When it comes to discussing nutrition and optimal health, one of the key questions often revolves around protein. How much protein do I need when I’m loing weight? What protein is best if I’m working out at the gym? What’s the difference between soy and whey protein? So, with this in mind, are proteins all the same?
What is protein and why do we need it?
Let’s start with a few key facts. Proteins are essential for our diet…FACT. The body uses proteins to build strong muscles (including your heart), to repair your brain, to produce hormones and enzymes, amongst other things. Proteins are made up of amino acids – 20, in fact – which the body uses as building blocks to carry out all of these essential functions.
9 of these amino acids can’t be produced by the body and therefore must be sourced from our diet. These are called essential amino acids. Any protein sources that don’t contain these 9 essential amino acids are known as “incomplete proteins”. For example, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. Protein sources that contain all 9 of these essential amino acids (and in the right amounts) are called “complete proteins”, and include things like milk, eggs, chicken, fish, beef and yoghurt.
Keeping up so far?
So, tell me more…are proteins all the same?
So now you can see that all proteins aren’t the same. Neither are the sources of protein and what effects they have on our bodies and our health. Most people are familiar with soy protein and whey protein, but not necessarily sure what the difference is. So let’s take a quick look at these.
Both whey and soy are considered high-quality proteins based on the digestibility of their amino acids. Both are considered ‘fast’ proteins because they cause a rapid increase in amino acids available to be used by muscles. But are they both doing the same thing?
Soy protein has been researched at length and there are, frankly, a lot of conflicting studies about its benefits. For example, Asian populations have a high soy content in their diet, often linked to low rates of diseases like breast cancer in these cultures. The suggestion is that this is due to the natural plant chemicals called isoflavones found in soy. However, other studies suggest that these isoflavones could actually disrupt the normal function of hormones in the body.
Soy could also be good for your heart. Again, studies suggest the isoflavones encourage the body to produce nitric oxide (NO). NO helps to dilate blood vessels and thereby reduce pressure in the blood vessel walls. Soy is also high in fibre which may help to reduce cholesterol (although this is not a natural indicator for reduced risk of heart disease and studies offer conflicting results).
As a source of protein, soybeans are pretty good – not as good as meat or eggs, but better than most other plant proteins. However, processing soy at a high temperature can “denature” some of the proteins and reduce their quality by stripping out many of the nutrients. Whole soybeans are rich in micronutrients, but they also contain phytates which block mineral absorption.
The fatty acids in soybeans are mostly Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. This can be problematic as too much Omega-6 in our diet can lead to inflammation and other health issues.
There is still much to learn, it appears, about the benefits (or not) of soy protein. Recommendations appear to suggest sticking with whole and fermented soy products and be moderate in your intake. Products labelled as containing “soy protein” means it’s processed. Processed = bad! This also goes for some soy milk products, which may not even be made from real soy beans. And NEVER eat soybeans raw – they’re poisonous!
Many people think whey protein is just for body builders. It’s true, whey protein is superior to all other protein for building muscle, including soy. But it’s not just about pumping iron. A recent study by McMaster University in Canada, involving elderly men, found that when compared to whey protein, consuming soy protein after a workout or at rest did about as much as plain water for muscle protein synthesis. The results from those consuming whey protein was significantly better. This is good news for anyone wanting to avoid muscle-wasting issues as they get older.
The reason for whey protein’s superiority is the high proportion of “Branched Chain Amino Acids” or BCAAs. These can be absorbed quickly into the body and efficiently stimulate muscle growth, especially if taken after exercise. Studies have shown that consuming whey protein in the right amounts (typically 20-40gm per meal) can help to maintain muscle mass as you lose weight, and also as you age. It is also known to boost metabolism and aid fat loss better than other types of protein. Great news for anyone wanting help losing that stubborn belly fat!
Other benefits of undenatured whey protein include improved mental performance in situations of stress; it can help you feel fuller for longer; and a study carried out at the University of Tokushima in Japan identified multiple proteins in undenatured whey which showed health maintenance properties such as immune support, digestive support and facilitating the uptake of nutrients in the digestive tract.
For me, it’s a clear winner. Protein is such an essential component for our ongoing health and wellbeing that in my opinion whey protein offers the body “whey” more benefit (sorry!!). Identifying sources of undenatured whey protein is key. Once it’s processed it loses a large proportion of its nutrient content (and therefore its benefits).
How much protein should you be having each day depends on your overall health, age, weight, and how active you are. In general, you should aim to consume some protein with each meal, around 20-40gm per meal, and vary the sources of protein.
Whether you want to manage your weight, improve your athletic performance and recovery, boost your metabolism or protect your body as you age, ensure you are getting sufficient protein in your diet from the best possible natural sources.