How to Choose a Protein Powder

How to Choose a Protein Powder

Nothing will get a gym goer fired up more than a discussion on protein.  Some feel very strongly about their protein powder, the brand, or the type.  Others never give a second thought to whether they should include a protein powder into their routine.

In this blog, we’ll have a quick chat about protein requirements, determine if you really need a protein powder, bust a few myths (or rhymes…whichever is your preference), and talk about something to look out for when shopping.  And yes, I will toss a few brands out there that I like.  

Protein

Let’s have a quick chat about protein.  This is a buzzword, especially when people find out that someone is plant-based or vegan. I feel like I talk a lot about protein with people.  Some because they get way too much and need to pull back and others, maybe because they don’t get enough.

In reality, protein requirements are different from one person to the next.  Yes, there is a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein. That amount is 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight.  Notice I said kilogram and not pounds.  This is where people go awry.

This RDA will change based on a variety of factors including age, disease, and goals.  Yes, protein is primarily based on weight, but the young and the old need a bit more protein than most.  If someone has cancer they need more than the average bear.  If someone has kidney disease, they need much less than most.  Just like everything else with nutrition, it’s not one size fits all.

If you have fitness goals, you can and should increase your protein intake.  For someone that is physically active, I will usually calculate their protein needs around 1.25 g/kg to 1.5 g/kg.  I’ve seen people go higher, but I won’t.  Why?  Because there’s little evidence to support that anything over 1.5 g/kg is beneficial. 

In fact, in this systemic review (a review of all studies available…the gold standard when it comes to science-y stuff) it was found there was zero benefit to anything over 1.62 g/kg.  

Do I really need a protein powder supplement?

So, if you’re working out, do you need a protein powder?  Well…that’s a good question.  Some practitioners will say yes and others will say no.  I am, and always will be a food first gal.  This is because when you eat a food containing protein, you aren’t just getting protein.  You’re getting a ton of other nutrients along with that protein.  

For instance, when I consume beans, I’m getting some protein but I’m also getting zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, and a boat load of heart & bowel healthy fiber.  If I consumed a protein supplement, I’m getting an isolated nutrient…protein.

I would absolutely strive to obtain as much protein through food first before considering adding a supplement in.  But if you begin to compromise your diet (i.e. exchanging veggies for meat), I would then probably have you add in a protein supplement.  

But in reality, I know that people are busy and if comes down to a protein smoothie or a stop at a drive thru, I’m going to push my clients towards a protein smoothie any day of the week.  Keep reading…I give my go-to green protein smoothie recipe later on.

Is whey as good as they say?

It was previously thought that the best, most bioavailable protein out there for muscle repair and recovery was hands-down whey.  Well, a lot of that is because there weren’t many other options besides whey.  I recall 20 years ago there was whey and casein…those were your options.  I also recall an article touting that chocolate milk was the best sport recovery drink because of the whey and the sugar in the chocolate.  But we know differently now.

In this systemic review, it looks like whey isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  In the 13 clinical trials conducted on whey protein and muscled recovery and growth, there were some pretty inconsistent findings.  The studies were divided…half found whey was a godsend and the other half found it wasn’t any better than other protein sources at muscle recovery.

Sorry to burst your whey bubble.  

Yes, whey protein is absorbed in the body pretty well.  However, absorption doesn’t cross over into growth, usability, etc.  Many people actually struggle with whey protein and don’t even know it.  Some symptoms are excess gas, bloat, acne, changes to skin texture especially on the face, and not seeing the gains you were hoping for.  Be open to other options, grasshopper.

Actually, soy is a pretty decent rival to whey when it comes to absorption rates.  Soy is just behind milk and not too far behind whey protein when it comes to absorption.  The upside to soy is you get plant isoflavones as well…you don’t get these in animal protein sources.  Soy intake has been linked to reduced cardiovascular disease, decreased LDL, and decreased risk of breast cancer.  I know…many say soy is bad.  Soy is actually pretty healthy…just make sure it’s organic 🙂 

Now…on to what you came here for.

My brand recommendations

I see a lot of protein powders today that are including super fun nutrients into the mix.  I applaud the manufacturer but I caution people from purchasing these.  Here’s why. Many are including something called prebiotics.  Yes, we absolutely need prebiotics because this is food for the beneficial bacteria. However, a lot (I mean A LOT) of my clients have gut issues.  When we have gut issues, we can be pretty sensitive to prebiotics until our gut is better situated.  

Another thing I see is a lot of preservatives.  If you’re looking for a new powder, I don’t care how good the person at the store says it is, flip that bad boy over and look at the ingredients.  Sometimes these are listed as “other ingredients.”  If you see something that you can’t readily identify, maybe pick up another brand.

Maltodextrin is an ingredient to look out for.  This is a highly-processed ingredient usually made from corn or wheat…substances that many people have digestive problems with.  It can also be made from potato starch.  So, all things that can cause a blood sugar spike.  It’s primarily used as a filler…to make you think you’re getting more bang for your buck.  

Xanthan gum falls into this category as well.  Let’s tack on guar gum for that matter.  People with digestive issues can have problems with either of these binders. However, it’s pret-ty darn difficult to find a protein powder without these in them.

Here are my go-to brands for clients.  Drumroll please… 

SunWarrior Brand…either Classic Plus or Warrior Blend

  • These both contain guar gum.
  • These both contain stevia but you can obtain the plain flavor, which won’t have stevia in it.

Vega Brand

  • These contain xanthan gum.
  • These contain stevia and getting plain is pretty difficult.

Naked Brand

  • These follow the brand in that they typically only contain one ingredient (egg, whey, pea, etc).
  • They have none of the fillers or prebiotics.
  • They have vegan options (pea and brown rice) as well as omnivore options (whey, casein, and egg).

Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein Plain (Go To Plant Protein)

  • No stevia – What?!?!  (I have no issue with stevia consumption, I just hate the taste!)
  • No gums!
  • Nice mix of plant proteins.

Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides

  • Pretty simple ingredients…collagen.
  • I like this for my omnivore clients that have gut health issues…it helps to restore the gut lining.
  • Not vegan 🙁 

I could seriously go on all day about the different brands.  But it really comes down to 2 for me…GoL Plain Protein or Vital Proteins. It depends on who my client is and what they consume that dictates my choice.  

You may notice that I didn’t list any soy protein powders.  I’m not anti-soy…I’m actually very pro-soy as there are tons of proven health benefits that come with consuming soy. But, it’s really hard to find a clean soy protein powder.  So, if you know of one, share it with me please!

Green Protein Smoothie

Ingredients:

8-10 oz of plant milk or water

2 large handfuls of raw spinach

1 scoop green superfoods

2 tbsp of ground flax OR 2 tbsp nut butter

½ banana

½ - 1 cup frozen mixed berries

1-2 scoops of protein powder (serving size depends on the brand)

Directions:

Add all to a blender. Blend and enjoy!

I promise, the banana masks a lot of the green taste.  Trust me!


What’s your go-to protein powder?  Leave a comment below!


References:

Chao Wu Xiao; Health Effects of Soy Protein and Isoflavones in Humans, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 138, Issue 6, 1 June 2008, Pages 1244S–1249S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/138.6.1244S

Davies, R. W., Carson, B. P., & Jakeman, P. M. (2018). The Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation on the Temporal Recovery of Muscle Function Following Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients10(2), 221. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020221

Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine3(3), 118–130. 

Montgomery, K. S. (2003). Soy Protein. The Journal of Perinatal Education12(3), 42–45. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595159/

Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., … Phillips, S. M. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine52(6), 376–384. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/6/376

Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS

I'm Sunny! I'm a board-certified clinical nutritionist with an MS in Clinical Nutrition. I help individuals reduce fatigue, eliminate bloat, and lose weight by healing the digestive tract and balancing hormones. I provide individual and group nutrition consultations nationwide. Join my closed Facebook group today! https://www.facebook.com/groups/140571826548289/

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