Being a sports/fitness dietitian means that I’m constantly dealing with people asking me for recommendations on protein powders. My usual response is, of course, “it depends.” While not everyone needs protein powder, some people can really benefit from it. So much goes into what to consider if you need a protein powder and then IF you do need one, what you should consider. Today’s post is to help you in both areas!
Nutrition and especially performance nutrition can be super confusing and I’m hoping to help by giving you the breakdown on a topic like this. You can use me as your resource and get yourself educated not confused. Know that if you have not already looked into adopting a more balanced real food approach, you have no business looking into protein powder unless specified by a trusted practitioner. Protein powders will not fix your diet or your health. They will not give you a six-pack nor PRs and they are not the solution to all of your problems.
That all being said, let’s look into what protein powders are, why you might or might not need one, what to look for when buying/using one, and my favorite brand recommendations!
What is Protein Powder?
Let’s take a step back and look at what protein powder actually is. So many people ask me if their protein powder is a supplement. I always say YES. Why? Because it is not a normal means of feeding yourself. You would never buy a gallon of milk and then process it out for its whey protein powder for dinner. I mean, if you do, that’s impressive, but for everyone else, it is an unusual means of getting a nutrient.
It doesn’t mean it cannot fit in a real food diet/lifestyle it just so happens that it is a SUPPLEMENT to a real food based diet. End of story.
Most protein powders contain the powdered protein extracted from a given source (i.e. whey from milk/cow, egg white from an egg, pea protein from peas, etc.) as well as additives. Quite a few protein powders are gluten free, so when you are wondering “is whey gluten free?” the answer is yes. The sucky part is that because protein powders are a supplement, they are not super regulated and when it says “natural flavors” you could be getting a lot more than what you bargain for. I, personally use labdoor.com for baseline information on what’s in my powders and then I inquire directly with the company (because I’m a nerdy RD okay?!)
There are many types of protein powders but here are the current most popular types:
- Egg White
- Mixed Plan Proteins
All of these proteins are processed and manufactured in many different ways to be broken down into a powdered form that can be soluble in water (i.e. you can mix it in your favorite shaker bottle). I probably need another post to explain why certain ones are better than others, but we’ll try to dig in a bit deeper below.
Oh boy, protein! There are so many different views on protein out there so it’s understandable that you get confused as to how much protein you need. Believe me, I would be confused too if it weren’t my profession. Here’s the thing you need protein for many different areas of your health, body structure, and performance. You, generally, can’t overdo protein unless we are talking OBSCENE amounts in one day and/or if you have known kidney issues/disease. There are many different ways to get protein without eating meat, for example, hemp contains all nine essential amino acids.
If you’ve ever tracked your protein intake you’ve probably noticed that it’s hard to overdo unless you use artificial forms of protein. These artificial sources generally come from protein powders and/or bars/processed foods that have protein added to them. So, if you are overdoing protein it’s most likely coming from a supplement (aka powder) and not your diet (aka meat/fish/eggs).
My general rule of thumb for protein needs:
*Note this is not gospel, just guidelines*
- Absolute minimum need: 0.8g/kg body weight
- Physically active &/or looking to change body composition: 1.1-1.5g/kg body weight
- Elite Athlete (training >5 days/week): 1.5-2.0g/kg body weight
I will do a whole post on protein eventually as there is so much more to it than this!
Who needs protein powder?
It depends. Many can benefit from using protein powder but don’t go running to your local supplement store just yet. Instead, first look at your diet, if it could use some work, START THERE. Then, and only then, should you look to add a supplement to your diet? Here are a few categories of people I recommend considering a protein shake.
Athletes. This can include a range of athletes (aka weekend warriors to Olympians). If you are someone who is asking your body to perform and to build and/or maintain muscle, you could benefit from a protein powder. This is ESPECIALLY true if you find you cannot get enough through diet. This is a good time to track for a day or two to see if you are anywhere close to your needs. Need help? Hire an RD!
Vegans/Vegetarians. While not always the case, many who limit the consumption of animal sources tend to be on the lower side of optimal in their protein intake. It may be beneficial for you to look into adding a protein powder to your diet to ensure you are getting enough protein to support your lean body mass and give you energy!
Chewing/Swallowing Issues. For those who have issues chewing or swallowing whether in the short-term or for the long-term, it could be beneficial for you to add in a protein supplement. Why? Because most sources of protein require chewing/swallowing. I don’t know about you but a shake sounds far more appealing than pureed chicken.
Those with poor recovery, excess soreness, and/or injury. Once again, seek to improve your diet first and then seek help from supplements. For some, it may be that they just need a little help boosting protein on days that they are super busy and a shake can fit in nicely with little to no prep required.
Those not meeting protein goals. If you know for a fact that you are always low on protein and you would prefer a shake over a meal, this would be for you. I’d HIGHLY recommend seeing a practitioner though to see if there aren’t other ways to supplement your diet with real food.
Digestive Issues. For some that have issues digesting and/or absorbing food, a protein powder may actually help you reach your needs without overtaxing the system. I would not self-diagnose, find a practitioner to help guide you.
Others. I’m sure I missed people here but there may be some people who need protein powder on and off throughout their lives. Maybe they are traveling a lot and don’t have access to enough protein. Maybe it’s someone training for a race once every 5 years. Maybe it’s for someone whose appetite isn’t quite there and we need to help the body get enough nutrients. The list could go on and on.
Note for Athletes
If you are a competitive athlete you MUST do your research and CONTINUE to do your research as far as any food, beverage, supplement, etc. that you put in your body. Look for labels that indicate there has been third-party testing done AND is safe for sport. What might be okay for your buddy who is just lifting at the gym may NOT be okay for you. If you have the potential to be drug tested at all in your sport, do your homework and don’t leave it up to chance. I recommend looking for NSF Certified for Sport or Informed-Sport labels on your supplements.
Who doesn’t need protein powder?
However, if you are someone who knows you could improve the amount of protein you eat in a day, you need to look to do so through actual food first and then supplement. If you notice protein powder causes you to feel weird, it’s not for you. If you are replacing meals with shakes, it’s not for you. If you are solely looking for weight loss, not for you. The list is probably too expansive to have here but know that most people will be just fine without a protein powder. It is not a necessity to be healthy and/or fit.
What Kind of Protein Powder?
At the risk of making this post longer than it already is, I’ll try to be brief, ha! As I mentioned above, there are many types of protein powders. The one that is right for you is the one that supports your health, digestion, performance, and goals. That means it will be different for everyone. If you have any dairy intolerance, you may need to switch to an egg white, beef or vegan protein sources.
That being said, I would say for MOST athletes whey protein is the preferred source as it is the most readily availble as well as the best absorbed and utilized by the body for MOST but not everyone.
Whey vs. Casein
I received a ton of questions about protein powders that I will field in later posts but one I wanted to touch on real quick is this one. What is the difference between whey and casein?!
Both are different kinds of protein found in milk. However, casein is more prevalent and makes up about 80% of milk, whereas whey is more of a byproduct of cheese production.
Casein tends to be more expensive than whey and not as readily available in stores (at least good quality). Casein is slower to digest which means it stays with you longer and can even curb hunger not just help build muscle. Whey protein, on the other hand, is faster to absorb and may be flushed out of the body faster as the body can only process so much whey at one time.
Whey is best pre/post workout & casein is best before bed or between meals as a more substantial snack/meal. Both are meant to help build muscle just best used different times of day. I’d highly recommend talking with an RD to figure out if you need one or the other or both!
What about collagen?
I will do a whole post on this but just know that collagen is NOT a complete protein. What that means is that it does not contain all 9 essential amino acids (it’s close at 8). Your essential amino acids (or building blocks of protein) are ones that your body cannot make itself and therefore relies on outside sources to gain the complete protein needs. That all being said, collagen is NOT recommended to replace a protein powder for post workout. It is not mean to be a performance-based supplement. It is instead a real food supplement to use for hair, skin, nails, gut, etc. just not necessarily for sport and athletic performance!
My Favorite Protein Powder Brands:
There are SO many brands out there so I’ll try and update this list as I remember and find new brands. I have some go-tos that I know taste great and also work wonders for the days I train hard and don’t get enough protein in my diet.
My Top Protein Powders
I tend to tolerate whey & casein protein fine, as do many of my athletes but note that my top brands are mostly whey/casein based! These are ones that I love the quality & effectiveness of (in alphabetical order):
- Ascent Protein (both whey & casein)
- Klean Athlete (Whey)
- Naked (large variety)
- SFH (whey)
- Tera’s (whey & goat)
- UR The Answer (whey & casein)
Other Protein Powders
There are SO many brands out there. You can use services like Labdoor.com to check if they are third party tested (aka do they have what the label says they have in them) & ensure that they are products you want to be a part of your balanced real food approach.
Here are a few I don’t use often but do recommend to clients
For those who have dietary preferences and/or digestive issues with the above proteins. Here are a few proteins that are vegetarian/vegan and still have good ingredients.
While I could go on forever, remember that if you aren’t focusing on a balanced real food approach, a protein powder may not be the right avenue for you. Unsure? Leave comments below and/or set up an appointment with me!
Do you use protein powder? If so what is your favorite brand?
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