Picking the Right Protein: Post-Workout Supplements for Ultimate Players

Unless you'e a nutritional expert yourself, you've probably heard a lot of conflicting advice about protein supplementation following Ultimate training. Ultiworld's nutrition columnist, Kate Schlag, gives her opinions on the basics and grades some elite player's post-workout diet routines.

Protein bars and powders are a tempting way to refuel with protein following a game, tournament, track workout, or lifting session. And while I’ll always recommend real, whole forms of protein — eggs, chicken, beef, fish — over processed forms, these foods aren’t always available after playing or working out. Protein supplements can fill this gap, but, unfortunately, most protein bars and powders carry the nutritional profile of a candy bar with a few more grams of protein.

Compare the ingredients in a Snickers Marathon bar and a regular Snickers bar and the only difference you’ll see is the addition of a blend of protein isolates, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar alcohols in the protein bar.

Snickers Protein

snickersSnickers regular

Further complicating matters are the marketing claims that a lot of protein bars make, insisting that their bar contains the highest quality protein. But what is the highest quality protein? I was hoping to sit down to write this article and give you that answer, but as it turns out, there isn’t such an explicit answer (yet).

There is a ton of research that analyzes the digestibility and absorbability of different proteins, using measurement methods like biological value (BV), chemical score, net protein utilization (NPU), protein efficiency ratio (PER), and the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). These scales generally score different forms of protein according to what percent of that protein is actually utilized by the body.

However, these measurements are usually taken in the context of studying undernutrition and low protein intake — most of the research regarding protein quality is intended for the application of ensuring adequate nutrient intake in populations who don’t have access to enough food and, specifically, animal sources of protein.

While protein quality does matter for generally undernourished populations, it’s clearly of less importance in athlete subpopulations who are definitely meeting their RDAs for protein. For even a base level, endurance athletes generally require 1.2-1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, while power athletes need 1.2-1.7 g/kg. There is little research regarding protein needs for intermittent sports that mix power and endurance, like soccer or ultimate frisbee, but the International Society of Sport Nutrition recommends 1.4-1.7g/kg. For a 135 pound female player, that’s about 3-4 chicken breasts; for a 185 pound male male player, that’s about 4-5 chicken breasts over the course of a day.

But while peer-reviewed research regarding protein quality and its correlation with strength gains in athletes is relatively limited, there are some sources we can learn from. Here’s how to apply that research to your workout nutrition plan:

There are Fast-Digesting and Slow-Digesting Proteins; Combining Both May Result in the Biggest Strength Gains

A landmark study from 1997 first introduced the concept of fast- and slow-digesting proteins.1 In it, Boirie and his colleagues compared the effects of a fast-digesting protein (whey) and a slow-digesting protein (casein) on whole body protein synthesis and breakdown.

They found that whey protein causes a sharp and rapid increase in blood amino acids, while casein elicits a moderate and prolonged increase in blood amino acids. As a result, whey was theorized to provide larger gains in post-exercise skeletal muscle protein synthesis, and casein was theorized to prevent muscle breakdown. Of course, this research has limitations: whey and casein have different amino acid profiles, and protein was given without fat or carbs (a condition that is rare in post-exercise scenarios). Follow-up studies looking at muscle protein synthesis found that a blend of proteins–both fast- and slow-digesting–resulted in the biggest gains in muscle growth.2

Takeaway: Many protein supplements use only one source of protein and, in fact, I can’t find a bar that I’d recommend that combines fast- and slow-digesting proteins (PowerBar makes a bar that combines soy protein isolate, calcium caseinate, and whey protein isolate, but other than protein, it’s not much different from a candy bar). This is another reason why whole foods are superior for post-workout nutrition: whole foods generally offer mixed sources of protein (milk, for example, is 20% whey and 80% casein), offering the improved muscle protein synthesis of fast-digesting proteins and the anti-catabolic effects of slow-digesting proteins.

Add Carbs to Your Post-Exercise Protein Snack — Not Necessarily to Boost Protein Synthesis, but to Promote Full Body Recovery

Theoretically, the addition of carbohydrates to your post-exercise snack should improve protein absorbability and, in turn, muscle protein synthesis. Carbs spike levels of insulin, which is usually a bad thing (regularly high levels of insulin are linked with long-term health consequences like insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome).

But in the post-exercise state, it can be beneficial. Insulin is most known for shuttling the carbs you just ingested from your bloodstream into your cells, but it also increases the transport of amino acids into cells, stimulating protein synthesis and inhibiting protein breakdown. However, research regarding this notion is mixed; most studies find that the spike in insulin and its effects on protein synthesis and breakdown are trivial.3 Still, most sports dietitians still recommend consuming carbs with protein following exercise because it restores glycogen stores that have been depleted during exercise. In general, research shows that combining protein and carbohydrates provides optimal post-exercise recovery and improves performance during successive workouts.

Takeaway: Literature generally supports taking in a 2:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein after exercise; the exact amount varies depending on your gender as well as the intensity and duration of your workout. Try chocolate milk, berries and Greek yogurt, eggs and toast, or a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread.

Protein-fortified foods are generally unnecessary

Consumers tend to associate protein with weight loss, satiety, and improved fitness, so food manufacturers have injected almost every product imaginable with supplemental protein to boost sales. Cereal, crackers, almond milk, pancake mixes, pasta, cream cheese, ice cream, and water are a few examples of the protein-enriched products to hit the market in the last few years. But, as I mention above, if you’re living in the US and eat a generally adequate diet, you’re already getting enough protein. More protein isn’t necessarily better, either: studies show that moderate servings (around 30 grams) of protein stimulate muscle synthesis to the same degree as higher servings (around 90 grams).4

Takeaway: Besides a few grams of protein, protein-enriched foods are just adding more nutrient-void calories to your diet. A 1¼ cup serving of Cheerios Protein, for example, adds 4 grams of protein (compared to regular Cheerios) but also an additional 110 calories and 16 grams of sugar.

My Recommendations

  • Rise Protein Bar – Almond Honey: Made with just almonds, honey, and whey protein isolate, this bar provides 20 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 16 grams of fat for 280 calories. This is a great option for immediately after a workout or practice because its high whey content helps improve muscle protein synthesis. Rise also makes a line of vegan protein bars made with pea protein (each bar has 15g protein).
  • Exo or Chapul Cricket Bars: Both of these bars are made with ground cricket protein, a sustainable and high-quality protein source. 80% of the world already includes insects into their diet in one form or another, and for good reason: studies show that insects have similar protein profiles to conventional meat, and they’re also high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Both bars have between 8 and 10 grams of protein, which is on the lower side–but it’s a higher quality than most proteins found in bars.
  • Boundless Nutrition Oatmega-3 Protein Bar: Oatmega bars are made with grass-fed whey protein, gluten free oats, and almond butter. Each bar has around 14g protein, 7g fiber, 7g fat, and only 5g sugar for 190 calories.

I’m not a big fan of protein powders, as they, like bars, often contain way too many added ingredients, sweeteners or artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Plus, because protein powders are considered a dietary supplement, which aren’t regulated by the FDA, they don’t necessarily have to contain what they say they do. Many protein powders actually contain much less protein than their label claims and may contain damaging ingredients like arsenic and other heavy metals. That being said, here are two recommendations for protein powders. They top my list because they’re relatively unprocessed and don’t contain too many additives. Mix them into a smoothie with a banana or milk to make a well-rounded post-workout snack.

  • Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard Natural Whey: One rounded scoop offers 130 calories, 24g protein, 1g fat, 5g carbs, and 3g sugars; as a benefit, it doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners, which can lead to digestive distress.
  • Nutrabio Whey Protein Isolate: Made with pure whey protein isolate and no added sweeteners, each scoop contains 110 calories, 25g protein, 0g fat, 1g carbs, and 0g sugar.

What Do the Players Eat?

Lucas Dallman, Revolver: Vegan Protein Optimizer Formula: 117 calories, 23.3g protein, 0.1g sugars, 1.3g fat, 2.6g carbs, 2.1g fiber. Ingredients: Gamma pea protein, rice protein concentrate, hemp protein

Grade: B

Lucas is vegan, so he doesn’t eat any protein supplements made with whey or casein. Pea protein is high in leucine, an essential branched chain amino acid that is key for stimulating muscle growth mostly found in animal products. Hemp is also a good protein choice for vegans, as it contains all 20 essential amino acids and is easily digestible.

Alex Evangelides, Revolver:

After running: Endurox R4: 270 calories, 13g protein, 1.5g fat, 52g carbs, 1g fiber, 38g sugar. Ingredients: dextrose, maltodextrin, whey protein concentrate, soy protein concentrate, fructose, sucrose, citric acid…

Grade: C

Sugar makes up the first, second, fifth, and sixth ingredients. Carbs should be ingested with protein following exercise, but not in the form of cheap, excess sugar.

After lifting: Nutrabio Whey Protein Isolate: 110 calories, 25g protein, 0g fat, 1g carbs, 0g sugar. Ingredients: Whey protein isolate.

Grade: A

Nutrabio Whey Protein Isolate ranks so highly because it doesn’t have any added sugars, artificial sweeteners, or other additives. As long as you combine it with a source of carbs (like a banana), it’s a great post-tournament snack.

Jesse Roehm, Johnny Bravo: Cytosport 100% Whey: 140 calories, 27g protein, 2.5g fat, 3g carbs, 3g sugar. Ingredients: Whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, alkalized cocoa powder, natural and artificial flavors, salt, acesulfame potassium, soy lecithin, sucralose.

Grade: C-

Cytosport 100% Whey is low in sugars, but only because it’s sweetened with sucralose, an artificial sweetener. Artificial sweeteners might save calories and carbs, but evidence shows that artificial sweeteners can actually increase hunger and stimulate chronically high levels of insulin.

Matt Hennessy, PoNY: Whole Foods 365 Vanilla Whey Protein: 80 calories, 16g protein, 0.5g fat, 2g carb, 0g sugar. Ingredients: Cross-flow micro-filtered whey protein isolate, micro-filtered whey protein concentrate, natural vanilla flavor, sweet dairy whey, hydrolyzed whey protein concentrate, ion-exchange whey protein isolate.

Grade: B+

Terms like cross-flow and micro-filtered refer to the processing techniques used to separate whey in order to maintain the quality of whey without losing subfractions (protein components that contribute to digestive and immunity health). Whole Foods’ brand gets extra points because it doesn’t contain added or artificial sweeteners–just make sure to combine it with a source of carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores.

Second (Hennessy) option: Body Fortress Vanilla Whey: 130 calories, 20g protein, 3g fat, 6g carbs, 2g sugar. Ingredients: Super Whey Protein Blend (whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate), maltodextrin, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavors, cellulose gum, acesulfame potassium, sucralose.

Grade: C+

Body Fortress Vanilla Whey is a little higher in cholesterol than most brands (at 90 mg), but recent epidemiological studies have found that dietary cholesterol may not play as big a role in heart disease as once thought. Still, Body Fortress is sweetened with artificial sweeteners, which may be linked to chronically high levels of insulin

  1. Boirie Y, Dangin M, Gachon P, et al. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 1997;94(26):14930-5.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9405716 

  2. Reidy PT, Walker DK, Dickinson JM, et al. Protein blend ingestion following resistance exercise promotes human muscle protein synthesis. J. Nutr. 2013;143(4):410-416. 

  3. Power O, Hallihan A, Jakeman P. Human insulinotropic response to oral ingestion of native and hydrolysed whey protein. Amino Acids. 2009;37(2):333–9. 

  4. Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(9):1582-1586. 

  1. Kate Schlag

    Kate is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Masters in Public Health with a concentration in nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. As an RD, she is looking forward to a career in sports nutrition and nutrition communications. She started playing ultimate with USC’s Hellions of Troy and now plays for San Francisco Polar Bears.

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