We love us some protein powder — of all kinds! We use it for baking, making pancakes, and whipping up classic shakes and smoothies to give our bodies that extra boost of satiating and muscle-building power. But are some protein powders better than others?
While Clif Bar hosted us in Kona, HI, last week for the Ironman World Championships, we had the chance to meet countless phenomenal endurance athletes who know a thing or two about sports nutrition and protein. Most expert among them all was Clif's dietitian and triathlon coach Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N — she's an 11-time Ironman. So, yeah, she knows what she's talking about.
We had so many questions for Marni, but one of the chief things that stuck out from our conversation was her tip about whey protein and the fact that it's actually way better for your body than other forms of protein powder (especially for muscle building and recovery). If you're able to consume whey (i.e., you're not vegan), you should opt for it whenever possible. Here's why.
It's a complete protein. This means "it contains all essential and nonessential amino acids (20 amino acids)." BCAAs for recovery? Check!
It's very low in lactose. Marni mentioned that even if you're lactose intolerant, you should still be able to have whey protein. Despite the fact that it comes from animal protein, it's extremely low in digestion-irritating lactose.
Your body can use all of it. Whey protein "ranks highest on the bioavailability list," said Marni. "This means that the body can make use of 100 percent of the amino acids found in whey protein." This also means . . .
Your body CAN'T use 100 percent of some other forms of protein. She went on to explain that not all proteins are this readily available for your body to absorb. "Because the digestive system absorbs some proteins better than others and some proteins have a larger amino acid profile than others, we can say that the protein in whey protein goes a long way in terms of its role in the body for muscles, energy, lean muscle mass, bones, etc."
You might not be getting your full serving without whey. Because other proteins aren't as easily absorbed by your body, you're actually getting less protein than what the label might indicate. For instance, Marni gave an example that if you were to eat a non-whey protein and the serving size says "15 grams" that your body has to break it down to absorb it, and you might end up only absorbing seven or eight grams total. "Whey protein ranks highest [in bioavailability]," she said, "whereas peanuts are lower on the list in terms of bioavailability."
So are plant proteins bad? Not at all. "According to research, you can get a similar amount of protein from pea or soy protein compared to whey, but the absorption isn't as efficient," she told us. "There's nothing wrong with pea or soy protein in terms of a plant-based protein option if it's the only option." But if you're able to eat whey, she recommends it!