What is the Best Kind of Protein Powder?
Protein is a hot topic these days. While it’s found naturally in many foods including meats, dairy, seafood, nuts, and legumes to name a few, it’s also being added to cereal, energy bars, sports drinks, bread and even chips! And of course, there are tons of protein powders on the market. So the question is – do you need a protein powder supplement? And if so, what type is best for you?
Why the protein hype?
Protein is vital to your health and is a part of all your body’s physiological functions. It is used for building and repairing tissues, making hormones, enzymes and other body chemicals. It provides energy, boosts immunity, aids in brain health, builds stronger bones and aids in weight loss. And as we all know, it builds muscles! Browse through any fitness magazine and you’ll see the fitness model with a perfect lean muscular body drinking a protein shake.
Do you need a protein supplement?
Most of us easily consume adequate protein with a balanced diet. However, there are some groups of people that may not. This includes:
– Older adults. As we get older, our appetites usually decrease and our protein needs increase.
– People on weight loss diets, especially women who tend to eat less. When you are on a low calorie diet weight loss diet you actually need more protein to slow down loss of muscle mass.
– Vegans (if their diet is not properly planned out).
– People into serious weight training
– If you find protein helps keep you feeling full longer but you can’t find a way to get it in with real food. Many people struggle with this at breakfast time.
– People who don’t time their intake protein correctly. Studies have shown that it’s important to eat “chunks” of protein several times a day versus eating minimal protein all day then bottom loading it at night. Our bodies best utilize protein in about 30 gram portions (the equivalent to 4 oz of chicken.) This is especially important when it comes to preserving and building muscles. So someone who eats minimal protein during the day may benefit from adding a protein powder to their breakfast fruit smoothie. Read my previous blog post to learn what your protein needs are as well as the protein content of common foods. (see pic of 81 year old body builder Ernestine Shepard)
How to choose a protein supplement
Before you plunk down $40 for a jumbo container of protein powder, ask yourself a few questions to help you decide which one will be best for you:
1. How will you be using the protein powder? For example, to make smoothies with fruit in a blender, added to foods like soup or mixed with water into a protein shake? This is important to know as some protein powders mix in water better than others.
2. Do you want flavored or unflavored? If you want to mix it in with a green drink or even soup, you are best off with an unflavored powder. But if you want to shake it up with water right after a workout, a flavored one would be a better choice.
If flavored, what type of sweetener do you want? Something natural like stevia or monk fruit or artificial like Splenda (I personally am not a big fan of artificial sweeteners).
3. Do you want a plant-based supplement or non-plant based?
4. Do you have any digestive issues? For example, if you have IBS, you probably don’t want a protein supplement with added fiber such as chicory root or inulin. And if you are lactose intolerant, you don’t want one that contains lactose.
5. Do you have any allergies? Obviously if you have a milk allergy, you don’t want whey or casein based supplement.
6. Do you want a complete protein and/or added branch chain amino acids? If you are really into building muscle mass, you may want to buy whey protein or another type that has added leucine and/or other essential amino acids. Most of the plant based protein supplements don’t contain all of the essential amino acids in the optimal ratio to build muscle mass. (not saying they aren’t helpful – just not optimal!)
7. Which one tastes good to you? If possible, find individual sized protein packs to test it out prior to buying the jumbo container.
Complete versus incomplete
Before we get into the specific types of protein powders, it’s helpful to understand the difference between “complete” and “incomplete proteins”. Amino acids are the building blocks to protein. There are 9 amino acids – called essential amino acids – that cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained by food. “Complete proteins” contain all nine essential amino acids, whereas “incomplete proteins” contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids.
Major types of protein powders
There are numerous types of protein powder includingwhey, casein, soy, pea, hemp, rice and collagen to name a few. And to make it even more confusing, some have added pre and probiotics, branch chain amino acids, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on. It can be overwhelming to know which one to choose! Let’s start with the basics – the major types of protein powders.
While all protein can stimulate growth of lean mass, whey protein has been shown to be superior to other proteins. This is likely due it’s content of leucine, a muscle building amino acid. It’s a quick digesting protein that is great for a post-workout snack. If you are lactose intolerant, choose whey protein isolate or whey protein concentrate if a lactose free claim is also made. This usually means it is at least 98% lactose free and is tolerated by all but the most lactose-intolerant people. And since it’s milk based, avoid if you have a milk allergy.
Casein protein is another protein derived from milk and is a complete protein. Unlike whey, casein digests much slower, which is
why some people prefer to use it at the end of their day. If you lactose intolerant, in adidition to looking for a brand that is lactose free, you may want to look for a casein protein that is from A2 beta-casein rather than A1 casein as that type tends to cause fewer digestive issues.
Collagen protein is commonly derived from animal sources such as cows and pigs, or fish. Collagen is also naturally found in bone broth. While further studies are needed, some studies suggest it may improve skin quality, repairs and restores the connective tissue in the hair, skin, nails, bone, and joints. It’s mainly known for three amino acids (proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline); 10x to 20x more glycine and proline than other protein sources. These are key amino acids that your body needs to build new collagen. It contains 8 out of the 9 essential amino acids. See my previous blog post on collagen protein supplements.
Egg protein, typically made from dried egg whites, contains a complete amino acid profile, but tends to be a costlier protein alternative. Be aware that eggs are a common allergen.
If you’re looking for a plant-based protein that is most comparable to an animal protein like whey or casein, soy protein may be your best bet. Soy protein is the only plant protein product that has all of the essential amino acids. However, soy is somewhat controversial. First, the health claim that soy decreases risk of heart disease has been pulled. While it certainly doesn’t harm heart health, it may not decrease risk as we (myself included!) used to say. Reference It also has a questionable effects on hormone levels. If you are going to consume soy, many experts recommend natural foods such as tofu and edemame over the more processed soy isoflavone supplements found in foods made with textured vegetable protein and soy protein isolate. Lastly, most soy crops contain GMOs (another heated topic!)
Rice protein, specifically brown rice, is another plant-based protein. It is hypoallergenic and is often used by people who have numerous food allergies. But keep in mind that does not contain a complete amino acid profile (as compared to whey, casein, and soy proteins). So make sure this is not your main source of protein.
Yellow split pea protein tends to easily digested as well and rarely contains much added ingredients. Just like rice protein, however, it also lacks some essential amino acids, even in its isolate form. pic credit
Hemp protein is made from seeds from a distinct variety of the Cannabis sativa plant. But this does not mean you’ll get stoned after drinking your hemp protein smoothie! And don’t worry about failing a drug test if you consume hemp. Hemp has barely or even no measurable levels of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid most known for its psychoactive properties. Hemp protein is rich in fiber, contains a healthy balance of essential fatty acids, including omega 6, as well as the hard-to-get gamma linolenic acid (GLA) On the downside, it tends to be a bit pricey. And although it contains all 9 essential aminos, it’s low in the muscle building branch chain amino acids. Reference
Rice & Pea Protein Mixtures
This blend of rice and pea protein is perfect for someone who follows a primarily or exclusively plant-based diet because it bring together the amino acid profiles of both rice and pea proteins to formulate a complete protein. This allows you to enjoy your plant proteins without sacrificing any of the benefits you would get from an animal-derived protein source. (Be aware that other protein blends do exist, including various seed proteins).
Read the label for other ingredients
Now here is where it can get a little tricky. While some protein powders are very clean and just contain 1-2 ingredients, others have a list of ingredients 20 lines long, including added fiber, vitamins, minerals, binders, sweeteners, enzymes, pre and probiotics, preservatives added for “anti-caking effect” to name a few. I’m not saying these are all “bad”, you’ll just need to decide what you are looking for in your protein supplement
While most us can meet our protein needs from food, there are some people who may benefit from a protein supplement. An average serving of a protein powder provides 15-25 grams of protein per serving. This is right on target for the recommended 30 grams per “feeding” as noted above. But don’t feel there is anything magical in these supplements or that you’ll look like the fitness model in the magazines just by adding protein powders! And keep in mind that more is not better when it comes to protein. Your body only needs a certain amount of protein per day. Anything above this is used for energy or stored as fat. The good news is that there are a wide variety of protein powders on the market. Try a few out and see how it works for you!
Do you use protein powders? What is your favorite kind?
I’d like to thank Shemelkhay Murdakhayev for helping do some research for this blog post. He is a student at CUNY Hunter College, working to obtain his Master’s Degree in Nutrition.