Protein powder 101: how to find the right one for you

It’s 2019 and you’ve made the decision: you’re going to be healthy. Whether you’ve started working out and want to gain lean muscle or manage your weight, have started a new diet and are trying to get the proper nutrients, or are just looking to feel better overall, you’ve been doing your research and have most likely come across protein powder by this point. You may have seen it thrown into a smoothie, or added as a creamer in coffee, but you’re probably wondering: what is it, and can it help me reach my health goals? Here’s everything you need to know to make an informed decision about choosing the right protein powder for you.

First thing's first: what is protein powder?

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To put it simply, protein itself is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of cells. While you may associate protein primarily with building muscle, protein is a major component in our hair and nails, is used to build and repair tissue, and even used to make hormones. Unlike vitamins and minerals, which are required in smaller quantities and are therefore called “micronutrients,” our body needs fairly large amounts of protein, which is why it’s referred to as a “macronutrient.” Additionally, the body does not store protein, so it doesn’t have a back-up supply to take from when it needs any.

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While the best way to get protein is through diet, protein is primarily found in foods like meat, poultry, fish and dairy, which many people on restricted diets don’t consume. Though it can be found in vegetarian foods like seitan, tofu, lentils and beans, it can be tougher to get the exact amount of protein needed for a balanced diet through some of these alternatives.

This is where protein powder can help. By supplementing your diet with protein powder, you are not only ensuring that you are getting the right amount of protein for your body and goals, but you can also be sure that it’s coming from a source that adheres to your diet, whether that’s vegetarian, vegan, keto or carnivore. Here are some of the most popular options available today.

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Whey protein

What it is:

If you’ve tried a protein powder before, chances are it was whey protein. Arguably the most common –– and popular –– form of protein out there, whey is actually the byproduct that comes from turning milk into cheese. It used to be discarded during the cheese-making process until people discovered it had a high protein content and could be useful.

Whey forms – the three different versions you’ll see in stores:

In general, whey powder comes in three forms: concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates. To put it simply: isolates are known for having a higher protein content than concentrates, and both have been known to taste better than hydrolysates.

Isolates are more refined than concentrates, meaning the majority of the powder itself is the protein, which has been “isolated” from other non-protein substances. In other words, isolates have more protein per dose than concentrates, and therefore have fewer calories and generally less total lactose, fats, cholesterol or carbohydrates. That said, because of this isolates are slightly more expensive, so whey concentrates are often a better financial choice for those on a strict budget.

Hydrolysates tend to have a more bitter taste since this type of protein has been exposed to either acid, heat or enzymes to disconnect the bonds which link the amino acids. This allows the protein to be absorbed into the body more rapidly than its counterparts, which can be ideal for those looking to use protein powder in conjunction with intense athletic training.

Why you might love it:

Whey protein is a great option for those who are looking for a complete protein –– one that contains all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce itself naturally –– at an affordable price. Beloved by bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts, whey is a popular choice since it’s not only absorbed quickly by the body, but also it comes in a variety of flavors, which means it’s easier to add it to your favorite smoothie or shake recipe (so you can actually look forward to drinking it).

Why it might not be right for you:

As a byproduct of milk, whey protein naturally contains dairy so unfortunately is a non-starter for many people who follow a dairy-free diet. And while it does mix well into a variety of recipes, if you are on a calorie-restricted diet, be mindful that it does provide additional calories.

Who it’s best for:

We recommend whey to anyone looking for a complete protein that can help with satiety, weight management, lean muscle development, and athletic performance and recovery.

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Plant protein

What it is:

As the name suggests, plant protein powders are protein powders that come from plants. While there are soy proteins, rice proteins and hemp proteins, plant protein powders are usually a blend of a few types, like pumpkin seed and pea proteins, in order to make them complete sources of protein that can fulfill the same dietary needs as whey protein.

Why you might love it:

Given its sources, plant protein is ideal for vegans and vegetarians who are looking for a complete source of protein without having to compromise their diet. Since many different plants are cultivated for plant powders, you can pick and choose which one might work best for you based on the sources. Like whey protein, plant protein tastes great mixed into a smoothie or a shake!

Why it might not be right for you:

Some people find that the taste of plant protein is inferior to that of whey. With that in mind, many people opt for unflavored plant protein, which can easily be mixed in coffee, tea, juice, or smoothies for a seamless blend.

Who it’s best for:

Plant protein is great for anyone looking to boost overall health, without relying on meat or dairy-based products. Like whey protein, plant protein can help with weight management, post-workout recovery, energy support, and muscle development.

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So which one is best for you? Every person’s diet is unique, so you should consider all of the options out there before narrowing it down. You know what works for your body so, with this information in hand, start trying out different protein powders. And if you need further guidance, not to worry! Whether you have a special diet, like veganism or vegetarianism, or have specific health goals in mind, like using protein to help with weight management or to help with overall nutrition during pregnancy, we’ve put together guides to help you with your search. Most importantly, when you’re looking for a protein powder, choose a product made from quality ingredients so you know it’s in line with your long-term health goals.