Chances are, you’re using the wrong protein supplements, and you're probably using them in the wrong way, too. With 85,000 supplements available in the US, some 255 million people take one or more daily. Yet, there are only a handful of full-time government staff overseeing the market, despite many cases of contamination. It’s the equivalent of a John Wayne movie, with many outlaws and few sheriffs.
The overwhelming number of options and variation in quality is problematic. The costs of taking a supplement contaminated with heavy metals, solvents and other toxic ingredients results in an estimated 23,000 hospital visits annually. The solution for this problem — not knowing what’s really inside a container or where it came from — is a mix of education and better vetting. We can’t cover all that in one article, but we can get you started on a path towards research-backed ingredients, precise ratios and fewer GMOs, with the help of a couple experts.
Roxanne Vogel has spent the past decade focused on nutrition research, in academia (her career) and as her own guinea pig in the field. During the day she works as the Nutrition and Performance Research Manager at GU Energy Labs, a leading sports nutrition company, and at night she’s working on a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition, specifically on how supplements improve athletic performance. In 2019 she set the fastest known time on Everest, climbing it in just 10 days while collecting data on herself.
Jordan Mazur holds a Masters in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition, is a registered dietician, and works for the San Francisco 49ers as the Director of Nutrition. He oversees the nutrition for all of the athletes on the team, including their protein. On the side he advises Momentous, another leading supplement company, on the right ingredients and ratios for their protein mix.
Here’s their best advice on the best kinds of protein supplements, when to take them and how much protein we should be including in our diets.
Know Your Type
Vogel is quick to point out that one of the first things you should consider is the type of protein. She most often recommends whey protein isolate because it is faster acting, easy to digest, easier on the GI system, and typically doesn’t cause problems for those with lactose sensitivities, either. Three years ago she helped GU Energy rework their recovery drink, adding hydrolyzed whey protein isolate and doubling the content to 20 grams per serving, the sweet spot for most people.
For bigger workouts, like those for an hour or more, she recommends a protein mix with more carbs, to help the muscle rebuilding process and restore muscle glycogen levels. For shorter workouts like a quick half-hour in the gym, she suggests a whey protein isolate instead. “Either way, the idea of stimulating muscle protein synthesis is based on body weight,” she explains. “There’s a lot of research showing 20-40 grams is enough for most people.”
Another big misconception is that protein is just for bulking up. Vogel gets a lot of questions from runners and endurance athletes who rarely take protein because they are worried about negative health impacts. To break through this myth, she’ll explain the different absorption rates of different proteins, their amino acid profiles/ratios, and the importance of quality protein sources with high bioavailability. “A good protein supplement will have all of the essential amino acids in the right quantities,” she says, “so that your body can get the most out of it.”
Get More Than You Think
What a lot of people get wrong about protein is the amount. The recommended daily allowance is .8 grams per kilo of bodyweight, but “recommend” in this sense is the baseline to avoid negative health impacts and often more is beneficial. Vogel says athletes often need double this number and as you age you need even more protein.
Mazur concurs that protein needs will vary by the type of athlete, adjusting his recommendations accordingly. For general fitness enthusiasts who do shorter, 30-40 minute sessions a few times each week, it is critical to meet your minimum daily requirements but you probably don’t need much more, because the body doesn’t have adequate stimulus, says Mazur. When workouts are ramped up, athletes need to modify their nutrition accordingly.
The exact formula will depend on your goals, like leaning out, losing weight or building muscle mass. Even if you don’t work out, protein is still important for a number of functions in the body outside of building muscle.
Mazur echoes the need to add more carbs for more intense and longer workouts. For anything over an hour, he will add more carbs and for anything less than an hour he suggests straight whey as a base level recovery tool. He recommends at least 1.2 grams per kilo of bodyweight daily, and if you’re trying to build muscle you can go up to 2 grams per kilo. “The biggest adjustment I make for athletes daily is the carbs they take with protein,” notes Mazur. “That’s the key variable that’s adjusted.”
Time It Right
Both Vogel and Mazur agree that there is a lot of confusion on when to take protein supplements, too. Many nutritionists suggest it needs to be right after a workout, a “window” of a half hour. Mazur believes this is a bit strict and that taking protein within two hours of a workout is just fine.
Vogel even calls it a “garage door of opportunity” instead of a window to emphasize how big it is. Both encourage their athletes to also take slow-acting proteins across the entire day, especially from actual food-based protein sources, for better results.
One remaining challenge, of course, is finding high-quality protein that isn't contaminated.
Unlike many vitamins and over-the-counter drugs, protein quality varies considerably, says Mazur, who recommends Clean Label Project, a third-party test of banned substances, heavy metal contamination, and other things you don’t want to put in your body. Vogel suggests Informed Choice and NSF Sport as good third party organizations that verify products are safe for athletes and free of banned substances.
Yet, most of the public still doesn’t understand the lack of regulation in the industry, allowing brands to claim almost anything they want about the health benefits.
Mazur says if you’re putting in a ton of time and energy to train, you should pay the same attention to recovery and the right protein supplement. “It’s like putting shitty fuel into a Lamborghini,” he concludes. “It just won’t work as well.”