Decoding Protein Powders
With so many options available, how do you decide which protein product to buy? With hundreds, maybe even thousands, of options out there, it can be hard to know the right protein powder for you.
Not all protein powders are created equal. Some are definitely better than others but with so many options available, how do you decide which protein product to buy? After all, each person has unique goals, physiology, and preferences. So there’s no one single protein powder that’s going to be the best for everyone.
How much protein do I need?
Before you can find the protein powder that’s right for you, it helps to understand exactly why protein matters so much in the first place.
Not getting enough protein can cause you to:
lose muscle mass (which can cause a drop in your metabolism)
have skin, hair, and nail problems
heal more slowly
experience mood swings
The bare minimum protein requirement by the FDA is estimated to be 0.8 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. So at the absolute minimum, a 160-pound person needs about 58 grams of protein to prevent protein deficiency.
But eating the bare minimum of protein is different from eating an optimal amount of protein. Generally, most active people can meet their optimal protein intake by eating 1 to 2 palms of protein at each meal — roughly 20-30 grams per palm-sized portion.
Check out Precision Nutrition's Nutrition Calculator, which will give you a personalized recommendation for protein, carbohydrate, fat, and calories based on your specific goal — athletic performance, weight loss, body composition, gain weight, etc.
Most people will benefit from including more protein in their diets. Some significant reasons including:
Appetite control: Eating a high-protein diet seems to improve satiety.
Weight and body composition management: Higher protein intakes may help people eat less when they’re trying to lose fat, increase the number of calories burned through digestion (the thermic effect of food), and retain muscle during fat loss.
Muscle growth or maintenance: Keeping protein levels high, combined with exercise, helps people gain vital muscle mass and hang onto it over time, especially as they age.
Better strength: Higher amounts of protein combined with exercise can also aid in strength gains.
Improved immune function: Proteins are the building blocks of antibodies, and serve several functions in the immune system. People who are protein-deficient are more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections.
Faster exercise recovery: Higher protein intakes help to repair tissue damaged during exercise, as well as after an injury.
Protein from whole foods is ideal.
Consuming protein from whole foods is superior because it comes packaged with other nutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and so on, depending on the source.
No supplement will be able to imitate those combinations exactly, nor their synergistic effects with one another. When foods are processed to create protein powder, certain nutrients may be stripped, and others may be added back in — which can sometimes be beneficial but most of the time not.
Here is a helpful guide in selecting whole foods that are good sources of protein.
Of course, protein powder does digest faster than whole foods. This would be an advantage if you were trying to quickly flood your muscles with protein after a workout.
But, for most people, what matters most is the amount of protein you consistently eat over the course of the day — not precisely when you eat it.
Unless you’re an elite athlete or pursuing extreme fat loss or muscle gain, you don’t need to worry too much about when you get your protein.
Why use a protein powder supplement?
While whole-food protein is best, it’s just not always possible to get all the protein you need from whole foods. Ultimately, there are two big reasons you might want to consider adding a protein powder supplement to your diet.
Convenience: Sometimes you just don’t have time to (or simply don’t want to) sit down and eat a whole-food meal. This might happen when you're very busy at work, caregiving, traveling, or have other responsibilities that are a top priority at the moment. You may be aiming for a very high protein requirement and don't have the time or desire to eat that much whole-food protein.
Appetite: You may not feel hungry enough to eat the amount of protein that you know you need. This might happen when you're struggling to increase your protein intake or trying to gain weight. You may be sick and have lost your desire to eat. Maybe you aiming to improve athletic performance or recovery but don't feel hungry enough to eat a whole food meal.
All of these reasons are completely legitimate. But you don’t NEED protein powder to be healthy. It’s a supplement, not an essential food group.
Choosing a protein powder.
The supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry full of shiny colors, catchy slogans, and a whole lot of misinformation and manipulation. I want you to be a well educated, conscious consumer that makes informed decisions when it comes to your health and body — not to mention your wallet. When looking for a protein powder these are some key features to look out for.
1. Third-Party Tested Supplement Verification
While regulations are much more stringent in Canada and Europe, in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t test the effectiveness, safety, or purity of nutritional supplements. Because of the varying levels of regulation, it’s a good idea to choose third-party tested supplements when possible.
NSF International’s Certified for Sport does the most comprehensive third-party certification/testing of nutritional supplements for sport. I always advise my clients — even those who aren’t necessarily athletes — to use supplements that have been certified by NSF because of their high standards. USP is also a reputable third-party tester.
Products that have been tested by these organizations usually clearly state this on their websites and often on their product packaging. These organizations also have databases of approved supplements to choose from.
An important note: Third-party tested protein powders may be more expensive primarily because the testing process is quite expensive. At the same time, investing in third-party testing shows that a supplement company is committed to protecting the health of its customers. While it’s preferable to reach for a validated supplement, if third-party tested options are outside of your price range, another option is to visit ConsumerLab or LabDoor. These websites are devoted to reviewing purity and label claims for a variety of nutritional supplements on the market today.
2. Protein Quality
The quality of the protein source should be the highest priority. When it comes to assessing quality, you want to ensure your protein powder is a complete protein source. A complete protein contains sufficient amounts of all nine EAAs (Essential Amino Acids). Incomplete proteins are lacking or low in one or more EAAs. This is important because EAAs play key roles in building and repairing not only muscle tissue but also building hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a subcategory of EAAs, are especially important for their role in muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is the process your body uses to repair and build muscle after exercise. While muscle protein synthesis is much more complicated than just one amino acid, leucine plays an integral role in triggering the process, which makes it probably the most well-known BCAA.
Look for a supplement that clearly includes information about the amount of EAAs and BCAAs in their product.
3. Protein Quantity
A ratio of about 150 calories per 20-25 grams of protein per serving makes a solid protein powder for most goals (muscle building, fat loss, recovery, and athletic performance).
Protein should be the first word on the ingredient list. Additionally, when looking at the carbohydrate and fat amounts on the label, they should be very low or even non-existent. It is a protein supplement after all.
Plant-based proteins may have slightly lower amounts of protein per serving and slightly higher amount of carbohydrates, fiber, and fat (compared to animal-based powders) but as long as they have an NFS seal and check all the boxes when it comes to quality, you're on the right track.
*Photo from Precisions Nutrition
4. Minimize the nonsense and extras.
While sweeteners, flavoring, additives, sodium, artificial colors, and thickeners are common in protein powders, some contain more than others.
Artificial sweeteners may harm beneficial gut bacteria and cause gas and bloating so stick with an unsweetened powder when possible.
There are exceptions, but you generally want to look for protein powders with fewer ingredients. That said, guidelines like “look for foods with fewer than five ingredients” don’t necessarily apply to protein powders because they are a processed food source after all.
Although protein powders combined with a greens supplement or probiotics may sound like a good idea, more times than not they are lower quality add-ons that do more harm than good.
5. Find one that digests well for you.
Besides ethical considerations — such as whether you prefer a plant or animal source — you might also want to think about food intolerances and sensitivities. People with dairy allergies or trouble digesting lactose (milk sugar) can experience gastrointestinal discomfort if they use a milk-based or animal-based protein powder.
Speaking from personal trial and error, I've found that more animal-based protein powders — like whey, casein, milk, and egg-based — do not sit well with me. Once I found and started using a high-quality plant-based protein my digestive problems went away.
Pay attention to how you feel, and note any changes. Are you experiencing new, weird digestive issues? Are you feeling less hungry in the hours after your workout? If the changes are positive, you may have found your winner. If not, try a different flavor, brand, or type of protein.
Always go for whole-food protein sources when possible. A protein powder supplement is not necessary but it is convenient and can help you get more protein into your diet to accelerate your fitness goals. Drink a protein shake when it makes the most sense in the context of your daily life. For example, you don’t have time for a good breakfast, it’s going to be several hours before your next meal, or it’s simply the most convenient time.
Choose a protein powder that’s ideally unsweetened with as few ingredients as possible, protein as the first listed ingredient, and the NSF or USP seal. Find a protein powder that digests well for you. A ratio of about 150 calories per 20-25 grams of protein is good for muscle building and fat loss.