Protein supplements are products used as a nutritional supplement based on food peptides.
The excess, if on the one hand can create a nutritional deficit, on the other rarely will create health problems for the healthy subject.
The proteins in the supplements can be of various derivations, such as milk (casein and whey), egg, soy and wheat (wheat), and can be extracted with different techniques.
In this article we will try to provide a general overview of the most common types, in order to guide users to make a conscious and intelligent purchase.
What Protein Supplements Contain
Protein supplements contain, as the name implies, basically High Biological Value polypeptides (BV).
These are combined chains of amino acids, most of which are essential (AAE), practically in their natural state or partially denatured and hydrolysed – depending on the processing. B vitamins, minerals and / or particular amino acids or similar factors are often added (e.g. arginine, glutamine, taurine, leucine, isoleucine, valine, creatine, carnitine etc.).
By biological value (BV) is meant the “qualitative” measurement parameter of the proteins taken with the diet which – on a scale from 0 to 100 – numerically expresses the quantity, type and mutual relationship of the essential amino acids present in the peptides in question.
The protein used as reference value, the one with 100% BV, it’s the egg.
Usually, to ensure a good average BV, it is recommended that at least 2/3 of the total come from animal sources (eggs, milk and derivatives, meat and offal, fishery products).
Why is biological value important in sport?
By indicating the quantity of nitrogen actually absorbed and used a net of losses – urinary, faecal, skin, etc. – the biological value intrinsically contains the plastic potential of the amino acids contained in food proteins.
A protein with a biological value 100 is perfectly balanced between absorbed amino acids and retained amino acids; the higher this value, the greater the potential for use referred to the protein in question. In practice, the entire peptide polymer is “potentially” usable for plastic purposes in the muscles.
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What are protein supplements for?
The intake of these products therefore has the essential purpose of reaching the daily protein requirement avoiding the specific nutritional deficiency.
What are protein supplements for?
The primary function of protein supplements is to replace protein foods, providing purified proteins, without increasing the intake of other energy macronutrients (fats and carbohydrates). The intake of these products therefore has the essential purpose of reaching the daily protein requirement avoiding the specific nutritional deficiency.
The protein deficit is actually not very widespread in developed countries, while real shortcomings affect economically disadvantaged or nonself-sufficient social groups, third and fourth world countries.
However, if severe and protracted, protein malnutrition can have more or less serious consequences (weakness, reduction of growth, sarcopenia in old age, slowdown in muscle recovery and obstacle to anabolism in sport, etc.).
In England, the population group most interested in protein supplements is that of athletes, lovers of wellness and aesthetic culture (bodybuilding). The “true” protein deficiency is indeed very rare. This is thanks to the body’s ability to spare tissue amino acids in various ways.
The protein requirement is defined in a range, which includes a minimum and a maximum margin – estimated on subjects with average physical activity level, not on athletes.
How many proteins do we need?
The minimum protein intake, i.e. that which is indispensable for not affecting the protein structures (intended as actual tissues, for example muscle tissue), is approximately 44 and 55 grams per day (g / day), respectively for male and female adults; this can be calculated more precisely by multiplying a coefficient of 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight (g / kg).
The maximum tolerable, always for these subjects, was assessed in maximum safety at about double, therefore 1.6 g / kg.
It is also shown that in athletes practicing strength activities, severely engaged – we do not speak of ordinary sportsmen – increasing this intake can be crucial to obtain a greater training progression (in terms of recovery and muscle growth).
The same does not happen in endurance athletes, who can afford to remain almost normal (understood as the aforementioned upper margin) without negative consequences.
Growing children and teenagers require at least 1.5 g / kg of protein, while pregnant women can settle for a + 6g per day compared to the normal request.
Whey protein or whey
Whey protein can be obtained for:
- Cross-flow ultra-microfiltration (<1% fat; about 92% protein; <1% lactose)
- Microfiltration (concentrated proteins about 80%; Lactose 5-6%, Fat 6%)
- Ion exchange (fats <1%; proteins> 90-95%).
This type of protein supplement is indicated as a post-workout snack, preferably in association with carbohydrates to recreate a greater insulin response, in an attempt to increase the entry of amino acids into muscle cells.
Milk casein proteins
Despite the lower percentage of branched amino acids (BCAA) – i.e. leucine, isoleucine and valine – compared to the previous ones, these proteins have the advantage of being able to be metabolised more gradually useful, for some, in ensuring a longer permanence of circulating amino acids .
Note: the same effect can be obtained by adding milk to whey proteins (carbohydrates, fats and proteins contained in this food slow down the digestion and absorption of the protein supplement).
Egg proteins have an excellent amino acid spectrum (the best) but their high cost means that they are often alternated or replaced by whey protein supplements, much cheaper and of equally high quality.
Plant-based proteins have an amino acid pool that cannot be superimposed on that of animal proteins. They can however be useful, especially for those who follow a vegan diet and want to increase their protein intake.
Considering that these are plant-based proteins, soy proteins have a good biological value, which however cannot be superimposed on that of whey, casein and egg proteins.
On the other hand, thanks to the good content of glutamine, arginine and isoflavone (substances with antioxidant activity and mildly oestrogen-like) they are a valid alternative to traditional whey proteins.
Wheat proteins are rich in glutamine but too low in lysine, an essential amino acid.
How to use them
Protein supplements can be used in various ways.
The most used dose is 30 g at a time (corresponding, for example, to the peptide content of 150 g of chicken breast); it makes up the upper limit dictated by the “reasonableness of the portion”.
It is assumed that this weight also corresponds to the maximum amount of protein absorbable in a meal, but not everyone agrees with this claim. Increasing would not be smart, because it would mean that the diet is deficient.
Less instead, and up to 15 g, protein supplements can be useful in the daily distribution of essential amino acids.
The 5 main ways to use the protein supplement
As a post-workout meal, to immediately supply the body with the amino acids necessary for super-compensation. It is essential to do this as soon as possible, since immediately after the effort the cells are more receptive and have a very high insulin sensitivity. This allows to optimise integration and therefore recovery or muscle growth.
As a pre-workout meal, but only in small doses and mixed with a prevalence of carbohydrates.
As a replacement meal; here things get complicated.
Besides carbohydrates, fats and proteins, a meal must also provide vitamins, minerals, water and various nutritional factors such as fibre, polyphenolic antioxidants, lecithins, phytosterols, etc.
To expect that any supplement can replace a balanced diet is nothing short of utopian. In an emergency, however, the protein supplement can replace a missing second dish.
As an anti-hunger snack, since a protein shake has the power to give modest satiety and relatively moderate gastric emptying in terms of speed.
With 30 g of protein dissolved in 200 ml of water, it introduces about 120 kcal – a few, even if this depends on the need and calorie consumption.
As a pre-sleep snack, in view of a long hour of fasting, even considering suppression from dinner time, protein supplements can support the body that needs a source of amino acids.
However, the amino acid composition of protein supplements is very important.
The extent of muscle protein synthesis is in fact linked in a dose-dependent manner to the availability of essential amino acids.
The best strategy seems to be to combine different protein sources: for example using whey protein supplements (they stimulate protein synthesis without influencing proteolysis) together with casein supplements (the protein that gives a lower contribution protein synthesis but which has an important inhibitory effect on muscle catabolism).