Protein, protein, protein. It seems like that’s all we hear about these days in the health & fitness world. Most people take protein supplements to help them get “jacked”, but do you know all the other important roles that protein plays in your body? Proteins are part of every cell and tissue in our bodies, including muscle. Not only does protein help maintain muscle mass, but it also aids in wound healing, immune function, hair and nail growth, and more. It even keeps us feeling full and satisfied longer than many other foods. We don’t store protein in our bodies like we do carbohydrates and fat, so it’s important to consume an adequate amount of the essential amino acids through our diets. Of course this can be done solely through the foods you eat (meats, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts & seeds, grains, etc.), but protein supplements are another good option.
During my clinical rotation I had the opportunity to work with a Bariatric Surgery Dietitian, and I learned how important it is for bariatric patients to consume plenty of protein. This is because a) our bodies don’t store it, b) it keeps you full longer, resulting in decreased energy intake, and c) reconstructive surgery can often cause nutrient deficiencies without adequate intake and proper supplementation.
So today I’ll tell you what I have learned about the different types of protein powder throughout my experiences; which ones are the best, which are not as highly recommended, and WHY. I will also tell you when is the best time to consume protein in order to reap all the benefits.
First and foremost, what’s better – whey protein or soy protein? The answer is… BOTH! Whey is simply the protein that comes from cow’s milk, while soy is the protein from the soybean plant. They are both great sources of protein, but soy is the way to go for vegans! Whey is relatively inexpensive and one of the fastest digested types of protein.
Now there are different “grades” of these types of protein.
- Protein Concentrates or Blends: these usually contain some fat and cholesterol, and have a higher carbohydrate content in the form of lactose. While this isn’t a problem for most people, they may cause an upset stomach for others. These protein concentrates/blends are only around 29-75% protein by weight. (Huge range!)
- Protein Isolates: isolates have been processed to remove that extra fat and lactose, so they contain a much higher amount of protein. They are approximately 90% or more protein by weight!!!
Protein isolates (soy OR whey) are most highly recommended because they are the most easily absorbed form of protein, they are lactose & fat free, and they are low carb. They also help stabilize blood sugars and prevent the breakdown of lean muscle during weight loss. However, I will mention that I have had a hard time finding pure protein isolates in the stores and I have heard that they don’t taste quite as good since the fat & carb content is so low. BUT I can’t knock them ‘til I try them! So they are definitely worth a shot since they are the best form after all.
- Protein Hydrolysates: hydrolysates have been predigested and partially hydrolyzed which makes them easier to metabolize. Beware: they are usually a little pricier ($$). Hydrolyzed whey may also be less allergenic than other forms, so if you have tummy issues with blends or isolates, this might be the way to go.
As always, READ LABELS to see if your protein powder passes the test.
- If you’re interested in getting protein isolates (since they are the cleanest, most easily absorbed source of protein available), then the first ingredient should read: “Whey Protein Isolate” or “Soy Protein Isolate”. Whey protein isolate is the best source of the essential amino acids that your body needs for optimal health!
- You are (most likely) buying a protein supplement because you want high quality protein; therefore, it should be low in sugar. Check the labels for a protein powder with less than 6 grams of carbs per serving.
- Your body can only absorb around 30 grams of protein at a time; with that being said, it’s not really necessary to look for a protein powder with 50-60 grams of protein per serving, because anything over 30 g isn’t absorbed anyway! Keep that in mind as well when you are browsing nutrition labels.
Remember this fact when you are eating on a daily basis. Since we can only store so much at once, it’s important to spread out your intake throughout the day. Try to get a good source of protein at every meal and snack so you meet your requirements – especially include protein at breakfast!
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, protein isolates are the best form of protein you can get. However, it is a personal choice of course. I personally have always gotten whey protein powders that were “blends”, which contained protein isolates, as well as protein concentrates. They have all contained less than 6 g of carbs and around 20-30 g of protein per serving, AND they’ve been delicious. I also feel that these forms have been sufficient for my needs and fitness “goals” if you will.
Some of the protein powders that I’ve had in the past and really enjoyed include:
Pure Protein Plus – French Vanilla Flavor
Protein Blend with Whey
130 calories per scoop
23 g protein
5 g carbohydrate (3 g fiber, 1 g sugar)
3 g fat
Smart Smoothie – Crème Brulee Flavor
Protein Blend with Whey
110 calories per scoop
20 g protein
2 g carbohydrate (2 g sugar)
2 g fat
EAS 100% Whey Protein Max – Vanilla
Nutrient Breakdown (for 2 scoops):
Whey Protein Concentrate
30 g protein
2 g sugar
3 g fat
I like to get vanilla because I never just mix the protein powder with water or milk; I always make it a protein smoothie with mixed fruit or peanut butter/banana & Greek yogurt (for even more protein!), etc. If you like to mix the powder alone with liquid, then you could get more adventurous with flavors like cookies & cream, cake batter, s’mores, peanut butter cup – the possibilities are endless!
Like I said, all of the protein powders I buy are usually blends or concentrates, but isolates are the best form of protein. Some of the brands of protein isolates that are worth checking out include:
- Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey
- Optimum Nutrition Performance Whey Isolate
- EnergyFirst ProEnergy Natural Whey (online only)
- Twin Labs Clean Series Whey / Soy
- Jab Robb’s Protein Powder
- About Time 100% Whey Protein Isolate
- Syntrax Nectar Whey Protein Isolate
- PRO/GRADE Protein Powder (online only)
- GNC 100% Soy Isolate
This is not an all-inclusive list. There are SO many to choose from! You can purchase protein powder at a ton of different places; Vitamin Shoppe, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, GNC, Complete Nutrition, BodyBuilding.com, even Amazon and Walmart! Now you know what to look for in a protein powder, but don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need some extra guidance. Just don’t be misled by the muscular dudes in GNC that are just trying to get a good sale off of you – tell them what you want! Many places also offer free samples of products if you want to try something out before you commit to a 3 lb container of it!
Lastly, I want to mention when is the best time to consume protein in order to get the most benefits. Muscle mass increases over time when you combine resistance training + nutrient intake. Research has shown that protein turnover is highest after resistance training and can stay elevated for up to 2 days in individuals who are starting a new weight lifting program. You must provide adequate energy (including protein) so there are amino acids available to help repair and build new muscle. There is evidence that both pre- AND post-exercise protein supplementation can be beneficial. Consuming protein before exercise helps improve body composition by increasing the amount of calories your body burns at rest for up to 48 hours after you exercise. It other words, it increases lean muscle mass and reduces fat mass AT THE SAME TIME. However, the most significant benefits of pre-exercise protein are improved recovery and hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Consuming protein after you workout has an even larger impact on skeletal muscle growth. Protein supplementation post-exercise has been found to stimulate muscle protein synthesis for up to 3 hours. However, if you don’t eat after exercise, this may actually limit progress in lean muscle development. The hour after you exercise is known as the “anabolic window”; this is the window of opportunity where protein consumption may have the greatest influence on resistance training gains. I always try to eat a good source of protein after my workouts for this reason, whether that may be a protein shake, lean meat, or low-fat dairy. (Source: American College of Sports Medicine)
It is recommended for the average individual to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. People who exercise regularly AND individuals over 50 years of age need more than this in order to maintain and/or build lean muscle mass. I want to reiterate that protein is not only important for athletes; it’s important and essential for everyone! The amount you need just varies depending on your activity level, age, weight, etc. If you have questions about your specific protein needs, let me know and I’d be happy to figure this out for you.
If you were lost when it came to protein before, hopefully this cleared up some confusion for you. If you have any other questions, please ask and I’d be happy to answer to the best of my knowledge, or do some extra research to find out! 🙂
Now I will share one of my smoothie recipes that I make alllllll the time, because I believe that is fitting for today, no?
Tropical Fruit Protein Smoothie
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- ½ cup mixed tropical fruit (mango, peach, pineapple)
- 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
- 1 scoop vanilla whey protein powder
- 1/3 cup vanilla greek yogurt
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseed (for added fiber + omega 3s)
Toss it all into the blender and blend until smooth and creamy! If it’s too thick, add more liquid (slowly). If it’s too thin, add more ice! ENJOY! 🙂
PS: If you don’t already, follow my new Facebook page Wellness For The Win and follow me on Instagram @wellnessforthewin! I post yummy food pics every day so you can get even more meal & snack ideas – see sidebar on my homepage for a sneak peek!
Enjoy your LONG holiday weekend everyone! : ) : )
eat well. live well. be happy.
Shanna, RD, LD