Whey, collagen, pea, hemp, rice… which one wins?

“Eat more protein.” It’s the advice doled out for (almost) all that ails you: for weight management, to curb cravings, and to prevent carb-driven metabolic disorders like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.

But, what’s in a protein?

Proteins are made of tiny molecules called “amino acids” that form the building blocks of just about everything in our bodies. Muscles, skin, hair, hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters (brain messengers) all depend on adequate dietary protein.

In my practice, we spend time educating our members about the benefits of getting more protein in their diet. We recommend people eat protein and fat with every meal, and we have a few tricks up our sleeve for effortlessly sneaking in enough protein throughout the day. For example: in the morning when you’re strapped for time and not awake enough to chew yet, drink protein for breakfast!

If you’re into balancing your blood sugar, keeping your weight under control, and preventing chronic illness, a smoothie with added protein powder is a great move.

Here’s the Parsley Health guide to protein powders:

Whey
Source:
Cow’s Milk. Whey is one of two protein components in cow’s milk (casein is the other one)
Vegan? No
Main pro: Highly bioavailable, meaning it can be easily used by your body
Main con: Cow’s milk is a common gut irritant that causes low grade systemic inflammation for many people without them ever realizing it (until they stop eating and drinking dairy for a while.)

Good for you if:
– You want more lean muscle mass and work out a lot
– You tolerate dairy well
– You get it from a good source – organic, grass-fed, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

Pea Protein
Source:
Plants; usually yellow peas.
Vegan? Yes
Main pro: Hypoallergenic
Main con: Does not contain the full spectrum of amino acids (it’s missing cysteine)

Good for you if:
– You’re vegan
– You mix it into other blends of protein (e.g. hemp or rice) to get all the necessary amino acids
– You tolerate legumes
– You get it from a good source – organic, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

Rice Protein
Source:
Like the name says, rice
Vegan? Yes
Main pro: Hypoallergenic, plus an extra dose of B vitamins and fiber
Main con: Contains a small amount of carbs (good for post-workout recovery, though)

Good for you if:
– You’re vegan
– You’re not paleo
– You mix it into other blends of protein (e.g. hemp or pea) or nuts and seeds to get all the essential amino acids
– You tolerate grains
– You get it from a good source – organic, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

Hemp
Source:
Hemp seeds (from the cannabis plant)
Vegan? Yes
Main pro: Hypoallergenic, complete source of protein (has all the 9 essential amino acids), and extra dose of omegas.
Main con: The least bioavailable of the lot, meaning your body doesn’t absorb and use it as well as other sources

Good for you if:
– You’re vegan
– You’re paleo
– You don’t mind spending a bit extra to get the good stuff
– You get it from a good, high-quality source – organic, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

Collagen
Source:
Animal connective tissue
Vegan? No
Main pro: Can be good for skin and joint health.
Main con: Being a beauty product, a lot of the hype is faddy and many label promises are not proven.

Good for you if:
– You’re not vegan
– You’re paleo
– You don’t mind spending a bit extra to get the good stuff
– You get it from a good, high-quality source – organic, grass-fed, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

Spirulina
Source:
Blue-green algae
Vegan? Yes
Main pro: Complete range of amino acids, plus extra minerals and antioxidants.
Main con: Hard to know where it comes from

Good for you if:
– You’re vegan
– You’re paleo
– You tolerate chlorophyll-containing drinks
– You get it from a good, high-quality source – organic, minimal ingredients, no thickeners, no sweeteners.

WINNER?
In my view, a mix of rice and pea protein is the winning combo. Together these two sources make up the full spectrum of essential amino acids, while being vegan, and free of common irritants like casein, lactose, gluten, or soy.

Bioavailaibiltiy is also an important consideration. Most plant-based proteins are only 30-50% bioavailable, at best. Meaning that your body can only absorb and utilize half the protein content, in the best case scenario. Parsley Health’s Rebuild protein shake is a blend of pea and rice protein that has been optimized with branch-chain amino acids to closely approximate the protein profile of meat, making it 95% bioavailable.

One final note of caution: unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t regulate protein powders, so you have no way of knowing what’s actually in them. Do your homework to make sure you’re getting protein powder from a trusted source, and you get what you’re promised in terms of ingredients. It might mean you pay more, but it’s worth it.

Robin is the founder of Parsley Health, a cutting edge functional medicine center offering cutting edge testing and coaching. She is a graduate of Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, and trained in functional medicine with the Institute for Functional Medicine and at The Morrison Center for Integrative Medicine.

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