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Proteins are biochemical compounds that are made up of combinations of various essential amino acids. Our bodies absorb protein from the foods we eat, and as we digest them, they're broken back down into free amino acids to fuel our metabolism.
Complete proteins—those containing all of the essential amino acids—are found in animal foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk. Soybeans are the only plant protein considered to be a complete protein.
You might typically think of protein as it relates to building muscle, but in reality, protein is essential for nearly every activity in the body including the production of enzymes, antibodies, cellular messengers, blood, hair, nails and more.
Since no two people are the same, everyone has their own unique protein needs. The amount of protein your body needs each day varies based upon your age, gender, weight and activity level, and the source of protein that's best for you can vary depending on your diet preferences and restrictions.
While the majority of the protein we get comes from food, protein supplements made from sources such as whey, casein, soy and egg can help boost our protein intake and help optimize our body's functions.
Each protein source offers its own unique benefits. Whey protein is fast-absorbing and is one of the most anabolic—or growth supporting—forms of protein. Casein is a slower-absorbing protein that provides a steady release of aminos over time. Soy is a complete, plant-based protein perfect for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Lastly, egg protein is lactose-free and offers a great choice for those looking for a more easily digestible protein solution.
Technically, protein can be taken at any time throughout the day, but consuming protein early in the day helps kickstart your metabolism, balances blood sugar, promotes satiety and helps you feel fuller longer.
Fast-absorbing proteins like whey, soy and egg are often taken before or immediately following workouts to fuel muscles and quickly replenish muscle glycogen stores. However, slow-absorbing protein like casein are often used as a snack to help stay full between meals, or before bed to help muscles combat catabolism—meaning breakdown.