If you are a regular shopper at health food stores, you may have noticed that there are a plethora of protein powders for sale. Isolated protein powders, especially those containing whey and soy protein — that are blended into shakes and smoothies are extremely popular. This is especially true among those attempting to build muscle at the gym. But is this truly the most healthful way to build muscle mass?
First of all, exercise is the biggest factor that determines how much muscle mass you have. In fact, did you know that it is exercise and not food that stimulates muscle growth? Working out triggers your body’s muscle-building processes and dietary protein provides the raw materials that your muscles need in order to grow. If you are following a nutrient-rich diet which includes a variety of protein-rich whole plant foods, you can absolutely easily consume enough protein for muscle growth. You will just need to be sure to increase your total caloric intake based on your level of hunger. Another thing to consider is to time your meals, because did you know that excess protein calories are not stored as protein? They are stored as fat! But, it is natural to become hungry within an hour or so of a workout. So you want to have a protein-containing meal as closely as possible following exercise, as this beneficial for recovery and muscle mass. You want to include protein-rich plant foods, like green vegetables, beans and seeds. These will provide sufficient raw material for muscle growth. Yes, that right! Plant foods are the bomb for building muscle. But, seeing is believing, right? Jim Morris, competitive body builder, has the most incredible physique you have ever seen and he is vegan! CLICK HERE to read about his incredible career. Would you believe that Jim is now 80 and is still going strong?
So what’s the issue with protein powders? Because of the high concentration of protein per serving, it is very easy to OD on protein and excess protein may have a negative effect on calcium stores, kidney function and bone health. Oh, oh! This is especially true if the protein powder is made with an animal protein like whey. When we consume any animal protein, the body naturally will increase its production of a hormone called IGF-1 which is insulin-like growth factor 1. We as a society are obsessed with making sure we consume enough protein. But did you know that overconsumption of protein which, in turn, increases IGF-1 is a contributing factor to the exploding rates of cancer? Ugh!
Now, while IGF-1 is primarily elevated by animal protein, soy protein can also be a culprit. Now before you ditch the soy, know that the soy products that are problematic are those that contain unnaturally concentrated soy protein, like protein powders and meat substitutes. These are highly processed foods that retain little or none of the beneficial nutrients that would naturally be present in whole soybeans. So when eating soy, choose minimally processed forms like edamame, tempeh, tofu and unsweetened soy milk. I always like to look for the organic label to avoid GMO, as soy is probably the most genetically modified crop in the world.
IGF-1 is not all bad, as it is necessary for growth and maintenance of your muscle tissue. But muscle growth doesn’t just depend on how much IGF-1 is circulating in the blood. Your muscles produce their own IGF-1 in response to any strength training you do which also fuels muscle growth. So shoot for a combination of strength training and a nutrient-rich diet. This will result in lower and cancer-preventing levels of IGF-1 circulating in your blood. And you still get the benefits of lGF-1 production in your muscles.
To support healthy muscle growth, whole food sources of protein are the best choice. If you love shakes and smoothies, instead of protein powders, use high-protein plant foods such as sunflower seeds, hemp seeds and Mediterranean pine nuts. You can also use these same foods in post-workout meals. Don’t forget to add generous amounts of green vegetables, beans and intact whole grains such as oats, quinoa and wild rice, all of which are rich in micronutrients as well as protein. If you must use isolated protein powders, hemp, rice and pea proteins are better choices than soy protein powders because their amino acid profiles are not as close to that of animal protein.