Let’s talk about protein powders! You’ve seen them everywhere – at the pharmacy, in the supermarket, at the gym. You see everyone from athletes to your neighbor drinking protein shakes and are wondering what’s the deal with them? Should you be taking protein powder and if so, which are the best ones for your goals?
What are the benefits of protein powder?
Protein is a macronutrient that provides the building blocks of our hormones and neurotransmitters, is vital to maintaining, repairing and building muscle, and supports our hair, skin and gut health. Eating enough protein on a daily basis from real, whole foods is always our #1 goal, however there are some cases in which taking a protein powder is beneficial.
Taking a protein supplement can be a great option to fill in the blanks in your diet if you’re struggling to eat enough protein from food for the following possible reasons:
- If you might have increased protein needs because you are an athlete,
- You might have a chronic disease or have difficulty physically chewing and eating enough protein
- If you have increased protein requirements if your goal is building muscle mass
- You may be struggling to eat enough protein if you are vegetarian, vegan, or eating mostly plant-based foods
If you generally eat enough protein from whole foods, then taking a protein powder may not be necessary. However, for the majority of people it isn’t harmful to include a protein powder every now and then for the following reasons:
- Supplementing with protein may improve muscle recovery post-workout
- Protein supplementation may help with lower incidence of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Adding a protein powder can increase the protein content and fullness factor of a snack (like a fruit smoothie)
- Collagen protein for hair, skin, nails and gut health support (check out our Ultimate Guide to the Health Benefits of Collagen)
What are the best protein powders?
It’s important to note that not all protein powders are equal!
Not all protein powders contain all 9 essential amino acids (EAAs). Proteins with all 9 EAAs are considered “complete proteins” with high biological value, because our body needs to get all 9 of them from food in order to perform all of its essential processes in the body. Most plant-based proteins lack in some of the EAAs and are not complete proteins compared to animal protein sources.⠀⠀
Whey protein is a great choice because it has all 9 EAAs. It is the by-product of cheese production from milk. It tends to be more easily digested compared to other protein supplements. This is a great protein supplement to choose if your goal is to gain weight, build muscle, and/or you’re struggling to get enough protein and calories from your food. In a calorie surplus, along with strength training exercises, whey supplementation can promote muscle growth since it is also a good source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine, which help promote the repair and building of muscle mass. If your goal isn’t to build muscle, don’t worry – simply eating more protein doesn’t make us build muscle mass. Pick a plain, 100% whey protein powder that doesn’t have added sugars, artificial sweeteners or additives, to get the most bang for your buck.
As for vegetarian protein powders, soy protein is a complete protein with all 9 EAAs. Since there is variability in the amino acid composition of plant-based proteins, a balanced combination of different plant protein sources may provide a higher quality protein blend. For example, a pea and rice protein blend can be an effective way to complement the limiting amino acids in the two.
If you prefer flavored proteins, going for a protein powder that doesn’t have added sugar could be a good choice for you.
Protein Powders & Weight Loss
If your goal is to lose or maintain weight, protein is definitely a macronutrient that you want to prioritize. Protein prolongs suppression of your hunger hormone, ghrelin, more than the other macronutrients. This helps you to feel full and satisfied when consuming protein as part of a balanced meal. This can help support weight loss if your total calories consumed are in a slight deficit. Additionally, ensuring you’re eating enough protein while losing weight is essential to prevent muscle breakdown and to keep your metabolism revving. Eating protein can help support your metabolism more than the other macronutrients, through something called the Thermic Effect of Food.
Protein Powders & Blood Sugar Management
Protein in general is a beneficial focal point for anyone who is working on controlling their blood sugar. Including protein in a meal is super helpful in stabilizing blood glucose levels. Studies on whey supplementation and diabetes have shown that protein supplementation can slow gastric emptying, stimulate insulin and reduce postprandial blood glucose when consumed some minutes before a meal.
Side Effects & Who Shouldn’t Take Whey
If you have a dairy allergy, stay away from whey! If you’re sensitive to lactose, you may benefit from a whey protein isolate instead. This has very low levels of lactose.
Some studies have also linked whey supplementation with acne. Let’s be clear – it’s not the protein itself at fault here. It’s dairy products in general that may be linked to increased flare-ups in some people.
Finally, some flavored proteins contain artificial sweeteners, which could cause negative gastrointestinal side effects if eaten in large doses.