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Which Protein Supplement is best?

Just started Crossfit? Feeling super sore after every WOD? Can only do 2 sessions a week because you are just too sore? If all this sounds too familiar you may not be consuming adequate protein for muscle recovery.

Coming from the globo gym and doing Les Mill classes with only the occasional weight session, I have never really needed to take protein. Your routine is never THAT varied and the weights are never THAT challenging. At the box, I quickly discovered that if you want to do 4-5+ sessions a week, taking protein supplements really help. This assumes you don’t get enough protein from your diet. Your protein needs depend on your age, size, and activity level however as a general guide:

  • For competitive athletes like a Crossfitter attempting to lose body fat while preserving lean muscle mass, a daily intake of 1.5-2.2g/kg bodyweight (0.68-1g/lb bodyweight) would be a good target.
  • For recreational athletics attempting to lose body fat while preserving lean muscle mass, 1.1-1.65g/kg bodyweight is a good target.
  • For a sedentary person not looking to change body composition, a daily target of 0.8g/kg bodyweight (0.36g/lb bodyweight) would be a good target. This means a 80kg man requires approximately 64g of protein per day, and a 60kg woman requires 48g per day. 
  • Obese individuals (with body fat over 20% for males and 30% females or a BMI greater than 30 without significant levels of muscle mass) should not follow these recommendation as the state of obesity would overshoot requirements.[ref#1]

The risk in taking too much protein per day is that the body will store the rest as fat. For those who also have impaired kidney function, additional protein can exacerbate the decline in kidney function. To healthy individuals without kidney impairment, protein intake does not adversely affect kidney function. Persons with harmed livers or kidneys (disease states or otherwise) should exercise caution in increasing protein intake too quickly and without the guidance of a medical doctor. [ref#1]

Why would I need Protein Supplements? The benefits

There is absolutely no benefits to taking protein supplements if your dietary protein intake is sufficient. Protein is the basic building blocks of the human body, making up about 16 percent of our total body weight. The body needs protein to function. Besides muscle repair this includes repair of red blood cells, hair and fingernail growth, regulation of hormone secretion, movement (muscle contraction), digestion, maintenance of the body's water balance, protection against disease, transport of nutrients to and from cells, the carrying of oxygen and regulation of blood clotting. [ref#2] Without protein, the body will start to break down muscle for it's needs within a day or so. As you can see the role of protein is important to overall body health and function. It's a sad story the fitness industry has made protein appear to be for strong men only.

For Crossfitters whose intake is insufficient, you'll be amazed. Your muscles will still feel fatigued however the feeling that you cannot walk the next day will be significantly reduced. These days I am able to WOD five times a week. This is attributed not just to protein powder but a change in lifestyle and to the Paleo Diet.

Situations where you may want to use protein powder include:

  • When you've had a particularly tough strength session.
  • When the workout or program is new and you're trying to build muscle mass.
  • When you're recovering from an injury as protein assists in the healing process.

What type of Protein is best?

Protein powders can be from either animal sources or plant sources. Some common types include casein, whey or more recently pea isolate. In an Industry full of marketing noise and promises which protein source is best? If you are not vegan, Whey Protein is viewed as the easiest and most effective source. Whey Protein is one of the two proteins found in Milk (the other being casein). Whey is preferred to other proteins as it delivers a larger portion of the amino acid L-Cysteine and is more quickly absorbed by the body. L-Cysteine deficiency occurs when one ages and for those suffering from diabetes.

Other benefits of Whey Protein include:

  1. Repair cells, muscles and bones.
  2. Decrease recovery time and symptoms of over training.
  3. Assist in cancer treatments.
  4. Assist in weight loss as it stimulates an appetite-suppressing due to satiety effect.
  5. Builds immunity as it contains an antioxidants such as glutathione.
  6. A rich source of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). BCAAs is important as 3 out of the 9 essential amino acids are used by your body to repair and preserve muscle,  Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. During both exercise and recovery your body will break down a small amount of amino acids for fuel. Although this is a small percentage overall, your body will break down muscle in order to get those BCAA’s. By providing the body with a high amount of BCAA’s, your body preserves your muscle. Leucine specifically stimulates protein synthesis as it signal to your body to increase its storage of amino acids. The way the body does this is by adding muscle. [ref#3]

Is Whey Protein Paleo?

Strictly speaking Whey Protein or any form of protein supplement is not Paleo.  Whey protein is processed and the by-product of cheese production.  It does however fall under the 80/20 rule according to Mark Sisson the author of the Primal Blueprint [ref#4]. Mark believes protein supplements can play a role if taken in moderation. For those who want to remain strict Paleo, check out this great article from Robb Wolf - Convenient Post Workout Fuel options.

There are many forms of Whey Protein. What is the difference and which is best?

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) VS Why Protein Isolate (WPI) VS Whey Protein hydrolysate (WPH)

Types of Whey Protein Protein Lactose Fat Price Level of processing
WPC 25-89% 4-52% 1-9% $ Moderate
WPI 90-95% 0.5-1% 0.5-1% $$ Heavy
WPH 80-89% 0.5-10% 0.5-8% $$$ Heavy

Note: Composition may vary by manufacturer. [ref#5]

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) contains some fat and lactose. It is more wholesome and less processed out of the three.  The protein content ranges from 25-89%. Though often known as WPC80, as 80% tends to be the standardised protein by weight. The rest of the product generally consists of lactose (4-8%), fat, minerals, and moisture.

Whey protein isolate (WPI) is the purest form of Whey Protein available. It contains between 90-95% protein, making it the choice for many body builders. It is a protein alternative for people who are lactose intolerant, as it contains little or no lactose.  However to be an isolate, WPI are usually processed at higher temperatures. Heat destroys valuable nutritional cofactors. WPI is generally more expensive than WPC.

Whey Protein hydrolysate (WPH) contains protein that are “predigested”. This means that the protein is broken down into shorter chains for maximum speed of absorption.  As the protein is predigested, it is believed that it reduces the risk of any allergic reactions.  WPH is the most processed and expensive of the three. It also the most unpleasant to taste (bitter).

Which Whey Protein is best?

The answer is dependent on your budget, objectives and sensitivity to lactose. As our objective is long term optimal health, our recommendation is Whey Protein Concentrate (assuming no major sensitivity to lactose). In the video below Dr Mercola summarises perfectly why Whey Protein Isolate should be avoided at all cost.

According to Mark Sisson, he is of the opinion that Whey Protein is already easily absorbed, so why waste money on WPH.

Having a protein powder that is less processed but slightly lower in protein (like 80%) is not a bad thing. It simply means we have 20% of beneficial co-factors that will help your body absorb and process the protein.  The fitness industry focuses on increasing the percent of protein, as that is what sells.  Whatever you choice, be aware that many commercial protein powders can contain the following:

  • Articifical sweeteners or flavors. Check for ingredients such as Sucralose or Splenda. See Dr Mercola’s article on the dangers of sucralose.
  • GMO ingredients such as Soy.
  • Fillers to make the powder look bigger so it is more profitable. Check for ingredients such as Maltodextrin (which are usually made from GMO modified corn). Unfortunately fillers below a certain % of total ingredients is not required by law to be listed.
  • Treated with Soy to make them mix well. Check the ingredient for “soy lecithin”.  Why is soy bad? Read this: http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert
  • Comes from grain-fed cows (not grassfed). Milk from grass-fed cows are more beneficial in the following ways:
    • Five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat that may prove to be one of our most potent cancer fighters.
    • Higher in beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E.
    • Cows may be treated with antibiotics and hormones. This is done to make the cows grow faster however there is research showing that these substances can leak into their milk and effect the quality of the milk. Read this: http://www.westonaprice.org/making-it-practical/milk-it-does-a-body-good


    The best form of protein is via dietary intake. Failing this we recommended Whey Protein. In particular, grass fed whey protein concentrate.  Remember to read the label for any of the listed items we've mentioned. Whey Protein should be seen as a supplement and NOT a replacement of real foods.  And finally if you are taking protein for muscle recovery, remember it is also important to include rest days into your programming. Rest days are when muscles grow. Give your body sufficient rest time so that you can give every workout 100%.  I know you can get addicted to Crossfit so ensure to program in your rest days. I found 3 on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off worked well.  Then every 6 weeks have a light week to allow for more recovery. Everyone is different so test and learn what works for you.


    [ref#1] www.examine.com
    [ref#2] www.bodybuilding.com
    [ref#3] http://www.builtlean.com/2012/03/16/whey-protein/
    [ref#4] http://www.marksdailyapple.com/whey-isolate-concentrate-hydrolysate/#axzz2NBNoOBmq
    [ref#5] http://wheyoflife.org/


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