Yes, it’s true. All proteins are not created equal. But before we can go further, we need to understand that our diet consists of macronutrients and micronutrients. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are our macronutrients and micronutrients are what we ingest in smaller quantities, like our vitamins and minerals.
When we eat food, it does not declare itself as simply a carbohydrate, protein, or fat. Most foods have a variety of macronutrient components and our bodies do an amazing job at breaking down each ingredient into particles that can then be utilized. This is why eating high quality food without lots of chemicals is preferred. Our body has enough to do without the need of bombarding it with toxins and unnecessary compounds.
There are basic components that make up proteins. They are called amino acids and there are 20 of them. Of these, 9 are considered ‘essential‘, because we cannot create them from other foods we eat. This means you have to consume them in the protein sources you are eating. By definition, a complete protein is one that contains at minimum, all 9 of the essential amino acids. There are also 3 amino acids in the essential amino acid family that are called Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). These 3, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are important for muscle function and many medical treatments. In the fitness community, we want to ingest a lot of foods that contain BCAAs. Luckily, most animal proteins contain BCAAs and all the other essential amino acids. Vegetarians and vegans can acquire BCAAs and essential amino acids, but many times this involves food combining, and food combining is not the most efficient way to achieve the objective.
For example, to obtain 18 grams of high quality protein, one only needs a scoop of whey protein. It’s about 75 calories and it’s 100% protein. In order to get about the same amount of protein through let’s say a rice and bean combination, we’d need over 450 calories and this would involve over 80 grams of carbohydrate in the process (the combo is only about 15% protein). These excess calories do one thing…make us fat! Yes, there are good vegan proteins, such as pea and hemp protein, but food combining is very common. Since we’re omnivores anyway, we should be eating a reasonable amount of animal protein…this is why we exist and Neanderthal died out. Not to offend any vegans, but we were meant to eat meat and this is why our species exists today.
We use the Biological Value (BV) formula to help us determine which proteins are best to consume. The BV value is based on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 signifying complete absorption of the protein. What really puts the damper on the BV score for a particular protein is its lowest amount of an essential amino acid. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So goes it too for protein. Once one of those essential amino acids is no longer present, we no longer have a protein. Therefore, the best proteins have the highest ratios of the rarest of the amino acids, the BCAAs and essential amino acids.
There are charts all over the internet that discuss which proteins have the highest BV. Some proteins, such as whey concentrate and whey isolate, have BVs over 100…but wait a second, how is that possible? Egg protein is considered to be the highest BV protein at 100 but it’s actually 93.7%. When we compare other proteins to egg, it is then possible to have a higher BV than egg, which relatively speaking, takes the BV value over 100. So, whey protein concentrate has a relative BV of 104 but it’s true percentage of BV under 100. This is a bit sneaky isn’t it? Regardless, whey is the most bioavailable form of protein. For those who are curious, chicken, fish, meat, pea, hemp, soy, and all other protein sources pale in comparison to the BV of whey protein.
To compare types of whey, whey concentrate traditionally has an overall ‘purity’ or protein percentage of 29-89% and whey isolate is between 90-95% (over this amount we tend to have amino acids in their natural state). A quality whey concentrate (New Zealand ‘undenatured’ cold filtered) is about 85% protein. One would think that when comparing concentrate and isolate, the higher the protein percentage, the better. Period…end of story…right? Afterall, aren’t we all just after more protein? Actually, this is not really the case. Many think that whey isolate is ‘better’ than whey concentrate, but in reality it is not. Whereas most people will not take a stand here, I will. I don’t look at the difference of 5-10% protein as the determining factor of which is better. They both have true BV values at the top of the chart. I look at all the benefits you’re getting with the concentrate that you are not getting with isolate. For this reason, I believe a good quality concentrate is in many ways superior for OVERALL health…as far as your muscles go, you get plenty of protein with both.
So, how do I qualify the statement that whey concentrate is better for ‘overall health’?
Whey concentrate has immunoglobulins, digestive enzymes, and other considered ‘impurities’ that in actuality, are quite vital. Whey concentrate also creates less of a blood sugar spike. Some will counter and say that the minute quantity of lactose in whey concentrate raises blood sugar levels, but I have what’s called a Continuous Blood Glucose Meter (CBGM) on my side 24/7 and have used different protein sources for decades (I am an insulin dependent diabetic). Although an ‘N’ number of 1, whey concentrate does less to my blood sugar than isolate. Some explanations for this are as follows: 1. The purer the protein, the faster the absorption, and the more insulin is needed. This can create a bigger problem for diabetics and others who are glucose sensitive. 2. Whey concentrate has other proteins, enyzmes, and fats that help to buffer the insulin spike. In effect, the absorption is slowed, if even just a bit. In addition, we get the aided digestion help and improved immune function support from the concentrate. This should be quite preferable for overall health.
We should also remember that MPS, or Muscle Protein Synthesis, is energy dependent. We need some carbohydrates to make muscle. This doesn’t mean we need to ingest a tremendous amount of carbohydrate. More-so, we need a small amount of the right kind(s) of carbohydrate at the right time to gain lean muscle mass.
To add to what is written above, there are more studies showing that whey concentrate has full body positive effects. Whey isolate cannot make these claims. Some of the studies on whey concentrate have shown that it has the ability to treat/prevent h. pylori infections in the stomach, reduce rotavirus induced diarrhea (this kills 500,000 children a year), it helps contribute to immune function, it aids the immune system, and more.
On a sidenote, there is also a lot of misinformation circulating about inflammatory bowel diseases and whey protein. Studies have shown that it is safe and preferred for those with Crohn’s Disease. It has been shown to allow these people to gain lean muscle mass and reduce fat and improve intestinal permeability. These studies should be shared with medical professionals so that they can have more tools to help these individuals.
The bottom line is that we likely need more protein than we are ingesting right now. To remedy this, we need to know how much we need and what type of protein is preferred. I am a strong supporter of high quality whey concentrate for the reasons listed above. It’s not just that the program I’m on has allowed me to lose 17 pounds, get leaner, more muscular, and tighten up my blood sugar control…what matters most is that I feel years younger and function at a more optimal level. This is what our protein and food, in whole, should be doing for all us!
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