Breaking down protein powders

person holding barbell
Photo by Victor Freitas on

Getting back into the world of fitness has had me constantly researching fitness supplements, bars, pre and post workout eats, etc. One topic I constantly come back to is protein powders. Are they really necessary? What are the pros and cons of each type of protein powder? Is one better than another? I’m gonna answer those questions here. This is likely going to be the first post in a series of fitness nutrition posts. I plan on also tackling other supplements like creatine and BCAA’s as well as best foods to eat pre and post workout so stay tuned for those posts coming in the near future. Today’s post is going to be a bit lengthy so grab yourself a cup of coffee, maybe a snack, and get comfortable 😉

So first off, are they really necessary? That all depends on your personal goals. For the average person, no, protein powders are not necessary. Most people get plenty of protein  already and do not really need to supplement. However, if you’re an athlete (meaning physically active, an endurance athlete, or a strength athlete) then protein supplementation may be a good idea if you find you’re having a hard time getting enough protein in your diet. For me personally, I have an extremely hard time getting in the nutrients I need because I have a super tiny appetite (seriously, I eat like a bird) so protein powders are a must to prevent muscle wasting. Especially since my goals are to build muscle and strength.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying protein powders should REPLACE whole foods, rather, they should just “supplement” the diet. Depending on your needs, it may be optimal to have a protein shake post workout and before bed. To really determine what you need, I would recommend doing a diet diary for 3-5 days so you can visually see how much you’re eating.

So for those looking to supplement, where do you start? First off, hydration! The more protein you consume, the more water you need. Not sure how much water to drink? Look at your urine. If it’s clear, that means you’re actually drinking too much water (yes, there is such a thing). Your body requires a healthy balance of fluids so we don’t want to water log it. If your urine is light yellow, then you’re in the clear (aka hydrated). If your urine is bright-ish yellow, drink more water! Keep in mind if you take supplements, b vitamins can also turn your urine neon yellow so for those wanting a more specific guideline, here you go: for every 100g of protein you eat, drink half a gallon of water.

So when is it best to consume a protein shake? NOT during a workout! When you workout, your blood is focused on going to your muscles, not your stomach and GI tract. And we want to keep it that way. We want those muscles to be the sole receiver of that blood supply. So it’s best to take your protein 1 1/2 – 2 hrs prior to working out to give your body enough time to digest or directly after training (30min – 2hrs after). If you prefer to just eat a carb/protein snack prior to working out, that is totally fine, too. If you have the means to, I would also recommend a shake right before bedtime to ensure your muscles have a steady supply of nutrition while you sleep which will help with recovery (I’ll get into specifics later in this post). I recommend getting at least 20-30g protein at breakfast, as well. This will help jump start your body from metabolism (tissue breakdown) and into an anabolic (tissue building) state. In addition, research has shown that those who include at least 25-30g protein at breakfast have fewer unhealthy food cravings throughout the day, consume ~400 fewer calories, have lower fat mass, and consume 200 calories less in late night snacking compared to those that don’t consume high protein breakfasts. Again, you don’t necessarily have to do a protein shake if you don’t want to. You can eat, you know, real food. Once you determine your goals for yourself, you can see how protein shakes will fit in. However, if you don’t know where to start, I do recommend a protein shake immediately after working out and right before bedtime for maximum recovery.

So what’s the difference between all those protein powders out there? So when you look at the ingredients list on protein powders you may see a bunch of randomness like whey, casein, isolate, etc. What are they really? So, first off we have

  • milk protein: This is dairy based and made up of two components; whey and casein
    • Whey makes up 20% of the protein in milk (casein is the other major component in milk protein). Whey can further be divided into concentrate and isolate. Concentrate is, well, a concentrated form of whey protein (70-85% pure protein) whereas isolate is actually 90% pure protein. Isolate also contains less fat and lactose and is absorbed more quickly than concentrate. So to break it down:
      • Pros of whey protein:
        • great source of BCAA’s (great for muscle growth)
        • absorbed quickly making it ideal post workout
        • prevents muscle breakdown
      • Cons of whey protein:
        • contains lactose which is a common allergen
        • often contain artificial sweeteners
    • Casein: As mentioned above, this is the major protein component in milk protein. Digested extremely slowly so it’s best before bedtime.
      • Pros:
        • Adds a thick consistency to shakes (if you’ve had quest nutrition protein you’ll know what I’m talking about)
        • Best used right before bedtime
        • Can be mixed with other protein powders throughout the day to provide time release muscle nourishment
      • Cons:
        • Not ideal as a post workout shake
        • Often more expensive than whey based proteins
        • Often contain artificial ingredients
  • Milk protein isolate: Contains a mix of whey (20%) and casein (80%) so it contains both slow and fast digesting protein, making it ideal as a meal replacement (think breakfast, possibly). It also often has a smooth creamy taste and is generally pretty versatile. Best taken throughout the day, not at night.
  • Soy protein: So for those that follow more plant based diets, soy may be a good protein to look into. Don’t believe all the rumors you hear/read about soy. Many of those have been debunked by qualified healthcare professionals. Soy is a great source of isoflavones which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can potentially reduce cancer growth.
    • Pros:
      • Complete protein
      • Contain isoflavones
      • High in BCAA’s
      • Alternative for vegetarians and those with milk allergens
    • Cons:
      • Not recommended for those that already consume multiple soy products throughout the day – limit soy intake to 3-4 servings/day (1 serving = 1 cup soymilk, 1/2 cup cooked soybeans like tofu, tempeh, soy meats), and 1/3 cup or 1 oz soy nuts)
  • Egg white protein: This form of protein actually has more BCAA’s than any other protein and is also a complete protein. It’s also easily absorbed, mixes well with other foods, and can be taken anytime. I personally recommend eating the entire egg, not just the egg whites, so you get the full spectrum of nutrients that eggs have to offer. Especially since research has determined that dietary cholesterol (like that found in eggs) doesn’t actually negatively impact cholesterol levels. So I say eat the whole damn egg. Especially since egg white protein can be more expensive.
  • Rice protein: Rice protein has a lot of good qualities;
    • Pros:
      • rich source of complex carbs, b vitamins, and fiber
      • hypoallergenic
      • easily digestible
    • Cons:
      • not a complete protein. Even though research has shown that you don’t need to eat complementary proteins at the same meal, it’s still best to mix it up with your protein. So make sure this isn’t your main source of dietary protein.
  • Pea protein: So lately pea protein has been everywhere and I can see why it’s so popular.
    • Pros:
      • hypoallergenic
      • plant based
      • typically has few additives and artificial ingredients.
    • Cons:
      • Incomplete protein so make sure to combine with grains or even rice protein to make it complete
      • Flavor takes some adjusting to
  • Hemp protein: This protein is actually derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant. It’s also vegan friendly, a complete protein, hypoallergenic, and it contains those heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids!

So if you made it all the way through that post, I applaud you. This was a post I originally wanted to do a few years ago but I kept avoiding it because I knew it was going to be information packed. As a Registered Dietitian, I also not only wanted to discuss protein powders but also throw in some bits of info/research that I’ve come across that may not be common knowledge to help assist you guys in your health and fitness goals.

So a few key points to summarize:

  • If you’re an athlete looking to build muscle, protein powder supplementation may be for you (track your input and physical activity first to determine your needs or talk to a Registered Dietitian that has access to your medical records so they can better help you with your goals)
  • Once you determine your needs, decide when it might be best for you to supplement! I find post workout and before bedtime are best for maximum recovery
  • Aim for 25-30g protein at breakfast time (doesn’t have to be in the form of a protein shake)
  • Not all protein powders are the same!
    • Isolates are absorbed pretty quickly making them ideal post workout
    • Casein is absorbed very slowly making it an ideal night time option
    • Milk protein isolate contains both casein and whey so it can be used during the day (not ideal at night)
    • Soy and hemp are plant based complete protein options
    • Rice and pea protein are plant based incomplete protein options so be sure to mix it up to ensure you’re getting complete proteins throughout the day

Looking for more reading material on protein? Here are a few other posts I’ve done featuring protein reviews and recipes:


One thought on “Breaking down protein powders

Share your thoughts :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s