Protein supplements can help athletes cover their energy requirements and improve their athletic performance (as an ergogenic aid).

Proteins are formed from amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids, of which 9 are considered essential (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). Essential amino acids are those which cannot be synthesized by the organism.

During protein synthesis, the necessary amino acids must already be present in the body. Should our diets or any supplements fail to supply a sufficient quantity of essential amino acids, the repair and synthesis of muscles may not function correctly. It is important, therefore, that any protein supplement for athletes contains each of the essential amino acids in the necessary proportions and consequently possess a high biological value. (“High biological value” refers to the proportion of essential amino acids in foodstuffs and how easily they can be absorbed by the body).

In general, proteins which are animal in origin have a higher biological value than those from vegetables, as their component amino acids are a closer match to the proteins of the body. Eggs and human breast milk supply the best quality proteins, and are considered the protein sources of reference, followed by cow’s milk, fish and meat.

There is significant scientific data which supports the use of whey protein as an effective ergogenic aid for athletes, improving performance – with the proviso that it is used appropriately.

Among the characteristics that make whey protein a good choice for athletes is that it has a high biological value, with a large quantity and appropriate proportions of relevant amino acids (BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine and valine, especially leucine). Branched Chain Amino Acids are those to which the greatest ergogenic advantage is attributed.

Proteins which originate in plants are of lower quality and of lower biological value as they contain proteins which have limiting amino acids (an essential amino acid in insufficient quantity). Proteins that come from cereals like wheat or rice are limited in lysine, while the proteins which come from legumes like peas or garbanzos are limited in methionine. When consumed in the same meal (lentils with rice, for example), the amino acids from one protein source complement the other, providing a source of protein with a higher biological value. This sort of combination is widely used and is recommended for vegetarians.

This idea of using different proteins to complement one another can also be used for protein supplements. In this way, a vegetable protein which contained only pea protein or oat protein would be incomplete for the athlete. However, a supplement that combined both kinds of protein would be ideal, providing high biological value. This is the case with “Weider Vegan Protein”, made from isolated pea protein enriched with rice protein, which achieves an amino acid composition comparable with whey protein.

By examining the breakdown of amino acids in a protein isolate from whey like Gold Whey comparison with Vegan Protein, we can see that both contain sufficient quantities of each of the essential amino acids; however, the whey protein contains around 23% of the relevant amino acids, while Vegan Protein contains only 13%.

In conclusion, for an athlete who wants to improve their performance and needs to supplement their diet, the protein source of choice should be whey protein. Vegan Protein, however, is a high quality protein source with a high biological value. It can be used as an effective supplement for vegetarian athletes and all those who cannot consume whey protein due to allergy or intolerance.

Celeste González

Nutricionista, entrenadora, ex-competidora fitness y amante del deporte y de un estilo de vida saludable.