Everybody knows by now what protein (amino acid compounds) in food does for the one who eats it: it makes you whole and gives you the shape to move yourself and the stuff around you. If you’re reading this, it means you understand enough to appreciate its benefits.

The Protein Engine: Supplementing for New Gym Rats

For most of us, protein-rich foods aren't hard to come by and are not needed in maximum allowable quantities.  Athletes and weight-watchers, however, are entirely different stories.  It’s no surprise that those who work out regularly supplement their diets with protein powders made of soy or whey.  What those supplements can give and how much we actually should consume will be given as a simple guide as you read on.

Muscle repair

Weight-lifters and martial artists move in short bursts of power; the more things are moved across a distance in the least amount of time, the better.  Distance runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers and the like, move rhythmically and repetitively until they complete their distances; that is, as long as you have a well-built body for metabolizing oxygen and sugars.

Regardless of what physical activities you engage in on a daily basis, chances are, you’re muscles will undergo some wear-and-tear.  Muscles are composed of cells, which, in turn, become strands of muscle fibers.  Work them out a little too hard and too long, they become swollen to the point that you can’t move them like you usually do.  Starve them and they’d resist movement.  More severe damages can put one out of his/her usual training regimen and the training progress goes back to square one.  This is because, at some point, energy from your ready carbohydrates is not enough.  Muscles begin to “cannibalize” on the one thing keeping them whole—protein—and turning it into fuel.

Whey protein is usually the supplement of choice to maintain the muscles’ form and peak performance.  Common whey protein powders come in formulations not intended to bulk one up; just enough to help you keep your body working the way you want it to.

Carbs and fats vs. muscle: a zero-sum game

There is truth to what some believe is a zero-sum battle between excess fuel in the tank (carbohydrates and fats) and the engine capable of gobbling them.  And your muscles are your engines—more like little chemical reactors sans any combustion.

I have former college students who have gained considerable excess weight a few years after graduation. Having taught in departments of Business and Technology, our careers often lead us to daily sit-down jobs in front of a computer.  The common tendency was to eat amounts that fuel physical activities, only to have days pass without physical activities!  And being a weekend warrior will not be enough to win against excess carbs and fats.  That means your body will not have a reason to be built anymore than what is needed from it.  That means less muscle mass, due to less muscle cells, and less muscle cells mean less “little chemical reactors.”

When there is not enough muscle mass to metabolize carbs and fats, our bodies get that “excess fuel in the tank” making us weigh more than we should for our heights and ages.

Our best defense against such unused energy is to actually use them.  Sustained aerobic exercises like swimming and running stimulate breathing and cell activity.  Needless to explain all that molecular biology stuff, your cells become busy only when you choose to.  A protein-rich diet—by itself—keeps one from putting on excess weight as it not only stimulates the growth of all cells (not just muscles), but hormone production too, especially those that regulate appetite and overall bodily activity.

Still, diets and supplements can only take one far enough, such as simply being alive.  Exercise coupled with the right diet and supplements, however, is what will give your body definition.  So when you are done with losing the excess pounds, it would be wise to keep yourself up in that level.

Soy, whey, powder or tablet?

Regardless of sources and forms, know that your daily protein intake depends on your weight and daily physical activity: 56 grams for adult men and 46 grams for adult women according to WebMD (or roughly 800 milligrams per kilogram of body weight).  Though damages to certain organs (particularly kidneys) have been scientifically debunked, never consume more than what is recommended for prolonged periods of time.

I personally wouldn’t recommend those protein tablets that have large dosages (2,100mg and up) unless you are into some serious body-building competitions.  Leave these to the guys who eat cast iron doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For most of us just getting by with work and work-outs, I would recommend two kinds of powdered protein supplements: whey and soy.  Both contain high amounts of a specific essential amino acid called tryptophan.  Tryptophan helps not only muscle growth and maintenance, but also your mood (which has a lot of influence over exercise, eating, and practically everything you do).

Whey protein is from cow’s milk; practically a residue from the processing of milk and cheese (some expensive residue that is).  It has the highest tryptophan content of the two, as well as highest overall protein content.  By formulation, it also has the least sodium and the least fat content.

Soy protein is the next best to whey.  It has slightly lower protein content than whey, and about five times more sodium.  Tryptophan content is half that of whey, but far more than equal servings (scoops) of powdered nonfat milk, packaged soy drinks or taho (soy bean curd).  Soy has this unique advantage, though: it’s good for vegetarians and lactose-intolerants.

The Protein Engine: Supplementing for New Gym Rats
A sample whey smoothie from the Power Eating seminar of Dr. Susan Kleiner, PhD.  Don't just dump anything into the blender; learn the art of blending good food and good taste.

Both soy and whey can make more filling and nutritious fruit smoothies.  A banana or avocado smoothie with at most two scoops of either powder makes for a great recovery meal after an intense work-out or competition.  Even after I bike to work (which I do everyday), half a liter of protein smoothie makes for a great meal that effectively stops junk food cravings and excessive eating.  Besides, I’ve already spent quite some money just buying my fruits and powders.

Protein costs a fortune…but the math says otherwise

You might think all this protein-supplementing is expensive, but if you’re willing to trade off unhealthy habits and spending on processed food, it’s not so bad at all.  And I have done the math for you.

If you’re thinking you’d rather just buy processed drinks in tetra bricks, think again.  I compared Healthy Option’s Show Me The Whey (464g) with Soy Fresh soy milk (250ml tetra bricks).  For the same protein content, Soy Fresh will save you close to PhP300—but you will end up consuming [approximately] 300% more calories, 3,000% more fat, close to 2,000% more carbohydrates, and 700% more sodium (salts) as a result.  Not only that, you’ll end up producing about 66 pieces of trash (bricks and straws).  For Show Me The Whey, you can reuse the containers.

The point here is to buy food that works in your favor.  Abandon chips and soft drinks and eat what you truly need.  The short-term return is having a body that keeps up with you, keeps you sharp and performing well day after day, with capacity to spare.  The long-term return is that you’re less likely to be sustained by medication when you’re old.

(This author strongly advises that one seek a registered nutritionist/dietitian before purchasing and regularly consuming any dietary supplement.  Consultation with a sports medicine doctor would be necessary before engaging in any training regimen.)

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