This is a question that’s constantly debated; which is the best source of nutrition, protein powders or whole foods? I’ve always had this question in the back of my mind, especially since today’s high quality protein powders far exceed the first few generations of protein powders.
However, if you research this and read the opinions of many professional bodybuilders and nutrition experts you’ll find that most claim whole foods are superior to protein powders for both your health and building quality muscle. Whereas whole foods are indeed the most wholesome (no pun intended) source of nutrition, protein powders indeed have their place and serve a purpose.
Let’s first take a look at how protein powder is made, specifically whey protein. Whey is derived from milk and is noted to be the highest quality source of protein available (even more so than whole food sources of protein, which is why this question is so common). Whey protein also has the highest level of BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) than any food source. This goes without saying but we all know how important quality protein and BCAAs are to building muscle. Whey grants us lean muscle, decreased recovery time from workouts, and also has positive effects on metabolic rate. It’s also quickly absorbed making it perfect for post workout shakes or meals. But that’s just the basic semantics of whey protein. Over the years the quality of protein powders has become extremely advanced. For starters, there are different types of whey protein (means of processing are listed here as well) such as whey isolate, whey concentrate, micro-filtered, instantized, ultra-filtered, and hydrolyzed. Many of today’s whey products contain a combination of these. Many whey protein powders may also include extras such as digestive enzymes and formulas to assist with nutrient partitioning. There are other types of protein powders as well such as casein and egg protein. Some of the whey products may contain these other types of proteins to allow for both fast and slow absorption.
Now let’s briefly talk about the role that whole foods play in the muscle building process. One of the main contributions whole foods grants towards muscle gains as well as burning off fat is the overall nutritional value. Certain foods contain nutrients that are necessary for not only muscle recovery but more importantly for the body to function properly. If you’re body doesn’t get the nutrients needed then it won’t matter how much protein you get; you won’t build quality muscle.
A great example of whole food sources that contain protein along with other essentials are eggs. Whole eggs are high in protein, healthy fats, they help lower bad cholesterol levels while raising the good, and they’re packed with amino acids as well as vitamins. Certain types of fish also contain natural healthy fats which offer numerous health benefits (which in turn equates to muscle building benefits) such as preventing heart disease, aiding in fat loss, lubricating joints, and can also help fight off several illnesses and diseases. Steak and beef are great sources of protein which also include B vitamins and can assist in strengthening bones. Pork and chicken are also packed with essential vitamins and nutrients.
Your body also needs a balance of carbohydrates and healthy fats that you won’t get with protein powders alone (although many mix foods like bananas, milk and peanut butter in their protein shakes; this will be discussed in Part II of this article). Taking in carbs after an intense workout is beneficial to building muscle (I won’t get into the specifics of simple and complex carbs for this article). Whole grains give your body the ability to fight off countless diseases and ailments. Fruits and vegetables are filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and can also prevent an array of diseases.
I could elaborate for pages upon pages on the benefits of consuming whole foods. The bottom line is whether you’re into weight training or not, your body craves the nutritional value of whole foods. You need certain nutrients to fight off diseases, which would obviously get in the way of building muscle, and you need these nutrients to recover and rebuild muscle tissue. Let’s not forget about our overall health and long-term quality of life.
So which is better for building muscle, whole foods or protein powders? If you had to choose between the two it’s pretty obvious that whole foods are best. However, adding protein shakes to your nutrition plan along with whole foods can prove to be more beneficial than whole foods alone. For starters, your body needs to quickly absorb protein after intense workouts to start the muscle recovery process. Whey is hands-down the best source of protein to do the job (I must note that carbohydrates are also important post workout). Also, protein shakes can be a convenient means to maintaining a positive nitrogen balance between meals throughout the day which can enhance muscle growth. Below I’ll discuss adding whole foods to your protein shakes. The intent is still not to replace whole food meals but I’ll give you some options and recipes for making high quality whey protein-based shakes and meals.
Now here’s a time where protein powder may actually be more beneficial than whole foods; post workout. Your muscles are screaming for nutrients after an intense workout. Not to get off topic but many bodybuilders and weight trainers these days, myself included, take some sort of BCAA (branched-chain amino acids) or EAA (essential amino acids) supplement immediately after their workouts. I actually start sipping on a BCAA supplement during the last few sets of my workout and follow that up with my post workout shake about 20 minutes or later. I say that to stress the importance of protein in your body as quickly as possible and there’s no better protein to do the job than whey protein. I feel you also need some simple carbohydrates and well as healthy fats for this meal. Here’s a shake recipe I’ve been doing after every workout for the past several weeks from the time of posting this article.
Jason’s Post Workout Shake
10-12 ounces of milk (usually 2%)
2 scoops of whey protein (I’ve been using Dymatize Elite All Natural Whey < click here for my review)
1 serving of all natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon of honey
About an hour after my post workout protein shake, which again is not just protein powder but a combination of protein powder and whole foods, I have a whole food meal. I train in the early mornings and I’m usually drinking my post workout shake, Post Workout Meal 1, around 6:30AM and follow that up with Post Workout Meal 2 around 7:30AM. Post Workout Meal 2 usually consists of several whole eggs, grits, 2 pieces of whole wheat toast, water, and a small glass of orange juice. So here we start out the day with a good example of utilizing protein powders and whole food meals for maximum muscle growth and recovery.
I’m going to personalize this a bit further and give you an example of my daily eating schedule during the week. I’ve been following this nutrition plan for quite some time now and it seems to work well for me as my energy levels are fairly consistent throughout the day and for the most part, I have pretty good workouts. Of course, I’m human like all of us and I may hit up a buffet once in a blue moon which can indeed throw your metabolism out of whack. But I do my best to maintain a consistent nutrition plan throughout the week eating plenty of protein, healthy fats, and good sources of carbs. Here’s what my day looks like (this is at least fairly close anyway):
4:40AM – 1 scoop of whey followed by pre workout mix (a bit unorthodox, but it works for me)
6:30AM – Post Workout Meal 1 (the shake recipe I posted above)
7:30AM – Post Workout Meal 2 (the whole food meal I posted above)
9:30AM – Usually a whole food snack such as beef jerky or nuts, but sometimes I may take a scoop of whey)
12:00PM – Whole food meal for lunch such as steak or chicken, with rice and vegetables
3:30PM – Protein powder with milk and I may add a sandwich to that if it’s leg or back day for the extra calories)
6:00PM – Whole food meal for dinner; usually the same type of meal as lunch
9:00PM – Bed time shake; protein powder with milk and sometimes I add a teaspoon of natural peanut butter
Sometimes I may eat a light dinner and eat a couple boiled eggs an hour later; it just depends on how I feel. Like right now, as I’m writing this article I’m getting hungry so I’m going to boil a few eggs! It’s Sunday and I eat pretty much what I want on the weekends but I don’t go crazy. I have have pizza once and we may eat out here and there. I don’t compete so I don’t deprive myself 100% of the time; however, I don’t really crave sweets as much as I used to. I also have protein shakes here and there on the weekends as well. But my weekend nutrition schedule is more relaxed.
Protein shakes are great and have a definitive purpose. Let’s be honest; it’s very difficult to get the quantity of protein you need daily for building muscle in whole foods alone. So protein powders and protein shakes are a great way to help you reach your daily protein requirements for gaining muscle mass. Whole foods are even better because you need the nutrients from whole foods you can’t get from protein powders alone. Without those nutrients you’ll be depriving yourself of muscle gains, not to mention these nutrients are required for overall health and for your body to function properly. But you may find that a combination of protein powders and whole foods are best for maximum muscle growth. In saying that, and I’ll end with this, you should get the majority of your nutrition from whole foods.
Train with Passion,