The protein powder market is saturated with a wealth of options—leaving you in a state of confusion at your local health store. So what should you look for in order to make the best choice?
There are two main factors to consider when purchasing a protein powder: the quality of the protein it contains and whether or not it has unnecessary additives. “Almost any popular protein powder will help in building muscle, but is it good for overall health? Probably not,” say Robert Hedmond and Som Sahay, certified personal trainers and holistic coaches. “Follow the ingredient label first,” Hedmond tells LivingHealthy. “A lot of people look at the calories and how many grams of protein it has. People completely ignore the ingredients when it should be the opposite.”
The good news is choosing a healthy protein powder is easier than it sounds. Hedmond and Sahay, co-founders of Fresh Holistics, give us the lowdown on protein and walk us through what’s best—and what’s not.
What is protein powder and how much should you consume?
Protein is a major nutrient in the body and is made up of organic compounds called amino acids. Of the many amino acids your body uses, nine are “essential,” which means your body doesn’t naturally produce them and you have to consume them from your diet.
“Proteins are used for many different functions, including the production of your tissues, hormones and enzymes,” explains Hedmond, who says you can easily get your daily essential protein intake from food sources (e.g., chicken breast, fish, eggs, beans). However, there are two occasions when a protein powder shake comes in handy: as a meal replacement or following a high-intensity workout.
When you work out, you develop microtears in muscle cells, especially when it’s high-intensity exercise (e.g., intense resistance training, circuit training, weightlifting, aerobic classes, sprinting). “In order to repair the muscle tissue, your body uses the protein consumed to grow muscle tissue,” says Sahay. “If you don’t have protein, your body is going to break down its own tissues to get the adequate amount of protein to repair the damage.” Since high-intensity training requires more protein intake, a powder is useful because it provides an influx of the nutrient. However, following a low-intensity workout (e.g., walking, yoga, swimming), the body’s demands for immediate recovery are much less since you don’t break down as much muscle tissue. In this case, Hedmond advises sticking to a food-based meal that includes healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fat.
As for how much protein powder you should consume (and how often), it all depends on your workout intensity, bodily characteristics and goals, whether that’s gaining muscle or simply staying strong and lean. There isn’t one formula that can be applied to everyone or even by gender. “Everyone is biochemically unique and therefore will need different amounts. It’s not as simple as adjusting to body weight and athleticism. While those are factors to consider, you also have to consider their metabolic types and physiological stress profiles,” says Sahay, who recommends an in-depth assessment with a health professional to determine your specific needs. As for the ladies who might be concerned about getting too muscular, Sahay says, “Consuming [protein] won’t necessarily make women too bulky.” Again, there is no magic number and it all depends on your body.
So which type of protein powder is best?
Of the many different powders on the market, Hedmond and Sahay say there are only two kinds you should consider: whey and vegan.
Whey—the best post-workout protein powder
Whey is extracted from cow dairy and contains all nine essential amino acids your body needs. Studies have shown that whey is the best protein supplement following a workout (and building lean muscle mass) because it is the quickest-digesting protein, giving your cells immediate nutrition.
However, not all whey is created equal. “Traditional whey protein comes from low-quality, factory-farmed animals,” says Hedmond. Sahay adds, “They are often highly processed and contain harmful additives and preservatives that aren’t ideal for the body.” For instance, one of the most consumed whey powders in the U.S. is Optimum Nutrition’s Gold Standard 100% Whey (which is top-rated on Bodybuilding.com). Despite this supplement’s popularity, Hedmond and Sahay point out that its ingredients are derived from conventional dairy (often containing growth hormones and antibiotics) and include added sweeteners the body doesn’t need.
Hedmond and Sahay say the best whey protein supplement is raw, organic, minimally or cold-processed, and derived from grass-fed cows. They recommend Raw Organic Whey, which is a raw protein and has a single ingredient: organic whey protein concentrate.
Vegan (plant-/carbohydrate-based)—the best meal-replacement protein powder
Vegan protein powders can come from a variety of sources, such as peas, brown rice and hemp. Plant- and carbohydrate-based protein powders are not as ideal after a workout because they digest more slowly—but they do make great meal replacement options if you mix them into a healthy smoothie, according to Hedmond. “You’re getting food-based nutrition. You’re getting fruits, vegetables, grain nutrients and various proteins. They just don’t break down as quickly,” he says.
If you’re interested in a vegan blend, Hedmond and Sahay recommend RAW Protein from Garden of Life. Their gluten- and dairy-free supplement contains 13 raw and organic sprouts, and has no fillers or artificial flavors.
What are the common protein powders to avoid?
Casein is another type of protein powder you’ll see all over store shelves, but Hedmond and Sahay say to avoid it. Like whey, casein is dairy-derived and a complete protein, but the difference is that digested casein converts into a solid clot and empties more slowly from the stomach. The slow-digesting casein further stresses the digestive system and has the ability to cause inflammation, respiratory problems and digestive problems like constipation, gas and diarrhea.
Then there are whey/casein blends. CytoSport’s Muscle Milk, a popular brand, is highly processed, according to the Fresh Holistics co-founders. “Muscle Milk has a ton of extra ingredients (processed sugars and oxidized and genetically modified canola oil, to name a few). It has a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which is very inflammatory and slows down your metabolism and thyroid function,” says Hedmond.
There are also protein powders made from egg whites, but Hedmond says they lack some essential vitamins your body needs. “An egg in nature is meant to be consumed with the yolk so you get the fat and protein together, which makes digestion a lot easier,” he says. “When you consume protein without the accompanying fat, you can create a vitamin A deficiency.”Soy, technically, is a complete protein but it is low in one essential amino acid (methionine). According to Sahay, it is also a phytoestrogen, which mimics the actions of estrogen. “Most people are already estrogen dominant through the environment and foods they take in,” he says. “Estrogen dominance, a type of hormonal imbalance, is prevalent in today's society. Consuming soy can further that imbalance.”
When is the best time to have a protein shake?
A study from the Centre for Science and Medicine in Sport & Exercise at the University of Greenwich notes the best time to consume protein is immediately following a workout. Hedmond agrees, reiterating you only need a protein shake after high-intensity exercise: “If you want to get better results at the gym and from your workouts, it’s ideal to have a complete post-workout protein shake that also has carbohydrates and fat as soon as possible after your workout, no later than 45 minutes to an hour afterward. [Otherwise] your metabolism is slowing down and you’re not getting the benefits that you would want.”
The Fresh Holistics co-founders recommend the following recipe to get everything you need:
- BioMed Central: A whey protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects
- Consumer Reports: Health risks of protein drinks
- Fresh Holistics
- Journal of Sports Medicine: Effectiveness of Whey Protein Supplement in Resistance Trained Individuals
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men
- Harvard University: How much protein do you need every day?
- Rice University: Protein Requirements for Athletes
- University of Arizona: The Chemistry of Amino Acids
- University of California, Berkeley: Canola Oil Myths and Truths