Protein Faceoff: Whey Vs. Casein. Which is Better?

Protein Faceoff: Whey Vs. Casein.  Which is Better?

You've heard about the features and benefits of whey protein: rapid absorption and high branched-chain amino acid ("BCAA") content for heightened protein synthesis and recovery from workouts, in addition to appetite suppression and metabolic rate enhancement for fat loss.

But what do you know about casein?  

You've probably heard that it's a good "night-time" protein because of its slow absorption, but did you also know?:

  • It's superior than whey in promoting nitrogen retention, a key determinant of muscle growth.
  • Casein digestion produces bioactive peptides that enhance the immune system and exert antibacterial properties.
  • Possibly the most crucial for weight training: casein (specifically "micellar" casein) is the only protein that's ever been shown to be anti-catabolic (prevents muscle protein breakdown during and after intense exercise)? [Boire et. al. 1997]

Recently, after contemplating how whey has so triumphantly overshadowed casein in our culture ("whey protein" and "protein" are practically synonymous, as if there's no other kind), I decided to google "micellar casein" just to see what's being popularly said about it.

It was during this little exercise that I stumbled on the following infographic, which, although a little corny, summarizes the basic differences between whey and casein well enough to share with you.

Check it out (and pay particular attention to the "Research Found" banner in red):

  Here is my take on this: Whey protein is superior for:
      • Peri-workout nutrition -- Before, during and (to a lesser extent) after training.  This is because of its higher concentration of BCAAs than casein, and faster rate of absorption, which kick-starts protein synthesis.  (Note that protein synthesis is required for muscle tissue repair after resistance training, as well as for muscle growth (hypertrophy).)
     Casein is superior for:
      • Meal replacement -- As a core protein, casein-containing formulas are ideal for their slow rate of absorption and thus steady release of amino acids into the bloodstream for periods lasting several hours. It is especially useful during periods of calorie restriction, since the anti-catabolic nature of casein will minimize muscle loss while dieting. (Also -- basically speaking, muscle growth is a function of a net increase in protein synthesis over a given time interval.  Thus, there are essentially two ways to produce growth: (1) increase the synthesis of muscle tissue (protein) while maintaining a steady rate of breakdown (degradation), or (2) reduce the degradation of muscle protein while maintaining a steady rate of synthesis. Therefore, if you're following along, it's easy to conceive how lean mass can be gained as effectively through anti-catabolic nutrition as by anabolic nutrition, other things constant.)
      • Bedtime protein -- Consuming casein before bed will ensure amino acid uptake throughout the night, further reducing muscle catabolism associated with significant fasting periods.

Key insight and conclusion:

Whey and casein are both excellent proteins, representing the gold standard in performance nutrition.  

The key features of each warrant that they both have a place in your daily supplement strategy, ingesting whey or casein at the right times to take advantage of the unique benefits of each.

Or, you could simply use a protein blend that combines both whey and casein, which, as referenced above in the red banner ("Research Found..."), has been demonstrated in research studies to be superior than using whey alone (or whey plus additional BCAAs). [Kerksick et. al. 2006]  

This takes advantage of the pros of each in a synergistic way, taking much of the guesswork out of proper nutrient timing.

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