Sports nutrition products, a major category within the natural products industry, help physically-active consumers achieve better body composition and optimal performance through supplementation with a wide range of ingredients delivered in an equally diverse array of forms.

Whether they’re multi-million-dollar athletes competing on the professional playing field or gym rats slogging through their usual routine at the local fitness center, athletes far and wide know nutrition is directly and inextricably linked to performance and physical results.

Armed with this knowledge, physically active individuals looking for results often enlist dietary supplements as strategic weapons to attain their fitness goals.

The natural products industry has responded with a plethora of products designed to burn fat, build muscle, boost performance, and banish oxidative damage and immunosuppression associated with physical exercise.

Perhaps the best-known base product in the sports nutrition category is protein.

As the main building blocks of lean body mass, protein supplements are a typical component of many training programs.

Protein contains amino acids, which, in addition to building and repairing tissues, help to form antibodies involved in immunity, play roles in enzymatic and hormonal systems, build nucleoproteins (RNA and DNA) and form structural components of the energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Supplemental protein can be either vegetable-sourced or animal (generally, dairy) derived.

In addition to providing the protein macronutrient, soy protein also has antioxidant activity, useful for quenching free radicals generated during physical exertion.

In a comparison of soy protein and whey protein, researchers from Ohio State University, Columbus, randomly administered 40 g/d of soy protein or 40 g/d of whey protein to recreationally trained, young adult women.

Test subjects’ serum was drawn prior to and subsequent to moderate-intensity weight resistance exercise sessions before and after the four-week test period. Soy consumption, but not whey intake, increased test subjects’ pre-exercise serum antioxidant status and decreased post-exercise blood levels of peroxides and creatine kinase (toxins produced through oxidative stress).

A study on the impact of soy protein consumption versus whey protein intake on total antioxidant status of 20 healthy, athletic, college-aged males found supplementation with 40 g/d soy protein in conjunction with a strenuous training program produced an increase in total antioxidant status as well as reduced serum levels of myloperoxidase, an indicator of oxidative stress.

In addition to its actions against exercise-related oxidative stress, soy protein also has cholesterol-lowering and cancer-fighting benefits; an American Heart Association (AHA) review of 20 randomized trials found isolated soy protein, as compared with other proteins, decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentrations in test subjects.

When combined with a resistance training program, whey protein has been shown to increase muscle mass and muscle strength; enhance muscle glycogen uptake,  heighten oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and encourage quicker recovery from muscle fatigue, promoting increased training efficiency.

Whey protein is an excellent source of branched-chain amino acids these basic building blocks, including leucine, isoleucine and valine, are particularly conducive to muscle growth and regeneration as they increase the rate of protein synthesis and decrease the rate of protein degradation in human muscle.

Whey protein may also boost immune response in athletes whose immunity has been compromised by strenuous, prolonged exercise.

Brazilian research on the impact of BCAA supplementation on immunity of triathletes and long-distance runners found BCAAs restored the ability of peripheral blood mononuclear cells to proliferate in response to mitogens and modified the pattern of cytokine production, encouraging a “Th1 type” immune response following a prolonged, intense bout of exercise.