Protein Review For Athletic Performance | Natural Health Newsletter

Protein, Part 2 – Comparing Proteins

Many people think that the usability of protein is a question of animal versus vegetable. In fact, a number of people sent in comments off the last newsletter and stated as much — that animal protein is better than vegetable protein. And yes, as a general rule, animal protein is “more complete” than many vegetable proteins, but that does not automatically make it better. For example, beef contains only about 20% usable protein. Spirulina and chlorella, on the other hand, average 75-80% — and are just as complete and just as bioavailable. Combine the right yellow pea and rice protein and you can hit numbers approaching 85-90% usable protein — again with high bioavailability. In the world of protein, nothing is necessarily what it first seems. In fact, the issue of animal versus vegetable is one of the least important determiners when it comes to protein usability.

Another factor to consider when we compare proteins is that there really is no such “thing” as dairy protein or whey protein or soy protein or any other “type” of protein, for that matter. Each source of protein is actually a conglomeration of several protein fractions that we lump together under their source name. Dairy protein, for example, actually describes a group of proteins that includes casein (which itself is a conglomeration of alpha caseins 1&2, beta casein, and kappa casein), alpha-lactalbumin, beta-lactoglobulin, and bovine serum albumin. Soy protein, likewise, is a mix of a number of protein fractions, although the names for the soy fractions are more utilitarian than for dairy, less prosaic if you will. Soy protein fractions include: 28 kD, 30-34 kD, 37 kD, 49 kD, and 50 kD. It’s not necessary to know the names of all the different protein fractions in the different types of protein, but it is vital to know that they exist. Why? Because the different fractions have different degrees of digestibility and promote different degrees of allergic response. The prime culprit in soy, for example, is 30-kD allergen (Gly m Bd 30). Ultimately, the quality of a protein source (and its tendency to cause allergic response) is determined by how your body handles each and every fraction in that source. Which brings us to the issue at hand.

The efficiency, or degree to which dietary proteins can be used for building parts of the human body, is determined by five primary factors, most of which we described in the last issue of the newsletter Protein Part 1 of the series:

  1. The type and relative amounts of amino acids — particularly any shortage of a needed essential amino acid.
  2. The size and structure of the protein molecule itself. (This relates to our discussion of protein fractions immediately above.)
  3. The amount of branched chain amino acids (BCCAs) present. BCCAs are defined by their unique structure and include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three amino acids are special in that they are metabolized in the muscle as opposed to the liver. The greater their presence in a protein, the higher the protein’s bioavailability.
    1. Leucine is the most readily oxidized BCAA and therefore the most effective at causing insulin secretion from the pancreas. It should be noted that too much leucine can disrupt the tryptophan/niacin pathway and contribute to pellagra. It may also increase ammonia levels in the body.
    2. Isoleucine stabilizes and regulates blood sugar and energy levels.
    3. Valine assists in muscle metabolism, tissue repair and the maintenance of proper nitrogen balance in the body. However, too much valine can cause crawling sensations in your skin and hallucinations.
  4. How the protein comes packaged with other components such as pectin that may inhibit its digestion.
  5. The lack of enzymes necessary for the breakdown of that particular protein.

But beyond bioavailability, we also need to consider factors such as allergies and digestive problems such as gas, bloating, and constipation. In truth, it doesn’t matter how “good” a protein is if you can’t eat it.

Animal versus vegetable protein

Obviously, dismissing the issue in a sentence is not going to cut it, so let’s spend a moment exploring the issue animal versus vegetable protein. Also, I’m not going to express an opinion on the morality or ethicality of eating meat — although I definitely have one. My purpose in this newsletter is merely to evaluate the value of different protein sources, particularly as they relate to their use as a “supplemental” protein source.

As I’ve already said in Protein Part I, protein bioavailability has much to do with the type and relative amounts of amino acids present in a particular protein molecule. Yes, the body has the ability to convert and make many of the amino acids it needs, but the nine essential amino acids cannot be manufactured by the body and must be supplied by the food we eat. Most animal proteins, by definition, contain all of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. The protein of cereals, most beans, and vegetables may contain all the essential amino acids, but the amounts in these plant foods is often less than ideal, particularly the branch chain amino acids. However, this is easy to compensate for, and it is possible to get plant proteins that are extremely concentrated. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the primary sources of protein and their pros and cons.

Meat protein

When most people in the developed world think protein, they think beef. We’re talking steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, roast beef. We’re talking “hungry man food.” If you have any doubt, just look at pictures of a training table for most athletes. But how good is meat as a primary source of protein?

On the plus side, it’s complete. It contains all the essential amino acids. And it’s not particularly allergenic. On the other hand, it’s not particularly concentrated — containing only about 20% usable protein by weight. And it’s not particularly nutrient dense, inflicting a significant number of calories on your body along with the protein. It also tends to promote colon cancer — particularly if grilled at high temperatures. And unless you’re buying organic grass fed beef (you absolutely want organic), it also comes complete with high levels of antibiotics, pesticides, hormones, an unhealthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids, and the risk of E. coli contamination — not to mention high levels of saturated fat.

You’ll get about 23 grams of protein in a three ounce serving of beef, along with about 15 grams of fat. The biological value is about 70, and the net protein utilization is about 73.

Poultry protein

Chicken and turkey are considered the “lighter,” “less expensive” alternatives to beef. And in fact, lean turkey or chicken, without the skin, will provide about 27 grams of protein in a three ounce serving, along with about 2-3 grams of fat. Poultry has a biological value of about 80.

But unless you’re eating organic, it also contains large amounts of antibiotics, arsenic (oh yes, it’s a government approved additive), and of course chicken leukosis cancer tumors.

Fish protein

Fish is a good high protein food. It contains reasonable amounts of quality protein, virtually no carbohydrates, and little saturated fat. Although the amount of fat and protein are about equal (5 grams in a 3 ounce serving), the fats tend to be highly beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Depending on the type of fish, its biological value ranges from 70-80, and it has a net protein utilization of 81, about the same as that found in poultry.

Unfortunately, if wild caught, it’s likely to have high levels of mercury, and if farm-raised, high levels of antibiotics and dioxin.

Pork protein

I have to admit, the pork industry has had two of my favorite ads of all time. Back in the late 80’s, to help turn around declining demand for pork, the National Pork Board launched their remarkable repositioning campaign, “Pork, The Other White Meat.” It worked. The campaign effectively made people equate pork to chicken, as opposed to beef.

Then came the bird flu scare, and suddenly any association with chicken was unacceptable as millions of chickens were being slaughtered worldwide to prevent the spread of avian flu. At that point, the pork producers launched their, “Pork, It’s Not Chicken” campaign.

You actually have to admire such shamelessness.

That said:

  • The old dictum that pork is unhealthier than beef or chicken simply is no longer true — unless you are still eating pork raised in a third world country that allows pigs to feed on garbage — or corpses for any of you who saw the movie Snatch.
  • Also, the old myth that pork is more indigestible than meat is likewise not true. That was just another way to warn people off pork when it was garbage fed. In fact, pork is slightly more digestible than beef.
  • But it’s also slightly higher in fat.
  • It has all of the other problems associated with meat — high in antibiotics, etc.
  • And “free range pork” is remarkably rare. Virtually all of the pork available in the United States comes from animal factories that are inherently cruel, literally driving the animals mad in response to their “living” conditions.

Milk protein

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimates that 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. These are people who cannot digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy products.   According to the FDA, symptoms include gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, etc. However, many others are also allergic to dairy products (lactose intolerance is not technically an allergy), specifically the proteins found in milk. In any case, these poorly digested bovine antigens (substances that provoke an immune reaction) like casein become “allergens” in allergic individuals. Dairy products are one of the leading cause of food allergies, often revealed by diarrhea, constipation and fatigue. Many cases of asthma and sinus infections are reported to be relieved and even eliminated by cutting out dairy. The exclusion of dairy, however, must be complete to see any benefit. An 8 oz glass of milk will provide 8-9 grams of protein and 5-10 grams of fat. It has biological value of 80-90 and a net protein utilization of about 81.

In previous natural health newsletters, I have made no secret of my antipathy when it comes to drinking milk, or using it as a primary source of protein, so I won’t repeat it here.

Whey protein

When it comes to protein supplementation now, whey is king. It has pushed aside milk based protein supplements, egg proteins, and soy proteins to totally dominate the field. Why? Quite simply is has an extremely high biological value ranging from 90-100 for whey concentrate and from 100-150 for whey isolate. It’s also high in the branch chain amino acids and is quickly absorbed by the human body.

Unfortunately, it’s also highly allergenic. The problem isn’t lactose or casein (a major allergen in milk) since they are both either removed or at significantly reduced levels in whey. However, the main protein fractions in whey (beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, and bovine serum albumin) are all highly allergenic. In addition, whey tends to have much more cholesterol in it than would normally be recommended.

A question worth considering is how many people are actually allergic to dairy and whey? Officially, that number is only about 1-3%. However, when you redefine that number to include anyone who generates extra mucous from eating dairy, suffers from constipation from eating dairy, or feels bloated after eating dairy, you’re probably looking at numbers closer to 60-70%. And if you actually expand the number to include anyone who suffers from mild systemic inflammation after eating dairy — and thus retention of water — I believe that number approaches 100%. There are no official studies to support these numbers; they are just the numbers I have seen working with athletes, martial artists, and even bodybuilders over the last four years.

And finally, whey contributes to two conditions, aminoacidemia and intestinal toxemia, that we will talk more about in our next issue of the newsletter.

As a side note, the entire whey industry results from a desire to extract commercial value from what was once a waste product of the cheese industry. When you curdle milk to make cheese, it splits the milk into two components, curds and whey. The curd is the “solid” part that’s used to make cheese. The liquid whey used to be considered a waste product, but then manufacturers began to heat the whey to evaporate the water and concentrate the protein in it. Now, there are more advanced filtration techniques available to concentrate the protein down and leave it in forms, such as whey isolate, that are more readily used by the body. But it still has many of the same problems.

Egg protein

At one time, before sophisticated whey processing emerged, eggs were considered the optimum protein supplement. In fact, the whole biological value scale is based on egg protein ranking a benchmark 100. However, eggs are arguably the most allergenic of all proteins. Oh, and for those of you who eat only egg whites, it should be noted that the allergenic proteins are concentrated in the egg whites.

And finally, because of their high sulfur content, eggs make for really smelly intestinal gas. Though this is not necessarily a major problem if you’re a single bodybuilder with no plans to ever marry or meet anyone socially.

Egg whites VS whole eggs

Okay, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the myths associated with eggs.

First of all, contrary to popular belief, because whole eggs have a better amino acid profile than egg whites, the protein is more bioavailable in whole eggs than in egg whites. Whole eggs are also much more nutrient dense than egg whites since egg yolks contain all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids (if you’re eating free range chicken eggs). In fact, other than protein, egg whites are pretty much nutrient dead. And as for cholesterol concerns, recent studies do not support them.

But, all that said, the protein in eggs is still highly allergic and makes for very smelly gas.

Soy protein

Soy protein is not an effective alternative. It is high in allergens (some 28 different proteins present in soy have been found to bind to IgE antibodies). It’s also worth noting that the more soy protein you eat, the more likely you are to develop allergies to it — and the more severe those allergies are likely to become. Soy also blocks the absorption of important minerals such as calcium unless the phytates have been removed, and soy contains high levels of phytoestrogens, which although beneficial in moderate amounts, can be counter-productive in large amounts — particularly for children.

In addition, although its biological value is not bad at 70-80, it’s net protein utilization at 61 is quite low. In fact, unless it has been fermented, soy protein contains potent enzyme inhibitors that block the action of trypsin and other enzymes needed for protein digestion. This can create significant amounts of gas, in addition to promoting pathological conditions of the pancreas, including cancer.

As a side note, soy protein was once considered a waste product of the soy oil industry and used almost exclusively as cattle feed.

Cyanobacteria protein: spirulina and blue green algae

Spirulina is one of the great super foods. It is approximately 65 to 71 percent complete protein in its natural state. This is higher than virtually any other unprocessed food. (Note: whey protein, for example, has to be extracted and concentrated from dairy to reach higher levels.) And unlike most  other forms of protein, the protein in spirulina is 85-95% digestible; again, one of the highest levels available. And finally, since spirulina has no cellulose in its cell walls, it is extremely easy for the body to break it down. In fact, its amino acids are delivered to the body for almost instant absorption.

So what’s wrong with it?

First, it’s not inexpensive. Klamath Lake blue green algae (a close cousin of spirulina — they’re both cyanobacteria) runs $40-80 a lb. Generic spirulina runs $15-40 a lb.

But $15 a lb would not be too much to pay for a high quality protein source, except for the taste — somewhere between seaweed and grass. In small amounts, 1-4 grams a day in capsule form, it’s easy enough to take. But if you’re an athlete or bodybuilder or someone looking to recover from injury or illness and looking for 70-200 mg a day of protein, eating that much seaweed and grass could be tough for most people to manage.

And finally, about 30% of the worlds’ population can’t handle spirulina — being either allergic to it, or suffering from toxins present in the spirulina that may have been absorbed from the water in which the spirulina is grown. (This can be a paricular problem for algae grown in public bodies of water such as Klamath Lake, which are boating lakes.)

Chlorella protein

Although it looks similar, chlorella is an entirely separate plant from spirulina and blue green algae. In fact, it belongs to an entirely different kingdom and phylum. I actually prefer chlorella to spirulina. Not only is it a great source of protein, just slightly less concentrated than spirulina, but it offers one significant advantage over spirulina. Chlorella is one of nature’s great detoxifiers, binding to heavy metals and pesticides and carrying them out of the body. I use chlorella in formulas for heavy metal detoxification as it binds very strongly to heavy metals to eliminate them from the body. There is a problem, though. Again, like spirulina, about 30 percent of people cannot tolerate chlorella, so if it makes you nauseous you should definitely avoid it. Also like spirulina, chlorella is not inexpensive ($30-50 a lb). And finally, like chlorella, it has that seaweed grass taste thing going, which makes it tough for most people to eat enough of it to use as a primary protein supplement source.

Hemp seed protein

Hemp seed protein has some unique features. First, 65% of the total protein content of hemp seed comes from the globular protein edestin, which is easily digested, absorbed, and utilized by the human body. As a side note, it closely resembles the globulin found in human blood plasma, which is vital to maintaining a healthy immune system. As such, edestin has the unique ability to stimulate the manufacture of antibodies against foreign invaders. It is also hypoallergenic.

As a complete food, hemp seed is great, one of the super foods, but as a protein supplement, less so. As straight ground hemp seed, it is only about 30% protein. Even in concentrated form it will only push to around 50% protein. Also, although the proteins in hemp (edestin and albumin) are great immune builders, they are less effective as muscle builders.

Buckwheat, millet, beans, etc.

Yes, a number of grains and beans are technically complete proteins and can serve as a foundational protein for vegetarian diets. However, they tend to be unbalanced in their amino acid ratios. This means that you have to eat them in proper combinations — and you have to eat more of them than of animal proteins to obtain an equivalent value.

They are great for what they are (foundational foods), but they are not adequate for use as a “protein supplement” as required by athletes, people looking to lose weight, senior citizens, or people looking to recover from a prolonged illness. To build muscle mass, you need a more concentrated source of protein and a better mix of branch chain amino acids.

Rice and yellow pea protein

I admit that a combination of rice and yellow pea protein sounds unappetizing. And, in fact, straight rice protein tends to be chalky in texture and unpleasantly blah in taste. But if done right, the combination of rice and pea protein actually provides one of the best tasting protein concentrates available. With that in mind…

Rice protein

Standard cooked rice has a protein content of only 5%-7%. To make concentrated rice protein, whole brown rice is ground into flour, then mixed with water. Natural enzymes are then added sequentially to break down and separate out the carbohydrates and fibers from the protein portion of the slurry. Since the process is enzyme based, temperature must be kept low to preserve the enzyme activity levels. Low temperature and chemical free processing prevent the denaturing of amino acids, as is frequently seen in soy and dairy processing. The end product is 80-90% pure, hypoallergenic, easily digested protein. After four hours, the body digests over 86% of all ingested rice protein, compared with about 57% for soy. In the end, rice protein has a biological value of between 70-80, a net protein utilization of about 76, and a total absorption ration of some 98%.

Note: rice protein is high in the amino acids cysteine and methionine, but tends to be low in lysine, which negatively impacts its bioavailability. If you can raise its lysine levels, you can dramatically increase its bioavailability.

Pea protein

When it comes to perception, more people have a problem with the “idea” of pea protein than with rice protein. But in fact, pea protein has a very mild, pleasantly sweet taste. It’s one of the better tasting proteins.
Pea protein is the concentrated natural protein fraction of yellow peas. The process used for concentrating pea protein is water based, making the end product very “natural.”

The combination of rice and pea proteins

As mentioned above, rice protein is high in cysteine and methionine, but tends to be low in lysine. Yellow pea protein, on the other hand, tends to be low in the sulfur containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine — but high in lysine. The bottom line is that when used in combination, rice protein and yellow pea protein offer a Protein Efficiency Ratio that begins to rival dairy and egg — but without their potential to promote allergic reactions. In addition, the texture of pea protein helps smooth out the “chalkiness” of rice protein. Like rice protein, it is hypoallergenic and easily digested.

On a different note, the rice/pea combo also has a nice branch chain amino acid profile — only slightly less than whey.

Whey Rice/Pea
Leucine (percent of total) 8 7
Isoleucine (percent of total) 6 4
Valine (percent of total) 5 4

I have been using the rice/pea protein blend in various foods and supplements for over 4 years now. The results have been spectacular. In the next issue of the newsletter, I’ll talk more about my work in developing a pure high protein supplement based on rice and pea protein that is producing some remarkable results among athletes, bodybuilders, senior citizens, and people looking to lose weight — and it also happens to be blowing the competition away in comparison taste tests.

Protein Requirement

Let’s conclude Part 2 of our series on protein with a discussion of how much protein your body actually requires. To begin with, you can throw the standard protein recommendations out the window. Most of the standards have holes in them so big you could drive a combine harvester through them.

For example, the Daily Reference Value (DRV) standard proposed by the FDA is based on a protein evaluation as a percentage of calories consumed — with no consideration as to whether or not the calories being consumed are appropriate for the particular person consuming them. On average, the DRV for protein works out to about 50 grams per adult on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, regardless of age or sex.

The older RDA standard, on the other hand, is based on age and sex with a vague acknowledgement that special periods such as pregnancy and injury require higher levels of protein — but no consideration for athletes or seniors, and no consideration of overall calories consumed. The RDA guidelines are as follows:

Children Women Men
Age Grams Age Grams Age Grams
1-3 23 11-14 46 11-14 45
4-6 30 15-18 46 15-18 56
7-10 34 19-22 44 19-22 56
23+ 44 23+ 56
Pregnant +30
Lactating +30

On the other hand, if you go to most protein supplement sites, you will find much higher recommendations based on body weight ranging from 0.8 grams protein per kg of bodyweight to 1.2-1.8 g/kg. For a 70 kg adult (154 lbs) that works out to over 100 grams of protein a day — and according to some recommendations, as much as 300 grams a day. But can a 150 lb adult who weighs 300 lbs because they are obese really need the same amount of protein as a 300 lb football linebacker — even if they both theoretically “work out” every day?

The truth is that most people in the developed world eat more protein than they need. Food consumption surveys show an average protein intake of approximately 100 grams per day (regardless of body type, sex, or exercise levels), with about 70% of that from high fat animal products. Most people could do with significantly less protein per day (about 45-55 grams per day is adequate for most) — but ideally from a “cleaner” source than they are now opting for.

Then again, people with special needs such as performance athletes, active adults, senior citizens, and people recovering from illness or injury may have requirements that run up to as much as 70-100 grams a day. Beyond that, we’re talking about bodybuilders looking to put on as much muscle mass as is humanly possible. And when it comes to that, each bodybuilder knows their own requirements. But even there, I would recommend exploring hypoallergenic sources. (Eliminating allergens, eliminates water retention, which improves muscle definition.)

And that’s it for now. In the last part of the series, we’ll talk about:

  • Protein allergies
  • Aminoacidemia
  • Intestinal toxemia
  • And take a closer look at what I consider to be the ideal protein supplement

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