Two nutritional body-benevolent powerhouses both begin with “pro:” protein and probiotics.

Getting fit is no longer a chore that is accomplished in a gym. Between more trails and outdoor centers, yoga and dance and martial arts studios, and home-based classes (eg, Peloton), as well as competitions such as Tough Mudder, exercise is a personal choice, which is why more people are looking for health and fitness routines that fit their needs. Finding what you like to do dramatically increases one’s ability to stay on track and get into outstanding shape.

Typically, when people begin to exercise they also modify their diet, monitoring both nutrient and calorie intake.

This is where proteins come in. You’ve likely heard of whey protein, but for some people, it isn’t the best option as a protein supplement. It can cause stomach upset, or not fit in with your choice of diet. Luckily, other protein powder sources are being made widely available—notably, many plant-based proteins. There are even newer animal-sourced proteins on the market, such as salmon protein hydrolysate (SPH), which has studies showing its viability in weight management and in sports nutrition, promoting a decrease in body mass index.

What is Protein?

Protein is a macronutrient, along with fat and carbohydrates, that helps the body maintain its structure and function. Protein is comprised more than 20 amino acids that serve as basic foundational bricks for overall health. There are nine essential amino acids in proteins: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

The National Academy of Medicine recommends consuming a minimum of 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. This would equate to 50 g of protein for an individual who weighs about 140 pounds, and 70 for someone who weighs approximately 200 pounds. It also suggests that protein intake should be anywhere between 10 to 35% of calories per day.

A Harvard study of more than130,000 adults over a period of up to 32 years suggested that the percentage of calories from total protein intake had no bearing on overall mortality or to specific causes of death. Instead, they found that it was the protein source that made that difference. They concluded, “Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially that from processed red meat, was associated with lower mortality, suggesting the importance of protein source.”

It is widely known that foods containing high protein are meats and poultry, as well as nuts, nut butters, whole grains and legumes. Meat-derived protein (red meat such as beef), however, also provides unwanted fats and arachidonic acid (an omega-6 EFA)—although it does supply iron, which is good for women. If this is your choice for protein consumption, maybe look to leaner meats such as turkey or chicken. Broccoli is also higher in protein than you would think!

Whey Protein

If you are like many fitness enthusiasts and health oriented, you likely have heard you should take whey protein to build your muscles. Whey protein powders remain the top selling protein powders for both athletes and active-health-minded individuals. However, for many, whey protein is not the optimum protein powder choice.

After workouts, especially weight-bearing (“resistance”) exercise, the body’s muscle fibers are being broken down and protein is synthesized to rebuild and repair. This process leads to gains in both muscle size and strength through time. Whey protein (a byproduct of cow’s milk) provides the essential amino acids to increase muscle mass faster than just resistance training without whey protein, according to research.

However, digestibility for many is an issue. Even with whey protein hydrolysate, which is the easiest to digest of the three marketed forms (the other two being concentrate and isolate). For those who are lactose-intolerant, or intolerant to a milk protein, whey protein consumption is a displeasing task, for it can cause gas and bloating. And, it is simply also not an option for the growing number of vegans and flexitarian consumers. Market intelligence shows that the US plant-based foods/beverages/supplements industry is pegged at $5 billion, and that sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal based counterparts have grown 29%.

Plant Protein Powders

Search online for “plant-based protein powders” and you will see products made from sunflower, oat, lentil, pea, brown rice, almonds (and other nuts), chickpea, quinoa, chickpea, fava bean, and barley, as well as the original plant-alternative, soy.

However, plant-based proteins are not as powerful in their anabolic (muscle building) effects as whey or other animal-based proteins. Essentially, it comes down to bioavailability. As authors of one review explain, “The nutritional value of dietary proteins is related to the bioavailability of its constitutive amino acids and depends on the efficiency of their metabolic utilization to meet the amino acid requirements necessary for growth and body protein turnover.”

Specifically, protein quality (i.e., digestibility and absorption, ability to provide the body’s daily amino acid requirement) is largely assessed by the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).

A protein that has a PCDAAS of less than 100% is one that cannot provide the daily need for essential amino acids. Excluding some soy protein isolates, the plant-based protein sources that have been tested as of summer 2019 have been reported to all have a PDCAAS below 100%, lower than that of animal proteins. And, according to authors of one review, “Different types and quality of protein can affect amino acid bioavailability following protein supplementation.”

How Probiotics Boost Plant Proteins

As you know, probiotics play fundamental roles in ensuring healthy digestion and absorption—successful absorption of amino acids in dietary proteins is assisted by microbial activity during host digestion. Fermenting proteins in the gastrointestinal tract release molecules that have a wide range of effects on health. Researchers hypothesized that probiotic supplementation results in favorable changes in the gut microbiota, aiding the absorption of amino acids from plant proteins by the host.

In this new study, 15 physically active men consumed 20 grams of pea protein with either AminoAlta™--a combination of (5 billion CFU L. paracasei LP-DG® (CNCM I-1572) and 5 billion CFU L. paracasei LPC-S01 (DSM 26760) -- or a placebo for two weeks separated by a 4-week washout period. Blood samples were taken at baseline, and 30-, 60-, 120- and 180-minutes post-consumption and analyzed for amino acid content.

Results showed that those men who consumed the pea plant protein along with the probiotic combination exhibited significantly increased methionine, histidine, valine, leucine, isoleucine, tyrosine, total BCAA, and total essential amino acid (EAA) maximum concentrations (Cmax) and area under concentration (AUC) without significantly changing the time to reach maximum concentrations.

Conclusion

Whether it’s whey for you, or any of the myriad plant-based proteins, using any of the protein supplements post-workout will help provide your body with the necessary nutrition it needs to take advantage of the exercise to gain strength as well as muscle size and health. If you are one of the growing number of people who prefer to use plant-based proteins, consider the probiotics mentioned above that will help you get more out of your plant protein of choice.

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