The importance of getting more protein in our diet seems to have hit the mainstream hard this year: has anyone else noticed the explosion of protein-enhanced products on supermarket shelves this year? Some of them make me cringe a bit. Just like it’s a better choice for you to eat an apple instead of a Fiber One bar if you’re trying to increase your fiber intake, I’d much rather people get their protein from whole food sources like lean meats, eggs, dairy, and legumes than cereal labeled “Protein Fruity-O’s!”
Why? Those things aren’t inherently evil, but they contain a bunch of other ingredients that you probably don’t need. The apple has vitamins and minerals and lacks some funky additives that your body might not actually digest all that well from that fiber bar (like chicory root, for example. It does a number on my stomach.)
The American recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is actually fairly low. But keep in mind that those guidelines are to maintain a baseline of overall health. If you want to maximize your potential for things like burning fat, building muscle, and enhancing your performance, you’ll need to eat more than that. I won’t delve into the intricacies of how much you should eat for today, though aiming for daily grams that equal roughly your target body weight is a good start.
Instead, I want to talk about what most of my clients face when they begin to increase their protein intake: it’s pretty tricky at first. Over time, you learn to choose meals that are naturally higher in protein to meet your goal. But often, many of us are either too busy to prepare all of our meals and snacks at home or we just want to change things up.
As it turns out, protein powders are one of the few added supplements that are an excellent boost to your intake. I don’t really think of them as a supplement so much as a highly concentrated food. For example, the whey in your dairy products gets filtered out and micronized into powder form to be used in whey protein powders. But when you go to your local vitamin shop, supermarket, or look online, the varieties available can feel incredibly overwhelming.
Not only are there countless brands to choose from; there are all sorts of proteins available; whey, egg white, casein; plant based solutions like hemp, rice, and pea powders; grass-fed beef and even cricket. Yeah, for real, cricket. (I can’t quite get past the idea of the last one but hey, to each her own.)
So what kind of protein supplement should I choose?
My short answer is the one that you can afford that also tastes good to you and aligns with your overall nutrition needs. If you’re a vegan, my recommendation to try an animal-based protein isn’t going to do much for you.
My long answer is that if you want to really get into the nitty gritty of how the body uses protein, we have to understand the idea of bio-availability. That just means that your body can use more or less of the protein in different kinds of foods. Dairy and egg based protein sources are the most highly bio-available of any protein source; soy protein is also quite high; other plant-based sources are often lower.
But does that mean we should do nothing but guzzle milkshakes? Nope nope nope. The amino acids that protein sources contain are important – they’re the building blocks for everything that your body does. But food also contains a host of other nutrients that your body needs, so slurping nothing but smoothies might be delicious but you’d miss out on quite a few other vitamins and minerals. I’m pretty sure it would get boring really quickly, too. So keep in mind that your supplement should probably only serve as one snack or meal out of your day. Put in the context of your overall diet, the type of protein powder you choose probably matters less than we think .
But whey is still my first pick… here’s why:
Aside from whey having a very high bio-availability score, in the sea of protein powders, you can find high quality whey protein inexpensively. I look for protein supplements that don’t contain a ton of extra fillers and ingredients that add fat and calories. If I want extra calories, I would rather add them back in with tasty whole foods. You’ll find whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolyzed isolate in the whey protein market.
All whey powders go through a filtering process that removes most of the carb, fat, and lactose from unprocessed whey. Both concentrates and isolates are high in their protein content, though isolate is higher. Concentrate has more lactose, so if dairy makes your belly hurt, you might choose an isolate. Hydrolyzed isolates further break down the isolate through processing and are easier to digest. Personally, I don’t like the taste of the hydrolyzed isolates I’ve tasted. They’re also more expensive than other forms of whey protein.
Whatever form you choose of whey, your body quickly digests it, making it a good source of post-workout protein. The idea of an “anabolic window”, i.e., of having only a short time to take advantage to muscle-repairing protein, has been reconsidered. You can chill out and don’t need to choose a particular form of supplement purely based on rate of absorption.
Getting some recovery fuel into your body within an hour or so after your workout will aid your gainz and help you feel better. The only people who really need to examine nutrient timing more closely are athletes – endurance athletes in particular need to make sure they’re fueling their work with sufficient nutrition.
I’m intrigued as well by a recent study shared at the April meeting of the Endocrine Society too: researchers found that obese subjects with Type 2 diabetes felt much fuller after a breakfast containing whey protein than other high-protein breakfasts. They also experienced fewer spikes in their glucose levels thoughout the day. Of course this is just one study and its worth will emerge more in the context of more studies. But it’s one that I’m keeping my eye on 1
For those with dairy allergy, an egg white protein powder would be my first pick. It has a high score for bio-availability and is a “complete protein”, meaning it contains all the amino acids your body needs to function well. It may sound funky, but I’ve sampled several and they don’t taste eggy at all. Vegans might take a look at supplements containing pea protein, which is easily digested and contains several, though not all of the amino acids your body needs. It digests more slowly than whey protein, but like slow digesting casein, this might be a bonus for staying full longer. Hemp protein contains a good dose of fiber and is also easily digested. All in all, if you’re shying away from animal-based protein supplements, a vegan supplement with a blend of plant-based protein might be your best bet to try.
Some companies have been caught spiking their supplements with non-protein sources to increase the overall nitrogen content of the powder. When tested, they appear to contain more protein than they actually do, because carbs and fats, unlike protein, don’t contain nitrogen. If you’re eating a well balanced diet, this isn’t a make or break scenario. However, as a business practice I think it stinks. So before you heavily invest in a brand, spend a few minutes on Google to learn a bit about the reputation of the company.
Everyone’s budget and tastes are unique; I’ve read glowing reviews of certain powders only to find that I could barely stand ingesting them. When you can, start with a sample or the smallest size available. I’ve consistently had good luck with companies like True Nutrition, Optimum Nutrition, and Cellucor. For vegan protein powders, I loathed many of them but found that Vega Sport tastes excellent, to me at least.
Some people prefer unsweetened protein powders for their versatility and lack of artificial sweeteners. Sometimes I just want to mix powder with water and ice and go, so flavored protein is a bonus in my book. Vanilla is versatile, works in lots of different recipes, and is often less cloying than other varieties. I also try to choose brands that use stevia as a sweetener because it tastes less fake and funky to me.
How to Eat/Drink Protein Powders
I’ve had a few that tasted great enough by themselves to just shake up in a blender bottle with some water, add ice, and go. If you have to bring one to work and want to minimize extra calories, this is, of course, a fine option. However, if you have a bit of extra time, making a smoothie with some kind of milk, fruit, and vegetables is an easy way to amp up both flavor and nutrient content.
I’ve also used protein powder in place of part of my flour in pancake recipes. This works surprisingly well as long as I don’t make the powder ratio too high. Mug cakes have historically ranged from cake disappointments to epic disasters. A half scoop melts seamlessly into my overnight oats, and a small amount added to Greek yogurt along with a bit of fruit is surprisingly tasty. If I throw that concoction into the freezer for 15 minutes I can almost convince myself it is ice cream. Except not completely, because I’m no chump. Have a small bowl of ice cream if you really want some, but it makes a very yummy and healthy snack.
In general, I avoid using protein powders to make a lot of healthified “Frankendesserts” and instead just enjoy it for what it is: an easy, inexpensive, and tasty way to boost my protein intake when I need it. Here are two summer smoothie recipes I made this week. The calorie and macro profiles will change a bit depending on the type and brand of supplement you use, but you’ll have a basic idea.
Strawberry Cheesecake Protein Smoothie
Note: I made this for breakfast, and it makes a gigantic shake. Halve the recipe for a snack if it’s too much food for you.
½ cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
¾ cup vanilla cashew milk (or milk of your choice. It’s what I had on hand.)
½ cup 1% cottage cheese
2 Tbsp Greek yogurt cream cheese spread (I use Green Mountain. Lowfat cream cheese would work too.)
1 scoop strawberry or vanilla protein powder (I had a sample of Quest strawberry whey-casein blend, which whips up like crazy from the casein. Vanilla is just as good here.)
5-6 ice cubes
½ graham cracker sheet
Optional: grated lemon zest and a packet of stevia. My berries were ripe and my protein was sweet, so I skipped the extra sweetener. The zest is optional but adds a nice something something to this shake.)
Whirl everything except for the cracker in a blender. Top your smoothie with a crumbled cracker, and marvel at how cheesecakey it actually is.
Calories: 314|Protein: 40g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 28g|Fiber: 3g|Sugars: 18g
Big Green Smoothie
Note: adding spinach or kale to protein shakes is a very quick way to get more leafy greens into your diet. Coupled with fruit and flavored protein powder, you won’t taste the “green stuff”. I swap out fruits in this smoothie, but usually leave in some banana – it adds extra sweetness. Use frozen fruit to make this shake thicker and creamier.
1/2 frozen, medium banana, preferably frozen
1/2 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup spinach
1 packet stevia
1/2 Tbsp chia seeds (for healthy fats)
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
1 scoop of vanilla protein powder (I used True Nutrition vanilla whey isolate)
5-6 ice cubes if not using frozen fruit
Blend it all up, and enjoy!
Calories: 296|Protein: 36g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 29g|Fiber: 7g|Sugars: 14g
I hope this demystified choosing some powda for you. If you already use a protein supplement, what are your favorites and how do you use them? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear your ideas.
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- The Endocrine Society. “Large whey protein breakfast may help manage type 2 diabetes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2016. ↩