Gamer Strength: The Different Protein Shakes & Why They All Matter

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Many of us as gamers are looking to get back into shape. Protein is a big part of that effort. The following will help you find the right type of protein you can take to help you reach your fitness goals.... 

Every now and then, the company that I work for, Bodybuilding.com, does Live events where they discuss some sort of exercise or nutrition information with some of our athletes. This gives viewers the chance to chime in and ask questions about certain parts of the industry that they may find confusing. One of the most common question that I see on these shows is about the different types of protein shakes that are available. Between concentrates, isolates, soy, pea, casein, whey, and all the others, it can be very challenging to find which may be right for you. What follows is a brief look into the most popular types of protein available on our market. I’ve also listed the product that fits into that space that I believe is a good representation of that category that I know is trusted in the industry.

Whey Protein Concentrate

Whey protein is the godfather, the old faithful, the one we always fall back to at the end of the week. Why is that? There are a number of reason that whey has been chosen as the official representative of the bodybuilding industry. But before we dive into why we consume it, let’s talk about where it comes from. You many have heard of Little Miss Muffat eating her curds and whey? When milk separates, it divides into these two distinct layers. Whey comes from the more liquid layer that forms below the curds. There is a great deal of protein (chains of amino acids) in this liquid and those proteins are concentrated and dehydrated into a powder for use in a supplement.

Now for the “Why?”. The most important reason that whey dominates the market so completely is that a great deal of research has been done into the effects of its consumption. We know that it is great for helping many people gain muscle and even loose a little bit of weight. Whey is also extremely cheap. Compared to many other sources of protein, getting whey from milk is extremely low-cost which is what many consumers are looking for. Finally, whey protein is one of the most complete, efficient proteins available. This means that per gram of whey protein, you will find more useful essential amino acids than almost any other source available. So in conclusion, it’s the cheapest, best studied, most effective protein available to us. Pretty cool, huh?

So what is Whey Protein Concentrate? You will see this description on the majority of whey protein supplements because it is the cheapest form of whey that manufactures can use to create products. It isn’t filtered to as great of a degree as other forms and as such, contains a little more of the other types of nutrients along with it. For example, a single serving of whey protein concentrate might have 22–25 grams of protein in each scoop, but it also might have 5–10 grams of carbohydrates (sugar) as well as some fat. For some, this is no problem. For many, this can be a deal breaker considering the main sugar contained in milk is lactose and may greatly upset their stomachs. Another issue that this brings to the table is calories. For bodybuilders in the phases of weight loss, adding the extra 30–40 calories is a major no-no. In the end though, for the average every-man who is just looking for a good protein shake to drink after a gym sesh, WPC should be just fine.

Example: Optimum Gold Standard 100% Whey

Whey Protein Isolate

Isolate is usually considered the more premium type of whey. When compared to the WPC discussed above, “Iso” will generally be a little bit more expensive as well as a little bit lower in calories. This is due to the fact that isolates are just that. The protein from whey has been isolated from all the other nutrients and then filtered out and powdered. This has a couple of advantages compared to the concentrate including greatly decreased amounts of lactose in a serving, sometimes even to the point of being consumable by those that are lactose intolerant, as well as decreased total calories per serving. You can see why this would be considered preferable to whey protein concentrate for many consumers. There is, however, a downside to this purity: taste. Think about what makes things taste good. It’s the fat and the sugar. Since Iso has been specifically produced to not contain these macronutrients, it can be very hard to make an isolate taste as good as a concentrate. Sure, manufactures can try to give the flavor a little bump with some artificial sweeteners and such, but I’ll tell you, it’s just not the same. So in the end it’s your call. Have a healthier, more expensive shake, or consume a few extra calories for a richer flavor.

Example: Dymatize Iso100 Whey Protein Isolate

Hydrolyzed Whey

When you see a protein that is advertised as being hydrolyzed, it means that they product has gone through an extra step to help break down the protein in the shake for you to a small degree. Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids that are cut, chopped, sliced, and diced by the enzymes in your gut so that it can be absorbed. It is possible that some of the protein may take longer to be absorbed and some may pass all the way through without ever being absorbed (a very small amount). Because of this, hydrolyzed whey was introduced to help with this process. Since the protein is “pre-digested”, it makes it easier to for it to hit the blood stream quicker and a little bit more efficiently than non-hydrolyzed whey. It is my belief that your digestive system is extremely efficient at digesting and really doesn’t need any extra help. I wouldn’t worry too much about this style if you don’t feel like you have to. If you do find it necessary, both WPC and Iso can come in hydrolyzed form so you can still make that decision for yourself as well.

Example: Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydrowhey

Casein

This one seems to give people a lot of trouble. Casein is the opposite of whey. Where whey comes from the liquid part of milk separation, casein comes from the solid. Where whey absorbs fast, casein absorbs slow. When you are looking at a chart that compares blood amino acid levels after drinking either a whey protein shake versus a casein shake, the difference becomes very clear (See below). As you can see, when you drink a whey protein shake, amino acids enter the blood very quickly causing a sharp increase in available amino acids. Unfortunately, this spike is doomed fall very quickly. Generally, the effects of a whey protein shake are all but gone after about 2–3 hours. Now look at the line for casein. Here you can see that there is very little spike in the blood amino acids, but instead a steady increase and then a very stable high followed by a decline. Increased amino acid levels can hang around for as long as 8–9 hours for those that consume casein.

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This brings up two questions: What causes this and why should I care? This vast discrepancy in effect stems from how the protein is delivered. Contrary to whey, which is extremely easy to breakdown, casein is trapped. The protein that comes from the curds is surrounded by a lipid formation called a micelle that encase most of the protein making it very difficult for your digestive enzymes to get to the protein. The result of this difficulty is that casein protein digest much more slowly than whey, allowing blood protein to be elevated for longer but to a lesser degree. This is important for those that are trying to maintain a constant state of increased blood protein levels. When we sleep, we spend upwards of 8–10 hours without consuming any nutrition. In order to help quell the effects of such a fast, bodybuilders ingest casein to keep blood amino acids higher than normal. In the end, the difference that consuming casein makes is not very great. For those that are looking to min/max their stats before a competition, it might be worth spending the money on, but for the everyday average guy, maybe not so much. Again, your call.

Example: Kaged Muscle Kasein

Vegan Options

There are a high number of options that are available to those seeking protein supplements while trying to maintain a vegan diet. Since whey and casein protein both come from milk, they are unallowable according to veganism. Also, even with whey isolates removing a high volume of lactose, there is still a chance for someone that is lactose intolerance to have a reaction. In order to quell any of these concerns proteins have been sourced from some plants such as soy beans and peas. These proteins generally work fairly well and don’t cost too much more than whey. The issue that exists with these products is that the amino acid profile for these options is not as favorable as whey. The mixture will prove to be less anabolic (build less muscle) and overall less efficient than whey. This does not mean it is the best option, it just means that consumers of these products have to take slightly larger doses of these proteins in order to get the same effect.

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Example: Vega Sport Performance Protein (Pea and Pumpkin Seed Protein)

Meal Replacement

The last form of shake that you may see is a meal replacement shake. This isn’t a “type” of protein per se as it will most likely use one of the above-listed proteins as a source, but many gamers are looking for a way to make meal prepping easier so this was worth a look. Generally, protein powders only contain three ingredients: proteins, some sugar, and a little fat for flavor/mouthfeel. What makes a meal replacement actually worthy of replacing a meal is the presence of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. A healthy balanced diet helps the consumer gain enough micronutrients to hit their recommended daily intake values over the course of a day. If the consumer is only drinking straight protein shakes, they will never get what their body needs. This is not to say that a person should live solely off of meal replacement shakes; they probably could, but where’s the fun in that? Just make sure that if you are regularly replacing meals with protein shakes that you are also supplementing with some sort of multivitamin to help you replace those lost micros.

Example: RedCon1 MRE Meal Replacement Powder (This brand has some questionable products but they nailed it with this one.)

Mass Gainers

The final form of shake that I see in our industry is mass gainer shakes. These products are defined by their volume of calories per serving, many reaching over 1000 calories at a time from added sugars and other startches. These shakes should be reserved for those that are lifting heavy weights very often so that the calories are put to good use building muscle volume and not going straight into fat stores. You will see many lifters consuming these kinds of shakes when they are in the “bulking” phase of their workout plan. When lifters are going hard at the gym, they require a great deal of energy to sustain the output that they are expending every day lifting and exercising. Don’t be afraid to use a gainer if you feel that gaining weight is your goal. There is a place for these shakes, it’s just not for those that sit at their desk most days without any activity.

Example: EVL Stacked Protein Gainer

Conclusion

I understand that these many different types of products can be intimidating to people new to the industry since there is usually very little guidance for those trying to find it. Thankfully once you know what is going on, there is a product for many varying sets of circumstances. Products specifically for gaining weight, for those looking to lose weight, for those that can’t consume whey, for those that like higher quality, and more. Let me know if I missed anything or if you have any other questions about specific products. I’d love to give more insight to specific brands if you are curious. As always, find me on twitter for any other questions regarding health, nutrition, or exercise at twitter.com/TyFighter559.

 

Tyler "TyFighter" McG

Bio: Like all the other amazing contributors to this site, I began my gaming journey long ago. For years I have spent my free time playing nintendo 64, gamecube, and then xbox games as often as possible. My profession, however, is very different. I work in the fitness and nutrition industry as the Lead Science Researcher at Bodybuidling.com. It is my hope to help bring a little bit of fitness into the gaming world and maybe a little bit of gaming into the fitness world!