ATP Science has been investigating protein supplementation for a few years. After all Protein makes up the majority of sales in the sports industry and we don’t even have one!! Why not? Because we have been trying to work out which one we want to take for ourselves, family and friends and that is the one we will share with everyone else.

It is important to understand this basic concept; “Build it and use it”. I just made that up so I am sure there will be a catchier phrase. But basically, we can use nutrients like amino acids and fats along with micronutrients and fuel to build stuff. But just by throwing more building materials in your body for building muscle doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to build more muscle. Something still needs to come in and force stuff to change or instruct the body to use those materials to specifically build muscle. So when we look at protein supplements (specifically for building muscle), we need to work out which are just throwing in the building materials, which proteins are actually creating change or which proteins have an inhibitory effect.

So when we review the protein supplements and options we realise that some are merely building blocks especially once refined to be pure amino acids. There is no real difference where you get these building blocks, there is no difference between whey, casein, whole dairy, pea, rice etc when compared to normal dietary protein from meats, eggs, cheese, legumes, nuts and seeds. There are however some fascinating discoveries being made into other more functional proteins and peptides to force the body to change and recruit these building blocks to specifically make muscle tissue, or connective tissue, or gut tissue etc. and this is the most exciting part and over coming years you will see this research in the public domain and we will get the opportunity to use them.

I always like to get a basic understanding of the history of discoveries to find the motives and original plan to get the big picture right in my head. Sometimes this can become quite comical to watch the media spin the science.

E.g. Science showed the beneficial macro and micro nutrients in dairy products. Dairy is a good source of complete protein due to the whey and casein content. Whey was a waste by-product from the dairy industry. To value add and improve profits for farmers while prices for milk and cheese were dropping they investigated ways of commercialising they wasted whey. Whey protein concentrate was shown to be a great source of quickly absorbed protein. Whey protein isolate came out to steal market share from the concentrate and now we have an even more superior whey as hydrolysed whey protein. Whey became worth more than the original dairy product so the next step was to investigate ways to value add the new waste from the whey industry; casein. Casein is promoted as a superior source of protein due to slow absorption. Fast forward many years later and the newest research shows a combination of casein and whey may actually be best as it gives a better mix of amino acids and combines slow and fast absorption. Combining them makes them closer to what is found in complete proteins in nature, maybe because we are putting the bits back together the way nature made it in the first place before it was split.

Let’s summarise some of the research and show you were to find the full story.

  • Whey is slightly more effective than the vegetable proteins for body composition changing in those who don’t train real hard. Interestingly, Whey is not any better than placebo. Placebo in this instance is ordinary dietary protein.
  • The theory for the enhanced effects of whey compared to plants (but not better than placebo) was that
    • plant protein has less L-Leucine compared to whey per serve (plant 6-8% and animal protein is 9-11%). The hypothesis is that increasing leucine in plant proteins will make up the difference and create the same results but that has yet to be proven.
    • Absorption rate – whey 99%, casein 97%, rice 87%, pea 93.5%

* remember these numbers for the rice for when we talk rice protein. (Less leucine and poorer absorption from rice compared to whey)

  • Pea protein seems to be closest to whey for increasing muscle size and thickness in those who don’t train very hard and they are both the same as placebo. Baboult et al. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2015, 12:3
  • Rice protein actually showed to be better than whey for many parameters (fat loss, muscle gain, power and strength) when tested in those that train really hard. In this study, they really trained hard. Interestingly the discussion regarding L-Leucine content showed that Rice had much lower levels of leucine but faster absorption of the contained Leucine compared to whey with the rest of the aminos trickling in slower. Purpura et al. J Nutr Health Sci 2014, 1(3):306
  • Soy protein really screws with the “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) theory. The above studies showed that normal dietary protein in meals (placebo) is just as effective as protein from supplements which confirms the IIFYM concept but the soy research shows how macros aren’t all the same as they will often come with other bits and pieces like phytoestrogens or be incorporated into protein peptides and have other functional effects on hormones etc. The studies on Soy protein show that soy has the ability to cancel out your gains from exercise. Using soy protein to make up your protein macronutrient requirements actually made things worse compared to placebo. Better off doing nothing than using soy protein. By the way, soy has excellent bioavailability and protein scores so in theory if just looking at amino acid building blocks it should be excellent but with the other functional components creating hormonal changes it is more than macros. Everything is more than macros. M. Phillips, et al. J Am Coll Nutr 2009, 28(4):343-354; W.J. Kraemer, et al. J Am Coll Nutr 2013, 32(1):66-74; R.L. Thomson et al. Clin Nutr 2016, 35(1):27-33

A paper published in 2007 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise” by Bill Campbell et al reviewed the different forms of protein and timing of consumption and made the following conclusions;

  • 5% of the population including sedentary, “everyday athletes”, “weekend warriors” and those who do not train excessively or at high intensity need approximately 0.8grams per kg of body weight per day worth of protein (as a general rule animal protein foods like a piece of steak is ¼ protein per gram and vegetable protein like a chunk of tofu is 1/5th of the weight of the food, supplements will label amount of pure protein per scoop)
  • Those who exercise at greater intensity and require extra for muscle growth and repair and replenish the protein oxidized during exercise need 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kg body weight per day.
  • Protein intake up to 2g/kg body weight per day has been studied and shown to be safe for acidity, kidney and bone contrary to popular belief. Providing it is consumed as part of a balanced whole food diet.
  • During intense exercise protein oxidation contributes 1 to 5% of the fuel used during exercise.
  • 10 grams of protein per 40kg body weight can be utilised with exercise. So 20g for an 80kg athlete around training is all that is needed.
  • Protein supplementation is fine as a dietary supplement when dietary intake is inadequate. Supplementation will never replace real food from a variety of sources.
  • BCAA 2:1:1 ratio is what is found in nature. Meat and muscle tissue from all animals contain BCAA as 2:1:1. The highest quality protein foods contain approximately 25% of the protein as BCAA and always in the 2:1:1 ratio.
  • Most BCAA research is on 2:1:1 except for individual studies investigating the actions of the individual amino acids; leucine, isoleucine and valine. With most research focusing on leucine as the most effective ergogenic and anabolic one.
  • Leucine research is promising and there is some indications that higher leucine levels or leucine bioavailibity may enhance body composition changes but further research is needed into the effects of altering the BCAA 2:1:1 ratio in supplements and subsequently in your muscle tissue. At this stage BCAA 2:1:1 is following the laws of nature and has been studied and shown to be safe, effective and predictable.

Campbell B, et al. Commentary – International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007, 4:8