The theory in favour of protein supplementation is based largely on its primary use by the body as a building material for muscle. In short, and perhaps simplistically put: muscles are largely made from protein, therefore more protein will mean more muscle.

Yet there are many other benefits claimed for protein supplementation, such as enhancing muscle recovery, strength and endurance.

Let’s answer a few questions for you in this sports supplements guide for beginners

Most scientists now agree that athletes require a higher amount of protein than the generally recommended intakes and that such amounts need to be tailored to the type, intensity and duration of the exercise; however, scientists also previously suggested that you should have no problem getting your higher requirement from your diet, and therefore supplements were strictly unnecessary.

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Moreover, although trials did show improvements with protein supplementation, these were mainly in untrained athletes; the evidence for trained athletes seemed uncertain, especially if the supplement did not contain other nutrients, such as creatine.

However, recent trials have shown that the timings were as important as the tailored amounts; protein (and/or amino acids) taken before, during and after exercise may indeed enhance endurance, muscle mass, maintenance of lean body mass, and strength. So, supplementation of protein might be a convenient way to ensure the amounts and timings are better tailored to individual athletes.

Some sources consider indispensable amino acids (IAA) separately from protein, and suggest that 3-6g of just IAA (not protein powders, which normally include all 20 amino acids) should be taken before and after training, as there is some evidence that this will stimulate protein synthesis – and this is where certain supplements overlap and become a little confusing.

So, before any further explanation, if you decide to try IAA before and after training, it is probably best to take them with the carbohydrates that you will be ingesting anyway.

Protein supplements will normally consist of all the amino acids, both dispensable amino acids (DAA) and IAA, but the proportions of each vary considerably. That apart, some of these are treated as supplements in their own right; for example, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), which consists of three IAA, glutamine (a DAA) and creatine (which consists of one IAA and two DAA).

So the positive results of protein supplementation and/or IAA may well be owing to specific amino acids, rather than IAA or protein (regardless of the form in which it comes) as a whole.

There are many forms of protein available and each contains all the IAA and most or all of the DAA to a greater or lesser degree, but there is no strong evidence to suggest the superiority of one form over another.

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Image by Graham Anderson

Whey protein is very good post-exercise as it is digested in about 30 minutes and contains high levels of all the essential amino acids, and hence BCAA. There are two types of whey protein: whey concentrate, which is 25 to 89% protein (most are 80-85 %), and whey isolate which is about 90 to 95% protein.

Whey isolate has little or no fat, lactose or minerals, whereas whey concentrate has a little of each of these. However, since neither is generally thought to be superior over the other in terms of ergogenic benefits, the cheaper whey concentrate is perhaps the better choice.

Both of these may be hydrolysed, a process in which a compound is broken down by a chemical reaction with water that makes the protein easier to mix (far less likely to become lumpy) and is absorbed better and quicker – though it is also the most expensive.

Casein protein is the main protein present in milk and has a high concentration (about 20%) of glutamine. It forms a gel in the stomach, and therefore provides a slow release of amino acids into the bloodstream, sometimes lasting several hours. For this reason, casein is often the favoured protein throughout the day by many athletes, and often last thing at night by bodybuilders, because in theory, this means more proteins will be absorbed in the body and produce better results.

Soy protein comes from soybeans and their supplement form contains higher levels of proteins than any of the usual food sources of soy, including soya milk and tofu (bean curd – a soft white substance made from mashed soy beans). It is suitable for vegetarians and contains almost the same amount of IAA as casein.

Albumen (egg-white) protein is a lactose and dairy-free protein. It has the highest absorption rate of any natural source and is considered the best quality of all the wholefood proteins.

Hemp seed protein and brown rice protein are both complete proteins (i.e. include eight IAA), and although they contain considerably less IAA than the other protein types mentioned above, they are particularly easy to digest.

Pea protein is a rich source of amino acids and is comparable to soy protein, but is less allergenic. It is not uncommon to find hemp, rice and pea protein blended as one ‘plant protein’ powder; this effects a good balance of amino acid contents and digestibility and is suitable for vegetarians.

If you decide to use protein supplements, and you do not exceed the suggested total daily dose required for your particular needs, then you should not suffer any of the adverse side-effects associated with excessive protein intake, such as diarrhoea, and problems with the liver and kidneys.

To read more from Henry Bard visit his Expert page

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