body fat. Many amino acids are glucogenic meaning that they can be converted into glucose in the liver and used as a carbohydrate. When amino acids are taken in powder like Whey Protein, the amino acids are absorbed much faster, and this results in a higher insulin response than the slow digesting meat. This is advantageous after a workout, but during the day spiking insulin is not going to help you shed that muffin top.
In humans, the glucogenic amino acids are:
Amino acids that are both glucogenic and ketogenic:
An important note is that studies on whey protein show that it does increase blood sugar and insulin, but actually decreases blood sugar in the hours post digestion. This makes whey protein ideal for post workout even when fat loss is the goal.
Most protein powders and supplements have little to no fat content. This means you lose those synergistic effects you get from eating grass fed meats and fish. This can limit their benefits when taken away from workout periods.
Recap: Whether you are trying to lose fat, build muscle, or just stay full of energy and satisfied all day, using both protein from foods and powders is beneficial. Limit your powders to when your body needs a faster influx of amino acids like post workout, and use food as much as you can away from training. Too many protein shakes can plateau your body fat goals in a hurry. If you struggle getting your protein in throughout the day, you can try adding small amounts of protein supplementation to your meals or at the least try to consume some healthy fats and veggies with a protein shake ( example: a shake plus some broccoli and pasture raised butter).