Whether you’ve just started training or have years of experience pounding weights in the gym, you probably have a few questions about protein powder. With all the misinformation and strange media reports regarding workout supplements it’s hard to know what to believe.
This article will answer the most common protein powder questions and give you our recommendations for supplementation.
What Is Protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the other two are carbohydrates and protein) that provide energy in the human diet. Protein contains amino acids, which serve as the building blocks for tissue, including skin, hair, bones, ligaments and tendons, and muscle. Protein is found in many foods including meat, dairy, fish, eggs, nuts, and beans. It is also present in other plant foods in small quantities, such as vegetables and grains.
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein powder is derived from a variety of protein sources to serve as a convenient and fast-acting way to consume amino acids. It is mixed with water to provide a protein shake that is more rapidly digested than whole protein foods. Consuming protein immediately after intense training has been shown to prevent muscle tissue breakdown and trigger protein synthesis.
In addition to promoting recovery, certain protein powders have other health benefits. For example, whey protein has been shown to reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and promote body fat loss. Benefits are due to the fact that whey protein has an appetite suppressing effect, increases insulin sensitivity, and contains bioactive compounds that raise antioxidant status.
How Much Benefit Can I Get From Protein Supplementation?
A review of studies found that people who used protein powders in conjunction with resistance training had 38 percent greater gains in muscle and 33 percent greater increases in strength than those who did not.
On average protein supplementation increased muscle mass gains by 0.69 kg and maximal leg strength by 13.5 kg compared with placebo trials. The average amount of protein that was supplemented on top of the normal diet was 50 grams.
How Can I Choose The Best Protein Powder?
Protein powder is HUGE business. It can be nearly impossible to figure out what to take if you are new to supplementation. You need to be able to distinguish between different protein sources as well as know some of the phrases used by marketers in order to pick the right protein supplement for you.
Be aware that protein powders are NOT regulated by the FDA, which means that disreputable companies can spike them with substances that are not included on the label (it’s not legal but it’s a surprisingly common problem). These range from harmless (dried up houseplants or cheap fillers like rice) to dangerous compounds (steroids). Therefore, it’s important to buy from a reputable company and be wary of slogans that are too good to be true.
What follows is a summary of different protein sources:
Best All Around Protein Source: Whey Protein
Whey is considered a superior protein source due to being easily digested and having an ideal amino acid profile with large amounts of necessary essential amino acids, particularly leucine—the most important amino acid for triggering protein synthesis.
Whey is derived from milk protein and provides glutamic acid, which is a precursor to glutamine, a compound known to enhance energy restoration in the muscle. High-quality whey protein will have the lactose removed, making it appropriate for most people who are lactose intolerant. Be sure to check labels though because whey as we see it in food typically does contain lactose.
Whey protein comes in three forms:
Whey Concentrate is the least processed and has the least available protein. The result is a powder that is 70 to 85 percent protein with the remaining 15 to 30 percent consisting of remaining carbs and fat.
Whey Isolate goes through further processing to increase the amount of protein and remove impurities. It typically has 95 percent pure protein.
Hydrolyzed Whey is predigested by enzymes, breaking the protein molecules into smaller peptides. This allows the protein to rapidly enter the bloodstream. In reality, all whey protein has a quick assimilation pattern, so you are unlikely to get much additional benefit from hydrolyzed whey and it tends to be more expensive.
Our Recommendation: Whey Isolate as your go-to whey protein powder, being easily digestible, high in protein, and economical.
Best Plant-Based Protein Powder: Pea Protein
Pea protein is derived from yellow peas. It is great for people who don’t tolerate whey protein well or who require a vegan protein. For being a plant-based protein it is particularly high in essential branched-chain amino acids (including leucine) that play a key role in muscle protein synthesis. There isn’t as much research on the benefits of pea protein, however, one 12-week study found similar strength and muscle benefits of pea and whey protein when combined with a strength training program.
Other health benefits of pea protein include lower blood pressure and better endothelial function (the endothelium is a component of the cardiovascular system). Pea protein is known to be satiating, reducing sensations of hunger, and is high in antioxidants, making it beneficial for countering inflammation, particularly in the GI tract.
Other Protein Sources:
Casein is a dairy protein that is slowly digested, making it inappropriate as a post-workout supplement. Being a milk-based protein, casein is allergenic to some people. Although it has been found to help sustain protein synthesis over the long-term due to the slow rate at which the amino acids hit the blood stream, it doesn’t convey the other therapeutic benefits of pea or whey protein, is more expensive, and is generally not recommended as a top protein source.
Egg protein is an excellent protein, however, it is one of the most expensive sources available. Compared to whole eggs, it is just not worth the money when you consider that the protein supplied in egg whites is more easily digested and slightly higher quality than that found in egg protein powder.
About 20 years ago many people thought soy was a wonder protein, being one of the few plant sources to offer all the essential amino acids. Today it is taboo to bring it up.
There are several concerns about soy protein: It contains phytoestrogens, which may bind with hormone receptors, altering levels of testosterone or estrogen. This could be beneficial for health, or it could be harmful. There are mountains of conflicting studies and it is impossible to draw a conclusion.
Then there’s the overuse of soy protein in processed foods. Soy is one of the most popular food ingredients, appearing in everything from cereal to bread to yogurt. American’s intake of soy has increased by 116,300 percent over the last century, with the average person consuming 11.6 kg of soy oil a year!
Another problem is that soy is the most popular GMO crop in the US with more than 94 percent of soy coming from GMO seeds. GMO soy is Roundup Ready, meaning it responds extremely well when sprayed with the pesticide Roundup, which is associated with adverse health in some studies.
Are there any good things about soy? In theory, it is a good protein source for vegetarians, being one of the few plant-based proteins that contain all the essential amino acids. Some studies show soy may improve bone strength in women.
The bottom line on soy:
Considering all the red flags about soy protein and the fact that we have better, safer plant-based protein options, there’s no reason to recommend soy protein to anyone.
Beef protein is a high-quality protein source that is typically derived from desiccated beef liver. It has a digestion pattern that is slower than whey protein, which means that it will lead to a smaller increase in protein synthesis in the immediate post-workout window.
Over a longer period of 5 hours after a training session, whey and beef protein produce similar elevations in protein synthesis. Ultimately, beef protein is best used if whey or pea protein are not an option or you want some variety when it comes to your protein powder sources.
Derived from the cannabis plant, hemp protein is a moderate source of protein, containing a decent quantity of BCAAs. Where hemp protein really shines is in the antioxidants and bioactive compounds it provides, which should counter inflammation and help lower blood pressure, according to recent studies.
When you think protein, rice probably isn’t the first (or even the tenth) thing that comes to mind. But there is a decent amount of protein in rice. You’ll often find rice protein in vegetarian protein blends, combined with pea, hemp, and/or soy protein. Typically one serving provides 12 grams of protein compared to 20 to 25 in one serving of pea or whey protein.
How Much Protein Powder Should You Take?
The majority of the research indicates that 20 to 25 grams of whey protein will maximally stimulate protein synthesis when supplemented after a workout, so this is a good place to start, especially if you are new to training and supplementation.
Certain populations may benefit from a higher post-workout protein dose. A study that just came out found that young men with extensive training experience got the greatest increase in protein synthesis in response to 40 grams of whey protein compared to 20 grams after a training session.
Older individuals over age 50 who have a lower muscle building response to exercise and to protein consumption can also benefit from a protein supplement in the 40-gram range.
Just as important as post-workout protein is your overall protein goal: Assuming you want to get the most out of your efforts in terms of muscle and fat loss, achieving a threshold dose of protein and spreading it out over the course of the day is essential.
A minimum dose of 1.6 g/kg/body weight (0.73 g/pound of body weight) is recommended. This equals about 120 grams for someone weighing 160 pounds. You should get at least 30 grams at each meal from high-quality protein sources.
What Additives Should I Watch Out For?
Protein powder manufacturers like to add stuff to protein, either to make it taste good or to drive down the price. For example, some companies add cheap fillers or spike the powder with single amino acids, which technically drives up the protein content that they can list on the label, but does you no good.
Another problem is added sugar, which comes in many forms from cane sugar to maltodextrin to fructose. Typically, you want to avoid all of these additions. Artificial sweeteners are also something to stay away from: aspartame, nutra sweet, splenda, etc.
Stevia and other truly natural sweeteners (xylitol, lo han fruit, yacon syrup) are a healthy alternative that are calorie free. All of these are derived from plants. For example, stevia comes from the South American stevia bush and is metabolized by the kidneys and liver. Instead of causing an insulin release like other sweeteners, it improves glucose tolerance.
What To Mix It With?
High-quality protein powders tend to taste good when made with water, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative for greater flavor. The one thing to remember is that mixing with milk, juice, or making protein shake concoctions will add calories and is generally discouraged if your goal is fat loss.
There is a widespread myth in the bodybuilding world that it is necessary to add carbs to protein in order to spike insulin, but this is nonsense because the BCAAs in protein powder trigger a larger release of insulin.
Where carbs may be beneficial is if you need to replenish glycogen—the fuel source for muscle. For example, if you are training twice a day, competing in a tournament with multiple games over the course of a weekend, or performing high-intensity exercise with an endurance component, glycogen replenishment is a priority. You can add high glycemic juice (pineapple, grape), carbohydrate powder, blended fruit, or even a sweetener like honey to your protein powder for increased recovery.
Final Words: As with any supplement, you’re going to get the best results by looking at the big picture of your whole diet:
Start by determining the total amount of protein you need daily.
Most of your protein should be from high-quality food sources. Remember to spread your intake out throughout the day, getting 30 grams every three to four hours.
Protein powder should make up no more than two servings of protein daily. Most people will get best results from only using protein powder after workouts. For meals, protein powder can be used in a pinch when you are on the run, but try to prioritize whole food meals of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, or beans.