Beep. Ring. Buzz. Ahhh, the ubiquitous sounds of the smartphone, dragging you back to reality. Whether it’s the boss at work with a last-minute project or the boss at home with a shopping list to attend to on your way home, the electronic revolution has tethered us all tightly to our obligations. Sometimes, there’s barely a moment to think, much less work out or get a decent nutritious meal in.
Of course, if you’re a regular reader of this magazine, we can assume that, in fact, you do always find time to train, no matter the pressing circumstances. As for that meal — well, a nice chicken breast, broccoli and baked potato isn’t always in the cards, but that doesn’t mean your protein-hungry muscles need to waste away. Thanks to another advancement in this Internet age — the supplement industry’s rapid evolution and the accompanying array of products engineered to meet the nutritional needs of a time-starved public — you can get high-quality protein on the run.
Protein bars and ready-to-drink liquids in a vast array of flavors and types can be just the thing you need to bridge that gap between the moments in your day when you can’t stop long enough to eat whole food. There are bars and shakes built for almost any goal or need, whether you need endurance, energy, high calories for quality weight gain, or a low-carb or high-protein mini-meal. Here, we outline the key ingredients and some of the special additions that help elevate your performance, in and out of the weight room.
Protein, along with carbohydrates, fiber, fat and fatty acids, is categorized as a macronutrient. Protein is important for basic functions like creating energy and promoting viable cell structure, including bone and muscle cells. For bodybuilders and athletes specifically, it’s essential for promoting muscle synthesis and recovery after a workout. You can be sure to reap these benefits by getting about 1 gram of complete protein per pound of bodyweight per day — and bars and RTDs containing whey, casein or soy can help in hitting this daily aim.
WHEY: Whey is a milk protein that is considered to be “complete,” meaning it contains all the essential amino acids that aren’t synthesized naturally in the human body. Studies show that having a drink with 10 grams to 20 grams of whey protein — with or without carbs — after exercise stimulates a rise in muscle protein synthesis. There are three types of whey used for sports nutrition products: whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and whey protein hydrolysate.
- Whey protein concentrate: This form of whey is typically low in fat and cholesterol and contains anywhere from 29 percent to 89 percent protein by weight. The remainder is mostly lactose and some fat. One study showed that athletes who had a carb drink post-exertion that contained 13 grams of whey protein concentrate had 128 percent greater muscle glycogen stores (very important for energy production and endurance) compared to those who had a carb-only drink.
- Whey protein isolate: Processed to contain very little lactose and fat, whey protein isolate is 90 percent protein by weight. In research, athletes who had a carb drink with 0.3 grams of added whey protein isolate per kilogram of bodyweight every 30 minutes for four hours after a 90-minute run were stronger during a second run than athletes who had a carb-only drink.
- Whey protein hydrolysate: Otherwise known as hydrolyzed protein, this form of whey undergoes processing so that it is easily digested. One study of whey protein hydrolysate showed that a daily dose of 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight promotes muscle and strength gains. Another study showed that having a drink with 25 grams of hydrolyzed whey protein each day promotes better exercise recovery.
CASEIN: The second of milk’s two proteins, casein accounts for 80 percent of milk to whey’s 20 percent and is known for being slowly digested compared to whey’s fast-acting nature. Research suggests that slowly digested proteins promote a continuous rise in plasma amino acids. The types of casein used in bar and drink products differ in how they’re processed and can include micellar casein, calcium caseinate and hydrolyzed casein.
Researchers often pit casein and whey head-to-head in studies, and casein holds its own. One study showed that drinks containing 20 grams of casein or whey are equally effective for promoting protein synthesis when they’re taken one hour after resistance exercise. Another study indicated that it’s beneficial for muscle gains to combine whey and casein.
SOY: Lauded as the only complete plant protein, some gym-goers shy away from soy because of rumors that it decreases testosterone and consequently inhibits muscle gains. However, a study in the July 2007 Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that soy does not decrease testosterone and, in fact, leads to significant increases in lean mass when combined with resistance training. Results of the study showed no differences in sex-hormone levels, percentage of body fat, body-mass index or bodyweight among men taking 50 grams per day of soy concentrate, soy isolate, soy isolate plus whey or whey only.
Protein drinks and bars often contain much more than just protein. Some contain carbs, which promote higher energy levels heading into a workout. In fact, research shows that carb-based sports drinks with added protein are much more effective for enhancing endurance than carb-only drinks.
Numerous protein bars and drinks boast a bevy of other athlete-friendly ingredients, too, from added aminos for muscle-building action to caffeine for extra pep, not to mention various vitamins and minerals. The following is a list of some of the more common ingredients:
CREATINE: Creatine has been shown in research to boost strength, muscle mass and athletic performance.
GLUTAMINE: This amino acid is converted to glycogen in the liver, and because glycogen is used to support blood glucose during exercise, taking L-glutamine before working out may improve endurance. Also, because intense workouts can deplete the body’s own glutamine stores — a suspected cause of depressed immune function in athletes — taking glutamine supplements may enhance après-workout immunity.
CAFFEINE: Athletes often turn to caffeine for that familiar rush of energy before a workout. As it turns out, there is scientific evidence that shows ingesting caffeine before weightlifting also can increase the total amount lifted as well as peak power and strength.
TAURINE: Commonly paired with caffeine in energy drinks, taurine is a nonessential amino acid (meaning it naturally occurs in the human body) that plays a key role in digestion, metabolism and cardiac contractility. Drinking a supplement beverage with added taurine before a workout can improve endurance.
TEA EXTRACTS: Green and white tea are made from leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The difference lies in how the leaves are processed. Green-tea extracts (including epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG) have been shown to positively affect energy metabolism and raise HDL cholesterol — which is good — as well as help the body burn fat for energy at a higher rate. Similarly, laboratory research shows that white-tea extract promotes the breakdown of fat cells and that it inhibits fat-cell formation.
JUST IN TIME
Before we let you get back to that beeping phone, we need to cover one more detail: When is the best time to use a bar or RTD?
“Nutrient timing is everything in sports nutrition,” says Jeff Kotterman, BS, LMSN, director of the National Association of Sports Nutrition in San Diego and founder of TriSystem Nutrition. One way to use the products is when you’ve gone three hours or more since your last meal — you want to give your body a steady stream of nutrients, especially if you’re trying to gain muscle.
Another important time frame is before and after training. “Preworkout meals protect muscle from damage, enhance the hormonal response to exercise and top off glycogen stores,” Kotterman explains. “Postworkout meals enhance the body’s metabolism of fat, and speeds recovery and protein synthesis.”
Speaking of training, don’t you have somewhere to be right now? We thought so.