You probably know the importance of adequate protein intake to build muscle, but how much do you know about where you get your protein? The source can matter nearly as much as the quantity, but few give much more thought to their intake than checking to be sure they’re getting ‘enough’. Today, we’re going to talk about the six most common forms of protein for the fitness-savvy and what each can offer to you in your pursuit of strength, health, and general fitness.
The Best Protein Sources for Muscle Growth
- Meat. The simplest source of protein, animal muscle tissue contains a high protein content and, by its nature, all of the essential amino acids you need. Depending on the particular source of meat you might get bonuses like omega-3s (from fish), iron and zinc (from red meat), etc., but the basic building blocks remain the same. As you’re consuming solids, expect meat to release slower than processed protein sources—a benefit or downside, depending on your needs.
- Whey (Dairy). The generic ‘protein shake’ is built on whey protein, and thus whey is subject to the most tweaks, variations, and subtypes. Isolate, concentrate, and hydrolyzed whey offer roughly similar effects, but with differences in bioavailability. Concentrate is less effective than isolate which is less effective than hydrolyzed whey. It’s quickly absorbed by the body, contains customized amino acid profiles for athletic gains, and can help improve immune system function.
- Casein (Dairy). The other side of dairy proteins, casein’s largely used for it’s tendency to digest slower than most other forms of protein. That makes it great for preventing muscle breakdown during extended exercise, for improving overnight recovery, and for keeping your body burning calories through the night. Other benefits include triggering appetite-reducing hormones and supplying glutamine for improved muscle repair.
- Eggs. A gold standard for natural, unprocessed protein sources. Eggs contain all essential amino acids, can be processed into countless forms for various speeds of absorption, offer extremely high bioavailability, and provide various minerals and vitamins. If you’re watching calories or dietary cholesterol, you can gain most of the benefits from consuming the whites alone and tossing the yolks.
- Hemp. A less common form of protein, but one which measures up well to competing sources. In addition to respectable essential amino acids, hemp protein offers fatty acids in a healthy ratio, branched-chain amino acids, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Highly processed forms of dairy can offer superior benefits, but for raw organic protein powders hemp does quite well—and it’s vegetarian, for those who avoid animal products.
- Soy. Highly bioavailable and free of confounding factors such as fat, cholesterol, and lactose, soy acts as an excellent alternative protein source for vegetarians and various forms of health-aware athletes. There are studies to suggest soy offers antioxidant effects, lowers cholesterol, and improves heart health. Soy, unlike hemp, is a complete protein source, so it can serve as a primary or even exclusive source if you’re avoiding others.
There are, of course, many other sources of protein out there in the world, but if you’re serious about building muscle and refining your body, these are the ones you’ll want to work with. Nothing else really competes on the same level of efficiency or efficacy.