The Best Protein Powders for Weight Management

7 min read

Thinking of incorporating protein powder into your diet as part of a weight management program? Here's what you should be on the lookout for.

Protein and exercise go together like peanut butter and jelly. Cookies and milk. And while protein is essential for muscle development, increasing daily energy levels, and improving sports performance, it’s a mistake to think protein powder is just for athletes. In fact, protein powder can even help you support your weight management program.

But first, let’s review what happens when you gain or lose weight. The general idea is that weight loss occurs when we burn more calories per day than we consume, which creates what is called a calorie deficit. However, there are several other factors to consider: think about the composition of the weight. Where do those pounds come from? Are they from newly built muscle, or is your weight affected by specific eating behaviors which dictate your caloric intake?

If you are looking to build lean muscle while keeping track of your calories, the best way to ensure you are managing your weight in a healthy way is through a combination of a balanced diet and sufficient exercise.

This is where protein comes in. Adding protein to your diet may help you stay fuller longer, which helps you not only less during meals, but additionally, may help to curb food cravings throughout the day. Take it from professors at University of Texas, in this article originally published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “There is evidence that modestly increasing the proportion of protein in the diet, while controlling total energy intake, may improve body composition, facilitate fat loss, and improve body weight maintenance after weight loss.”

If you’re someone who likes to snack, this may help you cut down on your daily calorie intake. “When protein is broken down in the body it helps to fuel muscle mass, which helps metabolism," says dietician Jessica Crandall. “It helps you stay full.” By combining protein consumption with regular exercise, your body is able to build lean muscle and burn fat.

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You might already be familiar with the Atkins diet and the Ketogenic diet, which prioritize a high protein intake.

Atkins, named after its founder, Dr. Robert Atkins, was originally outlined in 1972, and follows 4 phases as a way to retrain the body to tolerate carbohydrates without substantial weight gain. It begins with the first phase, called induction, in which new dieters only take in 20 grams or less of carbohydrates a day for two weeks, beginning the weight loss process. They are encouraged to eat foods full of protein and healthy fats so that the body increases its ability to burn fat for energy. Throughout the phases, dieters slowly reintroduce carbohydrates back into their body until they arrive at the fourth phase, called “maintenance,” By this point, the body has adapted to tolerate carbohydrates without regaining the weight lost during the diet.

The Ketogenic diet on the other hand, or “keto” for short, is essentially the same as the first phase of Atkins –– dieters drastically cut out carbohydrates and replace them with healthy fats, leading to a metabolic state called “ketosis.” This jumpstarts the body’s capacity to burn fat quickly for energy. Ketosis also transforms fat into ketones in the liver which then supply energy for the brain.

Low-carb and high protein diets, like Atkins or the Ketogenic diet, have a history of weight loss results, and can serve as models for how protein can function in your body.

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Now that you’ve learned about protein’s role in weight loss, it’s time to make a decision on how you’d like to include protein in your diet. The question you want to first ask yourself is: do you choose whole foods or protein powder?

In general, it is recommended to get protein through your regular diet, by consuming whole foods. Beans, seafood, nuts, dairy, poultry, and meat are all full of protein, so if you’re looking for a place to start, begin with adding some of these foods to your meal plan. This is the route that doctors and dietitians generally suggest as well, as consuming whole foods not only helps with your weight loss goals, but additionally, whole foods provide plenty of essential nutrients that benefit your body, ones that a protein powder alone would not necessarily have.

That being said, your diet may not give you enough protein, especially if you have dietary restrictions and are vegan, dairy-free, or vegetarian. Protein powder is key here, as it helps those on restricted diets can truly guarantee that they are getting the amount of protein they want, on a schedule of their choosing. And they are convenient, for those who don’t have time to prepare a full meal or snack — you can add to a drink or blended into a smoothie at your convenience.

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With all the protein powders on the market, however, it can be hard to choose the right one. Do you go for the flavorless, or the chocolate? Do you want whey or casein? We’ve put together the questions you need to ask when choosing protein powder for weight loss.

Complete protein

Get ready –– if you’re shopping for protein powder, you’re going to see this phrase quite a bit. The word “complete” means that any powder labelled as such contains the 9 essential amino acids that your body is unable to produce on its own, and can only get through supplementation: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These proteins are necessary as they help to repair and build tissue throughout your body, and so should be at the top of your list when picking your powder. Casein and whey, and are complete proteins, so dietary restrictions are able to be accommodated — certain plant-based powders are complete proteins too, but you’ll want to pay special attention to make sure.

Caloric intake

Remember that in order to lose weight, you want to have a calorie deficit. Make sure that your calorie intake is not excessive –– you want the overall benefits of the protein powder to go towards your weight loss goals — so make sure your powder contains a calorie amount that makes sense for you.

Protein per serving

Be sure to check the amount of protein per serving––will you be able to get the right amount? For weight loss, protein intake should be approximately 25% of your daily calorie consumption.

You will probably see three different types of protein out there when researching powders: protein concentrate, isolate and hydrolysates.If weight loss is your game, then your best bet is to choose a powder that is comprised of isolates, who get their name from the fact that other non-protein components have been stripped from them. By taking a protein isolate powder, you are generally getting 90-95% protein per serving. Concentrates, on the other hand, contain only 60-80% protein –– the remaining percentage of the powder is comprised of fat and carbohydrates.

Hydrolysates are the third option, however, because they appear to increase insulin levels more than other forms, build muscle strength and size more quickly.

Flavor profile

Like anything you’d go to eat, you’re going to want to enjoy it. This is going to be part of your routine, so think about something you will feel excited about tasting every day. Most protein powders come in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, or flavorless, but you can even find some that come in flavors such as “cinnamon bun” or “red velvet cake.”

Quality ingredients

At the end of the day, you are taking protein powder to be healthy, so make sure you aren’t purchasing powders that undermine your goals. Check the ingredient lists and ask yourself: is this powder sourced from real ingredients, and do you know where they are made? Do the protein sources align with your diet? Are there artificial flavors, sweeteners, or other additives? Make sure that the ingredients on the label align with your goals.

Added sugars, dextrins, or maltodextrins

To ensure that you are getting the maximum health benefits, look for powders without any extraneous sugars or sweeteners made from starch such as dextrin and maltodextrin. These added sugars could hinder your progress, as powders that contain them often have hidden calories. In fact, products with maltodextrin and dextrin are recommended for those who want to gain weight.

Avoid branch chained amino acids

Keep an eye out for leucine, isoleucine, and valine in your powders. These amino acids help with muscle growth and weight gain, so a protein powder that contains them may not support your weight loss goals.

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Supplementing your diet with protein powder is a quick, tasty way to get your weight loss on track. Just be sure that your powder of choice checks all your boxes, and is made of quality ingredients to be support your goals.

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