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Does the source of protein in your diet make a difference?

By Joel Totoro, RD, 11/20/18, 6:30AM MST


It's no secret that protein is important, but are all sources created equal?

Protein plays a major role in our bodies. It provides the structure of our muscles, bone, skin, and tissues, as well as the power to fuel the chemical reactions in our bodies. It's no secret that protein is important, but for some people it’s unclear which sources they should get their protein from, and whether or not all sources are created equal.

Whole Food

Dairy-based proteins have been studied the most in the recovery and performance area, but quality non-dairy protein sources from egg, beef, pork, soy, pea and hemp have also been researched. Research shows that quality whole-food sources of protein can meet baseline protein needs, as well as performance and recovery needs.

Protein Powders

Although whole foods can supply sufficient protein, many individuals often look to protein powders and amino acid supplements to combine with whole foods because of their convenience and not being able to eat enough solid protein before or after training.

Whey Protein Powder is considered a complete protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids and it’s recognized for its high rate of absorption.

Whey protein powders are available in concentrate and isolate formulas, although there is considerable confusion between the two. To obtain whey from whole milk it needs to be separated from the fat, lactose, and other components of the milk.

1. Whey protein concentrate is a filtered version of whey that, depending on the exact process, generally is in the range of 70-85% whey protein; for example, 100 grams of whey concentrate powder yields 70-85 grams of useable whey.

2. Whey protein isolate, which involves a more complex and expensive process to obtain it, generally ends up in the range of 90-95% whey protein; for example, 100 grams of whey protein isolate powder yields 90-95 grams of useable whey.

Protein can be measured by its bioavailability; that is, the ability of the body to absorb and use it. For example, the bioavailability of an egg white as a whole food is 100.

The bioavailability of whey protein concentrate measures 104; whereas, the bioavailability of whey protein isolate measures as high as 159.

Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is another measure of protein quality. PDCAAS accounts for the body’s amino acid needs as well as its ability to use the protein. Whey protein receives a perfect 1.0 PDCAAS rating and does not differentiate between the concentrate and isolate forms.

3. Vegan Protein sources are non-dairy alternative proteins for those individuals who are lactose intolerant or who choose to avoid animal products. Its formulated to provide an amino acid composition similar to whey protein isolate. Pea protein compares favorably to whey protein when compared according to muscle thickness.

Pea protein has a PDCAAS score of 92.8, which puts it in the range of whey protein.

Amino Acids

When it comes to recovery needs, the science community has focused on the amino acid leucine. Leucine is part of a subset of amino acids called branched chain amino acids. It’s the key protein trigger that stops muscle breakdown during training and switches to recovery after training.

Some individuals choose to take amino acids to directly stimulate this recovery process, especially those who have gut sensitivity issues post-workout, or those who are calorie conscious.

It should be noted, however, that while amino acids are adequate to trigger the recovery pathway, complete proteins should be included throughout the day.

Although protein comes in many forms, the source that is right for an individual can vary from day to day. Often times a mix of protein sources will help meet individual needs. On the one hand, whole food sources of protein contain other valuable nutrients and are part of a well-balanced nutrition plan.

On the other hand, whey protein sources are more convenient to consume and faster to digest than whole food sources. Finally, when recovery is the target, amino acids offer an even faster delivery system to the muscles and are low in calories for those with body composition goals in mind. 

To learn more about Thorne Nutritional products and our partnership please click here.

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