Though the specific percentage/ratio varies depending on who you’re talking to, there’s no denying that nutrition plays a significant and fundamental role in fitness, health, weight loss, and building muscle mass. To use a car as an analogy, you can have a powerful motor and clever electronics, but if you fill the tank with bad gas, you’re not going to get anywhere in a hurry. Eating right and eating healthy is obviously step one (and as we’ve noted here, there are apps out there to help you with that), but thanks to modern chemistry and food science there are also a ton of supplements out there to help give you an upper hand.
One thing to always remember. Supplements are just that—an addition to your diet that help you work towards a goal. None of these things (protein powder or otherwise) are meant to replace actual food. Not all supplements are meant for everyone, and not all types of supplements suit every fitness goal either. Our intent here will be to steer you in the right direction, however there’s a certain level of trial-and-error to supplements, and not everyone’s body chemistry will react to each type in the same way so keep that in mind.
Given the diversity of the category, not only will we be discussing the various types of supplements on the market, but also which one are geared towards which fitness goals. If you’re looking to shed some extra pounds, there are supplements out there that can help, though our focus here will be things to help you do so safely (not by using the sketchy/dangerous “diet pills” loaded with ephedrine and/or amphetamines from decades past). If you’re looking to build muscle, there are just as many options to help you get ahead, however different supplements work differently with different exercise/workout styles, so yet again we’ve got some ground to cover.
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Protein Powder—What Kind and Why?
Starting with the biggest and most daunting category for many; how many of you have stood staring blankly at the wall of giant protein tubs in the supplement store in an unfettered state of “analysis paralysis”? Whey, Isolate, Vegan, Casein—what do they all mean? What do they do? Which one is right for you? There’s a lot to digest here, for sure, but we’ll do our best to provide insightful information to help steer you in the right direction, and towards the best quality options of each variety.
Regardless of which type of protein suits your needs, certain factors are overarching across the category. Much in the same way that when you’re watching your diet and/or calorie intake and checking nutritional information on your food, you need to be doing the same here. Just because it’s a supplement doesn’t mean that it’s just straight-up scoops of protein (sadly). This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but if the world of supplements is new to you, here are 5 key nutrition details (per serving) to keep an eye on when making your protein selection:
Grams of Protein: Simply put, you want to ensure you’re getting a good volume of protein per serving, and from brand to brand (and from one type to the next) these numbers can vary.
Carb Content: If you’re on a low-carb diet (or have decided to cut carbs and try a Keto diet), carbs can be a killer. Generally speaking, whey isolate has a lower carb count than standard whey protein. Furthermore, certain additives used to add flavors to the equation are heavier than others when it comes to upping the carb count.
Sugars: This falls under the same bracket as carbs, in the sense that flavors can be your biggest enemy here. Some brands have gotten wise when it comes to using stevia for sweetening, but it’ll always be something to keep an eye on.
Fats: Generally less of a concern than the other categories, every now and again you’ll see the volume of fat creep up with occasional protein products.
Calorie Count: The amount of calories in each scoop of protein also varies a fair bit here, so those looking to bulk up will be selecting a much different protein option than someone focused on building lean muscle mass.
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Whey Vs. Isolate
Starting with the most common type of protein powder on the market today, whey protein comes in two forms—concentrate and isolate. Though the base ingredients are the same, there are some significant differences between the two. Whey is a milk-based protein, specifically coming from the liquid residue of cheese production. Considering the size of the global market for cheese, it’s easy to see why whey proteins can be found in such significant volume. Known for its ability to generate new protein in your muscles, the case has been made that whey is the most nutritionally valuable form of protein available.
Back to the question at hand, there are some fundamental differences between whey concentrate and whey isolate that mostly all boil down to production/processing methods. Here’s what you need to know.
- Isolate contains more protein per gram than concentrate
- Isolate has less fat content than concentrate
- Isolate has fewer carbohydrates than concentrate
- Isolate has less sugar than concentrate
*only if you’re looking at isolate and concentrate of the same formula. Additives used to add flavor can change this.*
- Isolate has less lactose than concentrate
- Isolate is more expensive than concentrate
So what does this all mean? To sum it up simply, if fat, carb, sugar, or lactose intake is of concern to you, you’re better off choosing a whey isolate. It’s also worth noting that generally a whey concentrate can be a bit tougher on your stomach (bloating/gas/etc in some cases), so if you already struggle with any digestive concerns you’ll be better off with isolate. That said, there are countless people out there who use whey concentrate successfully as part of their training diet, so it isn’t necessarily a bad option; it just depends on your regiment and how your body chooses to react.
The Other Guys
There are several alternatives to whey protein in the market right now, and each has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. If you’re training for endurance, a protein that releases more slowly will have some benefit, whereas those engaging in HIIT will not be as well served by this.
Here is a quick breakdown of other protein alternatives along with their key benefits.
Vegan Protein: Aside from being vegan/vegetarian friendly, vegan proteins across the board contain a higher amount of fiber. There are several variations that fall under this umbrella, though the three below are the most common of the bunch.
Pea Protein: Highest in protein per gram out of the vegan options, pea protein is the option best suited for building muscle mass. There is also data out there that suggest that pea protein is better leaving you feeling full, which can be handy for those trying to stay lean.
Hemp Protein: Aside from the stigma of hemp’s association with cannabis, it has proven to be a fairly effective vegan protein option. It has a moderate concentration of protein per gram, and the linoleic acid contained in hemp has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Soy Protein: High in concentration, and loaded with BCAAs and other beneficial nutrients, soy protein can be a good option for some, though it comes with its own set of risks. Soy allergies have become much more common in recent years, for one. Further to this, there are still some unanswered questions about the relationship between high soy intake and the body’s production of testosterone and estrogen. For the most part this seems to be less of a concern, but in higher volume (if your diet is already soy-heavy), a definitive answer is still lacking. For that reason, we would look at other alternatives if this is of concern for you.
Casein Protein: Similar to whey in the fact that it is also derived from milk production, the key differentiator with casein is in how the body processes it. While whey is digested quickly, casein is much slower, making it less effective before a workout, but great for recovery (among other things). It’s a solid choice as a post-workout protein for those who like to train before bedtime.
If you’re looking for an immediate and effortless protein fix for before or after your workout, protein bars are your new best friend. No scooping, chopping, or blending required, protein bars are the perfect grab-and-go that will ensure you’ve got enough protein and calories in your system to make the most out of your workout routine.
Just like with protein powders, you’re going to need to keep an eye on the ingredients list. We’ve seen some great options over the years, and we’ve seen some pretty terrible options too. Here are a few things to consider.
Protein Type: As we discussed above, there are several kinds of protein out there, and you want to make sure you’re getting the right kind, quality, and volume. Isolate and Casein bars are your best bets, whereas we’ve noticed in the past that vegan protein bars can end up being a bit grainy in texture.
Protein vs. Carbs: A high protein count is good, but if your bar contains as many grams of carbs as it does protein, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.
Avoid Fats: A bit of fat isn’t all bad, but fats can slow digestion, so the lower the count the better. It’s also worth noting that some protein bars will use palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and can be harmful to cardiovascular health.
Watch the Sugar: Little surprise here, but protein bars can be packed with sugars, especially when brands get into fancy flavors to entice shoppers. Some brands will try to offset this by turning to artificial sugars like Aspartame and Sucralose, but those aren’t without their shortcomings. As a rule of thumb, you’re choosing a protein bar instead of a candy bar for a reason, so the lower the sugar count the better.
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Though some have tried to give creatine a bad rap, based on scientific research data it remains one of the most effective supplements out there when it comes to muscle growth. In high-intensity workouts, creatine will phosphocreatine stores in your muscles. This is a form of stored cellular energy, and it brings with it several benefits to your workout, including the below.
Reduced protein breakdown, leading to more effective muscle mass gains
Increased strength and energy during high intensity training
Faster recovery after workouts
Due to how creatine reacts to high intensity activity, its core value is in strength training, and not aerobic exercise. It also helps the body retain water—another trait that will not work in your favor if the goal is to cut weight, but one that will come in handy if you’re looking to gain some extra size.
What makes creatine especially interesting is its ancillary health benefits. There is scientific data to back up the fact that creatine can actually be helpful with a wide range of conditions, including the list below.
- Brain and spinal cord injury
Creatine has been shown to assist in improving memory retention/function in older adults, and is a very useful supplement for vegetarians, as the body’s primary source of natural creatine is meat. One study of young adult vegetarians showed a significant increase in memory retention and intelligence after a 6-week creatine dosing period.
Read Our Roundup of Creatine Supplements
So far we’ve just skimmed the surface as far as workout supplements go, but not to worry, we’re going to be diving deeper into other categories as well. Of the many other supplements on the market here are a handful of other categories that we’ll delve into in greater detail.
Pre-Workout: Training early or late, and concerned about getting the most out of your workout? Pre-workout supplements—typically a powder to mix into water—will give you an aggressive boost of energy to help you run faster, pedal harder, and lift heavier than you would during your usual workout.
BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids): Consumed both before and after workouts, BCAAs help build muscle, reduce fatigue, and limit soreness after working out. Though they also exist in various foods, and are in some protein powders (check your whey concentrate and isolate), adding this supplement to your pre and post workout regimen will ensure that you have the right amount in your system.
Weight Loss Supplements: This category is a delicate one to say the least, and there’s a lot of “smoke and mirrors” surrounding many of the purported options in the market. When it come to helping you burn fat while working out, caffeine and green tea extract can provide a little additional support. When it comes to weight loss, things like Glucomannan and CLA do have some legitimate science behind them, though they aren’t without their risks or side effects.
Unlike the world of fitness equipment, this is a category that is continuously growing and changing as new products and studies are announced. Keep an eye on this page, as we will continue to update information month after month as new products and trends hit the market.
Also feel free to leave comments and questions if there are specific products or product types that you’d like to learn more about!