For Athletes

In my previous article on the importance of protein, I have made the assertion that optimum athletic development without the regular use of a quality protein supplement is not very likely. This may leave some people wondering, why it should not be possible to satisfy their protein needs  by simply consuming  sufficient amounts of whole food sources of protein. After all, the current RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) with only approximately  0.8 g protein per kg of body-weight for adults does not appear too difficult to meet by consuming traditional food sources of protein. Unfortunately, the RDA does  not appreciate the scientifically proven fact that the protein needs of individuals with an active athletic lifestyle are significantly  higher  than the protein needs of sedentary individuals . How much protein a person needs depends on the level of activity and the intensity of training. Experiments have shown that the actual protein needs of most athletes are at least between 1.6 and 1.8 g per kg of body-weight per day. Competitive bodybuilders, especially when training intensely under the influence of  anabolic agents, may even benefit from protein intakes of more than  2.5 g per kg of body-weight per day. 

In order to get a better understanding about the issue of  protein needs and protein supplementation, let us first have a look at some basic facts on protein in general.

Proteins are made up of chains of individual amino acids; 22 amino acids are commonly found in nature. Eight of these 22 amino acids are called “essential” or “indispensable” amino acids , as they must be obtained from our diet. Seven other amino acids are called “conditionally essential” as the body may  under certain circumstances like intense physical activity or  illness  not be able to manufacture all of them on time or enough of them to cover all of proteins vital functions. The remaining  amino acids  are called “non-essential” or “dispensable”; they do not need to be ingested , as the body is capable of manufacturing them from the eight  Essential Amino Acids. 

Whole food sources of protein, which contain all the eight Essential Amino Acids are  called “Complete Proteins” ; examples of  “complete” protein foods are  meat, chicken, fish, milk, eggs etc. Even though “complete”, these proteins are yet not all of the same quality: some have a higher Biological Value (BV) than others. (The BV is a  measure of a protein’s quality and indicates how many percent of the protein consumed is actually absorbed and utilized by the body;  the higher the BV, the better the protein! ). Cow’s milk, for example,  has a BV of 91, fish has a BV of 83;  the BV of beef is 80 and the BV of chicken is 79. 

Other common measures for evaluating protein quality are the PER ( Protein Efficiency Ratio),

the NPU (Net Protein Utilization)  and the so called PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score); though none of these indices is ideal, they all offer a  general indication, how “usable”a protein is by the body.

Foods  which are lacking either one or several of the eight Essential Amino Acids are called “Incomplete Proteins” ; these  Incomplete Proteins are mainly of plant origin and include legumes (lentils,beans), oats, grains etc. Combinations of two or more Incomplete Proteins, deficient in different Essential Amino Acids, can usually jointly supply all the eight Essential Amino Acids, needed to manufacture any Non-Essential Amino Acids. Unfortunately these Essential Amino Acids are  provided  in the wrong ratios to maintain a positive nitrogen balance and to manufacture sufficient amounts of all necessary non-essential proteins in time for optimum physical development.  The Biological Value of  incomplete proteins of plant origin is therefore generally lower than the BV of complete proteins of animal origin (rice has a BV of 59, wheat’s BV is 54).  The only exception is soy protein; it contains all of the Essential Amino Acids in adequate amounts and recent advances in soybean processing technique have led to the development of high-quality soy isolates, which have various health benefits and even beat many whey, egg or casein based protein supplements by their content of certain amino-acids . 

 Although there is no official scientific evidence that one can’t meet all one’s  protein needs for muscle growth through food, this is certainly no easy task. Being serious about your work-out and your physical development, means you have to eat a meal every three hours; each of these meals must contain a complete protein such as egg-whites, lean meat, chicken or dairy products. While it may not be completely impossible to ingest the necessary amounts of protein in form of food, it certainly takes careful meal planning and quite some time and effort to prepare all these meals and eat them ! It is certainly much easier to prepare and drink a protein shake than cook and eat poultry ,fish or egg whites every three hours. Not to forget, the stress that protein foods like these cause to the digestive system. It takes several hours  to digest beef or chicken, which means that your  muscles and all your other physiological systems need to wait that long for  the urgently needed amino acids to fulfill their vital functions. 

A high-quality protein shake on the other hand provides all important amino acids to your  body only within minutes after consumption.  Whey protein supplements ( with whey protein isolate being  the purest form of all whey proteins  !) are called “fast-acting” as they excel in providing high amounts of  branched chain amino acids to your  muscles faster than any other protein supplement. The fast supply of  amino acids  is of  particular importance immediately after an intense work-out session. By then  the blood flow to your muscles is still high and your  muscles are especially receptive to nutrients; supplying them with the necessary amino acids right then ensures optimum recovery and growth.

Another disadvantage of  getting all your protein from whole food sources is that you  can’t help ingesting a certain amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, which any serious athlete must try to avoid.( The dietary fat intake of athletes should exclusively consist of unsaturated fats like olive oil, flaxseed oil safflower oil or sunflower oil.)  A  high-quality protein shake on the other hand usually contains up to 90-95 % protein in its purest form and only little (if any) fat, cholesterol  or lactose!!! Thus it allows you to get your necessary protein without the fat and unwanted calories, and the absence of lactose even makes such a protein shake the ideal source of protein for lactose intolerant people.

Last, but not least, it is important to realize that intact dietary proteins are generally less bio-available than quality protein supplements, even though both may contain the same amounts of amino acids. Therefore a diet based on traditional sources of protein may  provide an adequate intake, but may  yet not be as effective as one that includes a quality protein supplement like a whey concentrate/isolate  or soy isolate. Other quality protein supplements include casein-based protein powders ( the “other” milk protein aside from whey ) and protein powders manufactured from egg whites. Unfortunately casein has a negative effect on one’s cholesterol profile and egg white protein does not only taste badly, but also contains about 10 % carbohydrates. 

The most recommendable protein supplement for athletes may therefore be a mixture of  fast acting whey, immune-system enhancing soy and a certain amount of slower acting casein.

A combination of all of these proteins will definitely provide you with better gains than either one of the above mentioned protein supplements alone.

Dr. Christoph Klueppel
Master of Fitness Sciences
Specialist in Performance Nutrition
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