By Amanda Carlson
As an athlete, you need more protein than the regular joe. Your protein can come from different sources; however, I firmly believe that you should rely on food first and supplements second to meet your protein needs.
Following is a guide to the best sources of protein and how to use them to get the results you want.
The Real Deal: Food
Not all food protein sources are created equal. Biological value describes how well your body uses protein from a specific food. The higher the biological value of a food, the more complete are its proteins. Animal proteins, such as eggs, egg whites, lean meats and milk, have the highest value because they contain all amino acids. Plant proteins, with the exception of vegetable soy, are incomplete and not absorbed as well by the body.
When choosing animal proteins, think: the fewer legs the better. Fish have no legs and are a very lean protein source. Chickens and turkeys, both bipedal, are also lean sources when skinned and grilled or baked. Be most selective when choosing products from cows and pigs; for example, skim milk is better than whole. The point is to get good protein without unhealthy fats.
Bottom Line: Your body absorbs animal proteins the best. Try to include one lean protein source with each meal.
A Word About Whey
Whey protein, a milk extract, is a convenient supplement to your whole food diet. It's full of branched chain amino acids (BCAA), which help muscles recover. In the form of protein isolate, whey is lactose free. I usually suggest taking between 20 to 40 grams of whey per day.
Bottom Line: Because whey protein digests quickly, it's a perfect supplement before, during and after workouts.
The Casein Concept
Casein protein, which is recognized for its amino acid profile and slow digestion property, is a milk protein obtained through cheese production. Its slow breakdown allows for amino acids to be available for longer periods of time, so I recommend taking it in the form of a shake as a midday, evening or post-workout snack. Cottage cheese is a great source of casein protein.
Bottom Line: Use casein when your body has time to digest and absorb the protein.
What About Soy?
Soy is a highly contended protein. Some experts rave about all its health-enhancing components and how well the body receives this complete protein. Other experts rant about the interaction between soy and thyroid functions. Studies have shown that soy decreases the risk of some cancers; other studies have revealed that soy increases the risk of different cancers.
Bottom Line: For athletes who have an aversion to milk proteins, soy powder provides a good post-workout shake alternative. Soy protein has some components that may benefit recovery and athletic performance, like high amounts of BCAA, histadine, which has acid buffering benefits, and phenylalanine, which could help you stay alert.
At the End of the Day
Although there are potential benefits to soy, a recent review found that combining milk proteins (whey and casein) is the best way to gain and repair lean body mass. Focus on those two proteins. But, if nothing else is available, go for soy.
Amanda Carlson, M.S., R.D., is the nutrition manager at Athletes Performance, Tempe, Ariz. Their clientele has included the likes of Mia Hamm, Nomar Garciaparra and Brett Favre.
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