Similar to fashion and television shows, the sports supplement industry constantly shifts to meet the latest trends. But much like little black dresses and Celebrity Jeopardy, some sups never seem to go out of style — and that includes dairy-based protein powders.
Simply put, whey and casein protein are easily accessible and they have science on their side. But for a deeper look into these and other proteins, we talked to three of Beachbody’s resident supplement experts, Vice President of Fitness and Nutrition, Steve Edwards; Senior Director of Nutrition Content, Denis Faye; and Executive Director of Scientific Affairs, Dr. Nima Alamdari.
What is your preferred source of supplemental protein?
Steve Edwards: Given I’m mostly vegetarian, I’ll often use pea or hemp. However, when performance is the be-all-end-all and I’m training for something important, I’ll also use both whey and casein because they are simply better for targeted nutrition, which is vital when you’re training all out.
Denis Faye: Dairy-based protein is okay for ovo-lacto vegetarians (except they need to avoid the many cheeses that contain non-vegetarian rennet). Honestly, I didn’t supplement much until the performance line came along. If I happened across a tub of whey or hemp protein, I’d add it to my morning yogurt, but it wasn’t mandatory. I like the idea of hemp because it’s a complete protein, it’s vegan, and even the powders are full of fiber and omega-3s — but it’s also kind of pricey and has a strong flavor. Nowadays, I’m pretty aligned with Steve on the whey/casein double whammy.
Dr. Nima Alamdari: For me evidence shows it to maximally increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and inhibit muscle protein breakdown (MPB), and as such allow for net muscle accretion (growth). Both as a user and advisor, I have to know this. It’s the key for considering protein intake surrounding exercise because it’s responsible for a more efficient adaptive response.
With that in mind, whey protein seems most effective to increase MPS rates post-exercise. Casein protein seems most effective for sustained MPS rates, which can be particularly helpful to improve post-exercise overnight muscle recovery. They are my preferred sources from both a science and practice perspective.
How do you think dairy stacks up against non-dairy as a protein source?
Edwards: Studies are pretty clear that when it comes to certain targeted stats, like biological value, dairy is superior. Not that you can’t get ultimate performance from veggie sources, because you absolutely can, but dairy makes things easier. It also tastes much better, for those who care about such things.
Faye: Agreed. It’s also more accessible. And whey is a byproduct, so ethically, it cuts down on food waste, which is nice for us hippie types.
Dr. Alamdari: I agree with Steve and Denis. The strongest science is with the provision of high-quality dietary protein from dairy sources. Having said that, there are emerging studies on non-dairy protein and their effects on muscle adaptation and recovery. For example, a study this year on pea protein reported similar benefits to whey on muscle adaptations in trained subjects. However, to get a clear picture, more detailed studies need to be done, including MPS/MPB measures.
Aside from those who are lactose-intolerant, or who have a milk allergy, should anyone avoid dairy?
Edwards: Other than being vegan, there is no nutritional reason why not.
Faye: Maybe ethical issues. (That’s why I encourage organic, hormone-free dairy.) But keep a couple things in mind. First lactose is a sugar that’s either completely or almost completely removed from whey and casein protein powders. Lactose intolerance shouldn’t get in the way.
Also, some people with lactose intolerance can tolerate some dairy and, in my opinion, should seriously consider it. The modern diet is pathetically low in probiotics, so if you can tolerate yogurt (which many lactose intolerance suffers can), I think you should eat it. Also, goat milk is okay for lactose intolerant people. I have lactose issues and I get away with daily yogurt and some cheese. But if you give me a glass of milk, I’m completely congested within 30 minutes.
What are the various merits and shortcomings of the different forms of supplemental protein? Whey? Casein? Pea? Hemp?
Edwards: I’ve mentioned taste. This isn’t bothersome to me very much but I know a lot of people who can’t deal with the taste of pea or hemp. Pea can be pretty chalky, while hemp is earthy, which I actually like. The main advantages, to me, of whey and casein is that they’re fast and slow, so they’re better used as targeted nutrition.
Faye: Pea isn’t a complete protein. That’s why it’s good to pair it with a grain-based protein. Hemp is full of fiber, so it’s not as targeted.
Dr. Alamdari: For merits, whey being fast, pea being intermediate, and casein being slow, from the aforementioned. I’m unaware of any meaningful data on hemp protein, so I would say the shortcoming is a lack of quantification on its metabolism and effect on muscle/MPS in an exercise setting. There’s strong data by some of the world’s best researchers in this space showing the benefits of protein blend ingestion following exercise promotes human MPS rates. Fast, intermediate, and slow release protein, with distinct digestion rates and properties, have been shown to be just as effective post-exercise while providing a prolonged amino acid net balance (an indicator of muscle protein anabolism) compared to just a single fast source, such as whey.
Why are people frightened by whey?
Edwards: Hyperbole, mainly, though I’m sure there have been some bad manufacturing practices leading to subpar products, which is almost always the case when anything gets popular.
Faye: Also, they assume the lactose will be an issue. They don’t know it’s been removed!
Dr. Alamdari: Definitely, hyperbole. To add to Steve and Denis’ comments, there’s growing attention that some products may not be what they say they are, with reports that as many as 10–15 percent of supplements contain banned substances.
Some supplement products have also been shown to contain impurities likely due to poor quality controls during manufacture or storage. The risk of gastrointestinal distress due to these issues during production and storage of products is a concern for anyone and could be a route cause for these bad experiences. It’s also an issue for athletes. At best, it could be a minor inconvenience, but it could also be the cause to miss a crucial competition. Having confidence in products with strong quality controls, manufacturing practices, and other assurances such as screening for athletic banned substances can help mitigate some of these concerns.
Are there any differences in how protein, in supplement form, relates to athletic performance?
Edwards: With protein you’re mainly talking improving the recovery process, or speeding it up, which is why fast and slow are so important. In some respects it’s splitting hairs if your diet is good, but when you’re training to compete, that’s the difference between winning and finishing off the podium.
Dr. Alamdari: Steve said it perfectly. A healthy diet with smart timing of the ingestion of dietary protein after exercise will further improve the skeletal muscle adaptive response to prolonged exercise training. Protein supplements offer a practical approach to this. These protein supplements should be highly scrutinized by users. The high-quality protein dose that appears to maximally stimulate MPS is close to 20 g, above which protein synthesis is not further stimulated, but increases in amino acid oxidation and urea synthesis may result. Attention to the timing, quality, and the composition of the protein supplement can allow people and athletes to achieve peak performance in a variety of training regimens and sports without compromising any aspect of their health.
Do straight dairy products have a place as nutritional sources for athletes?
Edwards: The main issue with daily products is with the body’s ability to digest and utilize them, which varies for each of us, making this issue very personal.
Faye: Yogurt is a pretty important food because it’s such an easily available source of probiotics. Other than that, I agree, it’s personal and cultural. However, in my opinion, most people are much better off with dairy then with the bizarre dairy substitutes food manufacturers invent, like soy cheese and whatever white liquid the nutri-hipsters approve of this month. (I think hemp milk is the current one.) And if you’re going to do dairy, do it right. Look into raw milk dairy. Buy a small amount of quality, full-fat cheese instead of a giant brick of low-fat processed crap. Generally speaking, the closer dairy is to the stuff that was being made 100 years ago, the more benefits it will probably have.
Dr. Alamdari: It’s a broad question. As a protein source as part of an athlete’s diet? Yes. There’s debated consensus from the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization that sedentary adults need no more than 0.8–0.9 g protein/kg/day to satisfy protein needs, In contrast, for athletes, consensus from the scientific community is that the protein needs are much higher than those of sedentary person. Daily protein intakes of 1.2–1.7 g protein/kg/day appear to be advantageous in helping athletes achieve optimum adaptation and repair. Athletes would do well by focusing on high-quality protein sources, which can include dairy, eggs, and lean meat as part of their healthy diet.