Yet again taking another detour from the exercise vs exercise Vs posts I’ve been writing lately, I thought I’d take a page from Colin’s latest series on supplements and see which one of these two popular protein powders comes out on top. Another reason for taking a look into this is because nothing can divide a room full of muscle hungry bodybuilders like a debate about the best source of protein for recovery and muscle growth. This will be the veritable battle to end all of the indecision. It’s a head to head, winner takes all, no holds barred contest – whey vs casein, right here, right now.
First, before declaring a winner, I’d like to look at both with regards to their contribution towards recovery, growth, anti catabolic properties and health via immune enhancement. For the purposes of this comparison I’ll be using the concentrate of each protein source to keep the playing field even. I have my preference, but I’ll get into that later. Right now let’s take a look at the facts in the debate as old as time itself, whey vs casein.
Whey is the more common of the two protein sources. It’s a bi product of cheese production and until it was discovered to have a value, it was just discarded. This is the protein that every supplement company will have you believe packs muscle on your body as quickly as you can drink it. Walk into any sports nutrition store and you run the risk of being crushed by the mountainous piles of whey powders stacked everywhere you look.
The reason for the outrageous claims of massive muscle growth is because whey is a relatively fast digesting protein that delivers amino acids to the bloodstream within an hour. Whey protein concentrate has also been proven to increase protein synthesis which is a major component to muscle recovery and growth. These two facts are the basis for most marketing campaigns for whey supplement producing companies.
Nutritionally, whey is rich in branched chain amino acids which is likely the reason why it increases protein synthesis. It also contains lactose, but not as much as casein, as well as some vitamins and minerals. A unique portion of whey’s content is lactalbumin. Lactalbumin is found in the milk produced by many mammals and is very similar to breast milk in many respects.
As far as health benefits, whey has casein beat. Whey has an antioxidant effect because it enhances glutathione levels. Glutathione is a tri-peptide that contains one amino residue from the amino acids glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. Glutathione plays a major role in protecting skeletal muscle and other bodily tissue from oxidative damage. This is important considering all forms of training will result in some degree of oxidative stress. Glutathione also helps maintain iron in its proper oxidation state in hemoglobin, another valuable contribution that is provided by whey protein powder.
Everything up to this point is whey concentrate remember. When using whey protein isolate or whey protein hydrolysate, most everything has been stripped away except the protein. Whey isolates and hydrolysates are still great sources of the amino acid cysteine, and high cysteine levels are considered to be effective at replenishing whole blood glutathione. Maybe not as effective as concentrate, but there may still be an immune boosting property to the more refined forms of whey protein powders.
The only real negative about whey, and it’s a big one, is that it has never been shown to be effective in decreasing protein degradation. I’m assuming that because of whey’s quick digestion and rapid plasma peak that whey provides little as far as nitrogen retention is concerned. I feel this is a big knock against whey because preventing the loss of muscle is just as valuable as enhancing its growth.
Moving on to casein which when compared to whey is extremely slow digesting. Due to its long digestion time it retains nitrogen very well, and a positive nitrogen balance is required for anabolism to take place. That’s one very big plus for casein.
The remaining redeeming qualities of casein are fewer in number. Those few however pack a pretty good punch in my opinion. It’s quality over quantity most times after all.
Casein is not surprisingly a great source of calcium. Calcium has a few different things going for it for the fitness enthusiast though. From any kind of training from high impact sprint drills to heavy weight training, your bones will be put under stress. We all know of calcium’s benefit to bones. Moving on.
Calcium also performs a couple of pretty awesome functions when it comes to body composition concerns. First, for whatever reason it is extremely thermogenic, especially when paired with casein’s slow digestion time. Meaning it is thermogenic for a long time. Thermogenesis is the body’s method of creating heat. Heat is the expenditure of energy. This obviously means that if you are creating heat because of the calcium in the casein, then you are using more fuel during its digestion that you would with whey. Calcium also inhibits fat absorption, so yet another positive for casein as a protein to use for fat loss.
As far as casein’s negatives are concerned, its slow digestion makes it a poor candidate for pre training. You could argue that it’s not suited for post training either, but I disagree. Your muscles need time to allow the inflammation to begin the healing process. Whey will interfere to some degree. In my opinion casein makes an ideal post training drink. By the time you need amino’s they’ll be readily available.
Due to its high lactose content anyone intolerant will not be able to consume casein. Also the sodium content of casein concentrate is not ideal for a soon to be competing bodybuilder or an athlete such as a wrestler trying to make weight. Sodium is not an issue with some of the more advanced casein products, and should be noted.
In one study where the amino acid leucine was used as a marker to measure amino acid levels in the blood, whey concentrate reached its peak after one hour and returned to baseline levels after four hours. Casein had a much lower and later peak, but didn’t return to baseline levels for seven hours. I don’t think that information comes as much of a surprise given their respective reputations.
Whey showed a postprandial protein synthesis stimulation increase of 68 percent, but showed nothing relating to protein degradation inhibition. Casein on the other hand decreased protein degradation by 34 percent. Postprandial whole body leucine oxidation was lower with casein than whey, but because it was measured to be in the bloodstream for seven hours the net amount was greater than with whey. So whey is faster but casein’s slow and steady approach wins in terms of volume.
If I was forced to choose one I would use casein because of its fat loss and anti catabolic properties. I don’t have to choose however, and the easiest solution to this debate is the form of mediation that should be employed in every disagreement – compromise. Both whey and casein have positives, and if combined you are getting a very potent muscle-building, recovery enhancing elixir. Sometimes there is no clear-cut winner and this is an example of one of those times. So take a scoop of each to recover faster and prevent catabolism. I know I do. Until next time,