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Sports Nutrition

Going Green

Whey, whey and more whey … then some casein, followed by more whey. Yes, bodybuilders love whey protein and use it often in their daily diets, making it far and away the best-selling protein powder on the marketplace.

While there’s no denying the strength of whey protein as a muscle-building nutrient, the science says it shouldn’t necessarily be your only supplemental protein source. In addition to the aforementioned casein, it’s time you took a closer look at three other vegetable-based options that can help you get pumped while promoting endurance and supporting recovery. Meet the “green” proteins: hemp, soy and pea proteins, naturally imbued with the amino acids a healthy body needs for a vegetable-induced performance boost.

Protein Pointers

Among serious physique athletes, it’s a known fact that protein intake is essential for muscle growth. To gain muscle, there has to be positive protein balance within the body, meaning that it’s important to consume more protein than is broken down during exercise.As far as intake, the general rule of thumb for active people is to eat (or drink) 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, taking in no more than 35 grams at a time, says Hana Feeney, MS, RD, CSSD, a Tucson, Ariz.-based nutrition coach. “You take whatever your amount per day would be, split it into 30-gram chunks, and spread it out over [multiple meals] so you get an even amount of protein all through the day, including before you work out and after you work out,” she explains.

After a meal, protein is broken down by the digestive system into its separate amino acids. Animal proteins — like chicken, beef and dairy — are complete proteins, which means they contain all the essential amino acids that the body can’t manufacture on its own. Vegetable proteins, comparatively, tend to have lower levels of amino acids than meat and dairy, but that’s not necessarily the only factor to consider. The point is, at the end of the day, it’s important to get sufficient amounts of all the amino acids from different sources, Feeney says.

“If you’re using a vegetable protein with your workout but also eating fish or chicken or whole grains throughout the day, your body doesn’t know that the amino acids are coming into the body at different times,” she explains. “So the amino-acid content is sort of irrelevant in a protein powder if your diet is complete.”

The reasons for choosing a vegetable protein powder over dairy-based powders (i.e., whey and casein) could be for the vegetarian or vegan options, because of a dairy allergy, or just to explore valuable dietary variety. The truth of the matter is, vegetable protein supplements are not only good for supporting muscle growth and recovery, but they also have unique benefits compared to animal-based proteins.

Strengths of Soy

Soy is probably the most well-known vegetable protein source, and like dairy proteins, it’s listed as a complete protein by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the gym, soy has proved itself for increasing muscle mass. One 2009 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that soy stimulated muscle protein synthesis during exercise and at rest. Another study showed that dieters on a high-soy, low-fat diet lost weight and maintained lean mass over a six-month period.

In addition to improving body composition, soy is well-known for being heart-healthy. Because it lowers cholesterol, Aaron Michelfelder, M.D., writing in a 2009 issue of American Family Physician, recommended soy as a healthy substitute for higher-fat animal proteins. He also noted that people with high-soy diets have lower risks of breast and prostate cancers, and soy intake seems to have positive effects on bone density.

Soy’s healthy effects on bone typically are attributed to its isoflavones. Also known as phytoestrogens, isoflavones actually have mild estrogenlike activity, one big reason male gym-goers and women with a family or personal history of estrogen-positive breast cancer shy away from soy.

Although animal studies using extremely high doses of soy have shown hormone changes in males, a moderate amount of soy is unlikely to have any hormonal effects on men, Feeney says. As for the threat to women at a higher risk of breast cancer, the research is inconclusive overall, according to a report in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers noted, however, that Asian women have a lower risk of breast cancer than Western women, which they attributed to higher soy intake.

Hemp Hemp Hooray

Like soy, hemp is a heart-healthy plant protein, and it is known for helping keep cholesterol levels in check. Hemp’s cardio-protective properties can be attributed to its polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) content, specifically omega-3 fatty acids. Hemp seeds, which technically are classified as nuts, are composed of 25 percent protein and 30 percent oil, more than three-quarters of which is PUFAs.

The fact that hemp protein has omega-3 content is unique and a big benefit, Feeney says, particularly after a workout because omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties.

“Exercise is an inflammatory process and it creates irritation in the muscle,” Feeney adds. “You need to keep inflammation at bay, particularly if you’re looking for that insulin spike and muscle growth from it.”

Another bonus to hemp-based proteins is that they’re easily digested and contain significant amounts of all the essential amino acids. Preliminary research of hemp-seed protein shows that it may be able to stave off fatigue during exercise, as well as improve immune activity.

One reason some may shy away from hemp is because of its relationship to marijuana. Hemp may be related to marijuana specieswise — both are derived from the Cannabis sativa plant — but the important difference is the level of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana plants have THC content anywhere from 3 percent to 20 percent, compared to 0.05 percent to 1 percent in industrial cannabis. Although study subjects have had positive drug tests after eating hemp foods, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology showed that even “extended and excessive consumption” wasn’t enough to elicit a positive in workplace drug testing.

War and Peas

Perhaps an unlikely choice for the dairy-protein die-hards, pea protein deserves a second look because it’s a very healthy vegetable protein that can be used on its own or combined with dairy protein shakes. Pea protein is naturally imbued with the essential amino acids, including the branched-chain amino acids, and it has especially high levels of arginine.

Arginine has proved its worth as an ergogenic aid. It helps delay exercise-induced fatigue and is a proven performance enhancer, making it valuable for your battles in the weight room. One theory is that it acts by supporting nitric oxide, which improves exercise capacity by relaxing vascular smooth muscle in coronary and skeletal muscle arteries.

Pea protein is derived from Pisum sativum, otherwise known as yellow or split peas, and is especially good for those with allergy concerns (dairy and soy are both on the list of common allergens). It’s also a vegan protein, not to mention that it’s free of gluten, lactose and cholesterol. And preliminary research in animals shows that pea-protein isolate can significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

All About Balance

The bottom line is, if you’re working out and trying to build muscle, “you just need protein,” Feeney says, stressing the point that a well-balanced diet is key. “Your workout stimulates muscle protein synthesis, but so does the food you eat, so if you put them together, it’s synergistic. Protein before you work out helps enhance the workout itself, and you need protein to help repair tissue, for recovery and to set a positive nitrogen balance.” To that end, veggie proteins are a healthy and effective way to get the amino acids and the power boost — not to mention the improved heart health — an athlete needs.