Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nutrition for BJJ'ers 101: Whey Protein Supplements

It should be noted that I am neither a doctor nor a nutritional expert. For professional advice one must go to the above. I am, however, a BJJ and combat sports practitioner with an interest in nutrition and anything else related that can help boost performance and recovery from injury and/or training so as to keep me on the mat well into my old age. I also try to take a conservative and skeptical view and do not believe in wasting one’s money on unnecessary products. I highly encourage and hope that others in the BJJ or combat sports community with similar training regimes may also contribute their knowledge and experience via comments or additional blog-posts.

Firstly, despite the hype, especially as touted in fitness related magazines and websites, there is no conclusive evidence that protein supplement pills or powders are any more beneficial for building and repairing muscle than a balanced variety of good, whole protein rich foods such as lean meats, dairy, and plant sources like legumes, nuts, etc. In other words, a weight lifter getting sufficient protein from natural food sources will most likely not experience any difference in muscular gains than one who gets a good percentage of their daily protein intake from supplements.

From this perspective, a lot of the hype over whey supplements is once again, well, just hype. So, are things like whey powders a complete waste of money? I say no. There are some definite advantages to “supplementing” your diet with whey powders for the BJJ’er that we must consider, especially as a post-workout recovery aid, or even a pre-workout drink. But, notice how I said “supplement” and not “replace”.

Whey is derived from cow’s milk and is basically the liquid stuff left over in the cheese making process. Milk contains two proteins: casein and whey. Casein makes up 80% of the total protein in milk and whey the other 20%. Whey can be absorbed much more quickly and easily than casein, has all the BCAA’s (amino acid stuff your muscles need), is very low in fat, contains no excessive carbs, and has a near 100 Biological Value (BV) which means almost all the protein is used by your body and not wasted.

So after reading this, maybe you’re thinking, hey, why don’t I just lose the food and just take stuff like whey? Well, the reason is because one of its benefits seems to also be one of its drawbacks: quick absorption. Because the proteins in whey can enter the bloodstream so quickly, it’s almost like a protein injection. Your body can only handle about 30grams of protein per hour (and not every hour either). Protein in natural foods is digested slowly and enters your system as it’s needed so to speak. Whey’s quick entry can make the kidneys work overtime, and anything over 30grams in your system can potential turn to ammonia which is flushed out by the kidneys as urine. Too much and the kidneys get taxed. So once again, it is a “supplement” not a “replacement”. Now I tried to find some solid recommendations on a protein powder supplement to natural food ratio but could find no consistent answers, but personally, I would never take this over 40% or so, i.e. 3 to 4 full shakes a day, on top of protein over 3 sit-down meals.

Next, we need to think of cost. The best way to figure out the price of protein is to look at the nutritional information label on the packaging of most products. To figure out the price per gram of protein simply times the protein per serving amount listed by the total amount of servings per container. Next, divide the cost of the product by this number.

For example, 1 egg has around 6 grams of protein; a pack of a dozen eggs would therefore have 6 x 12 grams for a total of 72 grams. On average, I buy a dozen brown eggs of decent quality in Hong Kong for around $HK 20. So we divide 20 by 72 to get around 28cents per gram of protein. We can do the same with, for example, let’s say, Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Label Whey, one of the most popular lower cost whey supplement powders which is sold in the affordable independently owned nutrition shops in HK anywhere from $300 to $380 for 5lbs. For argument’s sake, if I bought 5lbs for $HK 350, and 5lbs has 74 servings with 24 grams of protein per serving, my cost per gram is 20cents. Hey, that’s much cheaper than eggs at that price. So on that level, whey is a great bargain and a cost effective way of getting protein, but this also doesn’t take into account all of the other beneficial nutrients in protein rich foods, such as selenium that exists in eggs.

Of course, supplementing your diet with whey as a cost-effective measure only works if you are buying the cheaper brands of whey powder on the market. Most martial artists and bodybuilders discussing the issue on Internet forums agree that the cheaper available brands work just as well as the more expensive ones, the only difference being taste and fancier packaging. Now, of course, the supplement industry, nutritional shop owners, sponsored athletes and anyone else with a financial stake in the industry will say whatever they can to convince you that the more expensive stuff is better. But, I could find no evidence supporting these claims.

The only time I would encourage someone to maybe spend more would be to purchase whey protein ‘isolate’ over the ‘concentrate’ or ‘hydolized’ forms. Isolate is more pure and thus digested more easily than the others. If you have any digestive issues with powders, than you might want to consider paying a bit more for isolate. If you have some serious issues with digesting whey, you’re probably lactose intolerant and, thus, will need to consult the advice of a doctor or sport’s nutrition expert on what to do.

Besides being potentially cost effective, whey also has a very low fat content, which makes it a good way of getting some extra protein without having to load up on the calories. Eggs have a lot of fat, so if you’re worried about that, this is another benefit. Whey is also low in carbs, as most lean meats are anyway, but this is another consideration.

Another good thing about whey powders is you don’t have to cook them, unlike chicken, or eggs (unless you’re Rocky). So the convenience of being able to drink a shake in the gym immediately after an intense workout is a big plus for many people. I can see many overworked and perpetually “busy” Hong Kongers appreciating this fact. Maybe all those jerks that are too impatient to wait for passengers to exit the MTR before entering should be reading this, hehe.

Like I said before, whey is quickly digested, so drinking a post-BJJ-workout shake, after 1 1/2 to 2 hours of conditioning, drilling, and sparring, is a great way to get some quick nutrition to your overworked muscles. Many people like to drink a pre-workout shake to make sure their muscles are “fueled-up” for the workout and won’t go catabolic (that means digest themselves) when the muscles start really working.

Other benefits of whey that are listed on websites, magazines, and books range from boosting the immune system to increased anti-oxidant activity. Although studies on the above have been promising, these were performed on mice, not humans. I am not a mouse, and sometimes, I feel like I ‘m barely a human after a big workout. So these claims, although potentially true, are not proven.

So, in the end, I think whey as an intense post-workout muscle replenisher is a good thing, and I will continue to use it as such in the future. Its potential protein cost-effectiveness also makes it attractive on a budget. It’s convenience for a guy on a tight schedule is also great. But, in the end, my friend who also sticks steaks, chicken and tofu will probably be okay too, and nothing can replace a good and varied natural diet because that is what are bodies were built to handle anyway, right?


  1. I completely agree with you. I never come back from BJJ before 22h45 and that's pretty late to cook and eat a steak or eggs.
    So, I recently bought the optimum nutrition whey and will try it soon as a post workout.

    I found several shops in Hong Kong which sells the 5lbs ones for 285HK$ :

    -Hong Kong Nutrition
    Shop 101, Ginza Plaza, 2A Sai Yeung Choi Street, Mongkok

    -Good life nutrition (3shops in Hong Kong, one is very close to Jordan MTR)

    Shop 25-26, Level 2B, Prudential Centre, 216 Nathan Road Tel: 2388-5278

    Shop 134, Melbourne Plaza, 33 Queen's Road, Central Tel: 2537-5278

    G/F, 30 B Jardine's Bazaar, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Tel: 3427-9893 / Fax: 34279892

    I tried other shops like Nature's village and the price was 440HK$ (they were telling me that they were giving me 30% off haha).

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