Monday, February 10, 2014

Protein Powder Basics

Recently in meeting with clients I've been asked a lot about protein powders and how to choose a good one. As a woman navigating the aisles of a health food store where some guy with huge muscles is trying to hit on you and up-sale you a billion things, I totally get the struggle. It's kind of like buying a car, better to do some research and know what you're looking at before you take the salesman's word for it. 

First of all, lets talk about why you might even want to consider including protein powders into your every day menu planning. Gym rats looooove their protein powders if you haven't noticed. Why is that? Well, protein is important when it comes to muscle recovery after a workout. Not only that, it helps maintain and promote healthy weight, build your immune system, and even plays a role in hormone production. Click here to read a previous post with all the basics on protein. 

Here's an important key to protein powders: They should be enhancing your protein experience, not taking away from it. What I mean by that is that the bulk of your daily protein intake should come from whole food sources (lean meats, dairy products, nuts, beans, etc). Protein powder should be a supplement to your intake. It's a good on-the-go way to add a little more protein without adding extra fat or carbs. 

If you go to the store, you'll find a million different powders and kinds of powders and then even more complex versions of each powder. It honestly gets really confusing. So what do you really need to know to make a good decision?  First rule of thumb, not all powders are created equal. There's a couple of different ways these powders are divided…. 

Animal Source vs. Vegetable Source: Hopefully the difference between these two is glaringly obvious. One comes from animals, the other from plants. Animal sources include milk proteins like whey and casein or egg white protein. Veggie sources include things like soy, rice, pea and even hemp.

Concentrate vs. Isolate: Concentrated means the non-protein parts have been removed. That means you'll get a powder that's 70-85% pure protein. Isolation removes even more of the non-protein parts, leaving you with a powder that is up to 95% pure. In both cases the rest of the protein is comprised of carbs and fat. What would make you choose one over the other? Well, for one… price. Isolates are a little more expensive because they require more processing. However, they do have more protein per serving. It just depends on what your goals are. My recommendation? For the average gym goer a concentrate will work just fine. 

Complete vs. Incomplete: If you read the post in the link earlier in this post you know the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. The really short version is that complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids and incomplete proteins do not. 

So now that we know the basic categories lets dive into some of the more popular types. Also, now is a good time to mention that you'll also see a couple different types of flavors or sweeteners used within each category. They range from no flavors or sweeteners, artificial flavors and sweeteners, natural flavors and sweeteners, or a combo of the last two. 

Whey Protein
Whey is the watery part of milk that remains in the cheese making process. You'll have no problem finding this type of protein at any store. It's quickly absorbed by the body which makes it great for post-workout recovery. It's fairly inexpensive and it's a complete protein. The downside is that you'll find lactose in it… which can mean lots of gas for some of you lactose intolerant readers. The other downside is that some of the really yummy flavors it comes in also means artificial sweeteners and chemicals. 

Casein Protein
Casein is the main protein present in milk. It's benefits are similar to whey protein... except that you digest it slower. That being said, it's not ideal for a post-workout supplement. A couple of downsides is that it's more expensive than whey powders and can have a lot of artificial ingredients to make it taste better. 

Egg Protein
Egg protein comes from wet noodles. Just kidding… making sure you're still paying attention. Egg protein comes from eggs, specifically the egg whites. It's a complete protein that's rich in vitamins and minerals. However, this protein is one of the most expensive ones on the market. Also, if you're allergic to eggs, this isn't the supplement for you. 

Soy Protein
Protein from soy beans may help with your immune system and even bone health. It's also one of the few plant based proteins that is considered complete. It's a great choice if you're on a more plant based diet. The downside is that a lot of soy is genetically modified… this may or may not bother you. I'll leave it up to you to decide. 

Rice Protein
Not only does rice protein powder have protein, but it also includes a good source of complex carbs, B vitamins and even fiber. Downside is that it's not a complete protein… but if you're looking for a good hypoallergenic option, this could be the powder for you. 

Pea Protein
Pea protein has become a rising star in the protein world. It's hypoallergenic, vegan friendly and has few additives or artificial ingredients. It's a great choice for those looking for a protein powder closest to the whole food source. The downside is that it's not a complete protein. 

Hemp Protein
This superfood has a great mix of essential fatty acids (aka aids in brain function) and a great fiber content. It's also a complete protein, hypoallergenic, and vegan friendly. Sounds great, right? There is a downside (womp, womp) it's often the most expensive protein powder you can buy. 

As you can see, the protein powder world is pretty vast. Hopefully now you feel a little better equipped to navigate those aisles… you may even teach those health store workers a thing or two. Another thing to keep in mind is you get what you pay for. Low cost proteins usually mean artificial ingredients and inexpensive blends. If you suffer from bloat or a tummy ache after drinking your protein powder, it may not be the type of protein… it could be that your tummy has more expensive taste and that cheap protein blend isn't cutting it.   

Have more questions about protein and powders? E-mail me, I'm happy to help you out!

Thanks for reading!



  1. This was really helpful! Im always so overwhemed that i end up leaving the store empty handed!

  2. Glad it was helpful!! I used to do the same thing haha. The supplement world can be so scary without some kind of guide.