Protein powder has gone from “bodybuilder’s only” to a staple in many Americans’ pantries. You can even find it taking up a whole row in the average grocery store.
Nowadays it seems like everyone and their grandmother is using it, but is that wise? Is protein powder good for your health? And if so, how should it even be used? Is there a certain kind that’s best, a perfect time of day, an ideal amount?
Not gonna lie, protein powder confused me for the longest time. I actually avoided jumping on the bandwagon for a while simply because it can be so expensive. Now I have a couple protein powders that I LOVE (I’ll get to that) and use pretty frequently. I will say, it took me a long time to find even one I trusted.
This post is geared towards explaining the basics of protein powder in the easiest-to-understand whey (I know, I’m hilarious).
We’re gonna cover it all, so sit back, put on your weightlifting belts, and let’s get into it!
Post Last Updated: 1/10/21
Please note: Check with your physician before starting any exercise routine or starting any particular diet. See this Disclaimer for more details. This post may contain affiliate links. For details, please visit my Disclosure page. Thank you!
What’s the difference between all the types of protein powder out there?
This is definitely the most confusing part of protein supplements. There are sooo many types. Whey, casein, collagen peptides, pea protein, soy protein – the list goes on. So what’s the difference between all of them?
Casein is a type of milk protein. It’s obtained by breaking milk down into separate components. It’s pretty cheap because it makes up 80% of milk protein.
The important thing to know about casein is that it takes it’s sweet time in your stomach. Because it empties into your intestines so slowly, it actually can provide protein to your body for several hours after eating it. This means it can continue building muscle for longer.
Whey is also a milk protein and makes up the other 20%. Because there’s less of it than casein, it’s more expensive.
Also unlike casein, whey leaves the stomach quickly and is absorbed much faster.
– Whey isolate
Isolate, as the name implies, is a concentrated form of whey because it’s been broken down even further. While more expensive, it can enter the bloodstream as fast as 15-20 minutes after eating it on an empty stomach.
– Whey isolate hydrosylate
This is the same as whey isolate but it includes digestive enzymes to help you break down the protein even faster. There is debate, however, about whether or not it actually makes a difference. Because whey isolate is the fastest digestible protein, some say it’s not necessary to add the digestive enzymes to the product.
Collagen is also a type of animal protein. It’s recently become more popular due to it’s wide array of benefits. From improving your skin to healing the GI tract, it boasts far more than just protein for muscle growth. Just keep in mind, collagen is derived from animal parts, including their skin and connective tissues. Some may call that a deal-breaker.
For more on collagen check out this post from Wayfaring Rachel.
If you’re looking to max out your protein, I have some bad news for our vegetarians/vegans: animal protein is more easily absorbed. This means that if you eat 15 grams of whey protein vs. 15 grams of plant protein, you’ll absorb more of the whey protein.
However, this doesn’t mean that plant protein isn’t still a useful substitute. Looking at what’s consumed vs. what’s absorbed, plant protein isolates come in quite closely behind the protein obtained from eating chicken or beef. So if you aren’t a meat eater, these can actually still be very effective protein sources.
There have also been recent studies supporting the switch to plant-based foods due to a link between a high dairy/meat intake and various diseases/cancers. There’s a book I’m currently reading called The China Study that describes some of the results found – certainly worth a read due to the groundbreaking research it discusses.
– Soy isolate protein
Soy comes in at the top of the plant proteins for absorbability, making it a great vegetarian/vegan option.
– Pea isolate protein
Pea isolate protein comes in right behind soy and is another great option, especially if you are soy allergic-intolerant.
What are some reasons why you may want to use protein powder?
Many will just jump right in here and say, “To build more muscle!” And while that’s true, there are many other reasons to consider. Here are some:
- Can eat/drink it on-the-go
- Can have less calories than eating a protein-rich food
- More concentrated form of protein
- Can be absorbed more quickly/effectively than protein from a food (depending on type)
- Can help maintain/gain healthy weight
So is protein powder actually helpful in some cases?
Yes, of course! As you can see above, there are many different reasons why it may be a good addition to your diet.
Is protein powder safe?
Protein powder is generally considered safe. Now, it is considered a supplement, meaning there aren’t the same rigorous Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations on it as food.
Instead, third party companies come in and evaluate protein powders. If you’re looking for one that’s been inspected, check for these companies:
- Informed Choice (LGC Lab)
- National Sanitation Foundation (NSF International)
These companies are some of the most well-known when it comes to regulating protein powders.
Should you be using protein powder?
The first thing to note is that protein powder should never completely replace eating whole foods and meals. Whole foods have so many benefits you just won’t get from protein powder: additional vitamins and minerals, fiber, healthy fats and carbs, etc.
But really the main question to ask yourself first is, “What are your goals?”
Are you trying to grow muscle? If you’re looking to add more muscle mass, protein powder can be a good way to hit your protein goals without too many additional calories. If you were to have protein via meat or quinoa rather than a concentrated protein powder, you’d definitely be eating more calories – albeit, also getting the other nutritional parts of the foods. Depending on the type, you may also be able to absorb the protein powder faster or more effectively.
Are you trying to prevent muscle wasting and weight loss? I think this is another big reason protein powder is now mainstream within the general population. If you suffer from poor appetite or a severe functional limitation protein powder may be a good way to prevent muscle loss.
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How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein you need per day depends on your activity level and type of activity. But thus far, research seems to support:
- Average activity level: 0.8g / kg OR 0.36g / lb
- Endurance athlete: 1.2-1.4g / kg OR 0.55-0.64g / lb
- Weight lifter: 1.2-1.7g / kg OR 0.64-0.91g / lb
When is the best time to have protein?
It’s recommended to spread your protein out over the course of the day because only so much can be absorbed at one time. A good rule of thumb is eating no more than 20g for women and no more than 25-30g for men at one time.
In relation to exercise, studies have yielded very mixed results about whether it’s better to have protein right before or right after exercise. So you can either choose one of the two or consume protein during both times. It appears most effective to have protein within a 1 hour window before and/or after exercise. While you can follow the 20g/25-30g recommendation, you could also tailor the amount to your body by consuming 0.25-0.3g / kg OR 0.11-0.14g / lb.
What are some natural sources of protein?
As mentioned earlier, eating whole, natural foods is always a good way to get your protein. Some good food sources include lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish), yogurt, eggs, tofu, quinoa, oatmeal, nuts/nut butters, and seeds.
Keep in mind that in order for protein to be absorbed, you also need to eat carbohydrates. That’s why some great pre- or post-workout meals might be yogurt and fruit, an almond butter sandwich, or a quinoa veggie salad as opposed to just a chicken breast or an egg.
What’s your favorite type of protein powder?
Alright, I’ve finally found a couple protein powders that I absolutely love, both because of their tastes and their ingredients list.
This stuff has only ingredients that I can pronounce on the nutrition label. It’s a vegan protein powder made up of peas, chia, pumpkin, hemp, and quinoa, and has 14g of protein per scoop. I found it through a dietitian’s recommendation. I absolutely love it and highly recommend it. (This is not an affiliate link, I seriously just love this one).
I’ve only recently started using MyProtein and it is BY FAR the best-tasting protein powder I’ve ever had. Personally, I love the chocolate brownie one, but my boyfriend is obsessed with the vanilla one. Each has 18g of protein per serving and only 1g of sugar. While it’s definitely a bit more processed than the one from Life’s Abundance, the ingredients list is short. It’s not jam-packed with a bunch of 20-letter-long additives. If you’re not vegan, consider trying this brand out. (Also not an affiliate link!)
The sources I used for this post are from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), through which I have my personal training certification, and Livestrong. I’ll link the articles down below:
Additional Livestrong Resources: Protein Posts
Do you have a particular protein powder you use? If so, why do you prefer it? I’d love if you’d share your experiences!