Protein Powders 101
I am often asked about protein powders. Which ones are the best? Do I need them? If so, when should I drink them? And how often? There are so many different types, and brands, on the market it can be overwhelming choosing the right one. I have no affiliation with a particular brand of protein powders or supplements, so I am not going to endorse any specific brands, but I will explain the differences in the different types, pros and cons of using them, and the optimal use for them if you choose to use one.
First, protein powders are not a necessary part of a healthy diet. You can reach your protein needs by eating whole foods. They are simply a convenient way to reach your desired protein intake. They are a concentrated source of protein that usually has less fat, and sometimes fewer carbs, than food sources of protein Other perks include they are portable, most are easy to digest, and often times they are actually cheaper per serving than a serving of meat. Another reason why you may want to consider a protein powder, especially if you workout, is during a workout we actually cause ‘micro tears’ to our muscles. These are then repaired from the protein we consume. There is a 30 minute window in which your muscles are ‘primed’ and ready to receive protein post-workout. By having a protein shake after your workout, you can start providing that protein to your body quickly, and the repair process can begin. Studies have shown that consuming a combination of protein and quick carbs (low in fiber) can even further enhance recovery.
So, if you are trying to hit a higher protein goal, protein powders are an easy way to supplement to reach it – keyword: supplement. They should not be your primary source of protein in your diet.
Different Types of Protein Powders & Uses
- Whey Protein: one of the most easily digestible proteins on the market. Whey comes from dairy sources. Since it is a “quick digesting” protein, it’s best used after a workout. Whey can also stimulate the production of glutathione – our ‘master antioxidant’ produced in the liver. (1) Antioxidants help repair oxidative damage caused by workouts and other environmental exposures, and are a part of our detox pathways as well. (2)
- Casein Protein: a slow digesting protein. Casein is the other protein molecule found in dairy. This is best used away from a workout. Since it is slower to break down, it will slow down the digestion process – not what you want after a workout. Typically this is taken in the evening, to repair muscles during the night. One word of caution: casein has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer cancer. (3) I used to recommend this protein, but I no longer do so. Use at your own risk.
- Pea Protein: a Vegan/vegetarian protein source. This protein is derived from the pea plant. This is a good option if you are avoiding animal products. It is gluten and dairy free which makes it one of the most hypoallergenic protein sources available. It is higher in carbohydrates than animal sourced protein powders, so if you are following a lower carbohydrate diet, you will need to take that into consideration. It is also missing a few amino acids that keep it from being a “complete” protein source, but those can easily be consumed in the rest of your diet, and your body actually makes some of the missing amino acids itself… making them a “nonessential” part of our diet. (meaning we don’t have to consume them)
- Brown Rice Protein: a Vegan/vegetarian protein source. It is derived from brown rice just as the name indicates. It is usually combined with other plant-based protein sources such as quinoa or chia to make it a complete protein. It is dairy and gluten free which makes it hypoallergenic and easy to digest in most cases. The nutritional value depends on the brand, so check the label to see how many carbs, fat, and protein is in each scoop.
- Hemp Protein: a Vegan/vegetarian protein source. It is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Hemp not only provides protein, but it also provides essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 in a healthy ratio of 3:1. The right ratio of these fatty acids has been linked to reduced inflammation throughout the body. It is also high in soluble and insoluble fiber, which is essential in good gut health. Because of it’s higher fiber intake, it may not be the best post-workout option, however, as fiber slows down the digestion process, delaying the time it takes for protein to reach your muscles.
- Soy Protein: a Vegan/vegetarian protein source. Soy protein derived from the soy bean. It has become somewhat controversial in recent years. Soy is frequently consumed in areas of the world known as “blue zones”, where life expectancy is higher than average, so it has been thought that soy was a healthy animal free protein source. However, soy acts as a phytoestrogen in our bodies. High estrogen has been linked to diseases such as breast cancer, and Gynaecomastia (aka ‘man boobs’), and other cancers of the reproductive systems. (4) It has not been proven that soy does not contribute to the increased risk of these diseases, which is why it has become a controversial topic in protein powders.
- Bone Broth Protein: the new guy on the block in the protein powder world. It is derived from bone broth, just as the name suggests. Have you ever been told to have a big bowl of chicken soup when you’re sick? Bone broth is the reason why. Bone broth is full of collagen, proline, glycine, and glutamine which have been shown to help repair the GI tract, and could actually cause a boost in immunity. Bone broth is good for your joints, gut, skin, and hair. It contains potassium and lysine which are used in our detoxification pathways, as well as glutahione as discussed earlier. It is gluten and dairy free, so it is hypoallergenic. It is Paleo friendly, and a good source of protein for anyone avoiding dairy. It is what I personally use everyday.
- Collagen Protein: this protein is naturally found in our bodies… in our skin, joints, basically all of our connective tissues. As we age we produce less collagen on our own, which is why we start developing wrinkly, sagging skin, and our joints have decreased cartilage, causing them to be weaker. This protein is found in bone broth, but it is also sold in a concentrated form to boost collagen intake in the diet. It is gluten and dairy free, and hypoallergenic. It is used in many repair processes in the body. Most collagen powders are tasteless, and can be added to beverages such as coffee or tea. I personally use collagen powder everyday to keep my gut, skin, and joints healthy.
I hope this guide to protein powders helped you cut through the abundance of advertising, and helped you determine the best protein powder source for you, if you choose to consume it. As for most things in life, I have found that cheap protein powders tend to be inferior in quality and taste. They are usually chalky and don’t mix well. This can be an indication of fillers used to make a larger quantity at a lower cost. So, when choosing a protein powder, go for quality. You and your health are worth the little bit of extra cost… and honestly, it usually isn’t that much of a price difference if you look at servings per container.
Train hard. Fuel your body. Live healthy.