Which type of protein powder to use and when to take them ?
Protein powders are a quick way to help ensure that your body is nourished and satisfied. People use them for a variety of reasons — to lose weight, to improve sports performance, build muscle mass and for overall wellness.
But look around and the protein powder options are endless. So how do you know what type is best for your personal health goals?
It’s important to know the difference between available protein powders as well as how they stack up against whole food protein sources.
Whole foods vs. protein powder
You can meet your body’s daily protein requirements whether you drink shakes or eat only whole foods. However, they don’t offer equal nutrition. What you may find surprising is that shakes generally contain fewer nutrients than whole foods. For that reason, shakes may help you lose weight, but whole foods can offer a bigger nutritional punch.
Plant-based vs. animal protein
Animal protein options can be divided into two categories: milk-based and other animal protein sources.
Milk-based protein powders
The most popular and well-studied protein powders are made from milk. They’re all complete sources of protein.
- Whey is usually recommended for post-workout shakes because it’s an incredibly high-quality protein that’s fast-digesting and rich in BCAAs. You’ll commonly see whey protein in concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysed formulas. (More on what those mean in a moment—or you can jump right to our section on protein processing.)
- Casein is often touted as the best type of protein powder to have before bed, since it digests more slowly. You’ll find it mostly in two forms: micellar casein (an isolate) and hydrolysed casein. Since hydrolysed casein is more processed and theoretically digests faster, it sort of defeats the purpose of opting for a slow-digesting protein.
- Milk protein blends usually include both whey and casein and are marketed as the “best of both worlds.” The reason: They provide both fast- and slow-digesting protein.
Usually, you’ll see them on the label as milk protein concentrate or milk protein isolate. You might also see them listed separately, for instance: whey protein isolate and micellar casein.
Some brands also sell mixtures of concentrate and isolate of the same type of protein. For example, you might see both whey concentrate and whey isolate in the ingredients list.
While this may be marketed as an advantage, it’s largely a cost-saving measure by the manufacturer. (Whey isolate is more expensive to produce than concentrate.) There’s no data to support the claim that this formulation provides a benefit.
If you’re choosing between whey and casein: Select whichever one you prefer, or go for a blend.
Both are well-studied, meaning they’re reliable choices. Again, it’s your total protein intake across the day that matters most. For most people, the differences in the rates of digestion or absorption aren’t likely to be an important factor.
Of course, if you’re allergic to dairy, these won’t be good options for you. If you’re sensitive to or intolerant of certain dairy products, you may find that you can tolerate whey but not casein, or vice versa.
Other animal protein powders
For those who can’t or prefer not to use dairy products, there are several other types of animal-derived protein powder.
- Egg white protein is often a good option for those who prefer an ovo-vegetarian (milk-free) source of complete protein.
- Collagen is very popular right now as a skin, joint, bone, and gut health supplement. Collagen peptides, the most common form of collagen in supplements, are usually derived from bovine hide or fish. Some people also use it to boost their protein intake, and there are a few collagen powders marketed specifically as protein supplements.
- This is somewhat ironic because until the early 2010s, collagen was considered a “junk” protein. This is partially because collagen is not a source of complete protein. It also hasn’t been well-studied as a protein supplement.
- Collagen may have some benefits. In particular, type II collagen may support joint health when taken with vitamin C. But as a protein source, it’s not ideal. Quality varies, and there are some concerns about heavy metal contamination. So it’s especially important to look for third-party tested options.
Meat-based powders are often derived from beef, but they usually have an amino acid profile similar to collagen. That means they’re generally incomplete, lower-quality proteins. On the other hand, some research has shown that beef protein isolate is just as effective as whey protein powders for increasing lean body mass. However, more research is needed.
Bone broth protein is made by cooking bones, tendons, and ligaments under high pressure to create a broth. Then, it’s concentrated into a powder. Much of the protein in bone broth is from collagen. So, similar to collagen peptides, it’s not a complete source of protein.
Bone broth powder may be helpful for increasing your protein intake if you can’t have common allergens like dairy and soy, but it’s not ideal for use as a protein powder. This is especially true because bone broth protein tends to be expensive, and it hasn’t been well-studied for use as a protein supplement.
Plant-based protein powders
Not all plant-based proteins are complete proteins. We’re going to share which ones are complete and incomplete for your information, but just a friendly reminder: As long as you eat a varied diet with a mix of different protein sources, you’ll get all the amino acids you need.
Soy protein is effective for promoting muscle growth, and it’s also a complete protein. In fact, research shows soy protein supplementation produces similar gains in both strength and lean body mass as whey protein in response to resistance training.
It’s also been the subject of much controversy, particularly when it comes to hormonal health. But the body of research shows that soy foods and isoflavone (bioactive compounds found in soy) supplements have no effect on testosterone in men.
Evidence also shows that soy doesn’t increase risk of breast cancer in women. And while more research is needed in this area, it also seems that soy doesn’t have a harmful effect on thyroid health, either.
Soy is a fairly common allergen, so that may also factor into your decision.
Pea protein is highly digestible, hypo-allergenic, and usually inexpensive. It’s rich in amino acids lysine, arginine, and glutamine. Although as we mentioned earlier, it’s low in EAA methionine, so it’s not a complete protein.
Rice protein is also a good hypo-allergenic protein choice, and tends to be relatively inexpensive. It’s low in amino acid lysine, so it’s not a complete protein source.
Hemp protein powder is made by grinding up hemp seeds, making it a great whole-food choice. Because of this, it’s high in fibre and a source of omega-3 fats. But like rice protein, hemp is low in lysine, so it’s an incomplete protein.
Blends are common among plant-based protein powders. Often, they’re used to create a more robust amino acid profile, since different protein sources contain various levels of each amino acid. For example, rice and pea protein are frequently combined. Matching a powder to your needs
Here are some general guidelines, based on the outcomes you’re looking for:
- Build muscle — For muscle growth, choose a protein powder with a high biological value (a value that measures how well the body can absorb and utilize a protein). Whey protein and whey isolates are your best options.
- Lose weight — For weight loss, choose shakes with no added sugars or dextrins/maltodextrins (sweeteners made from starch). Don’t choose those with added branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), as they help promote muscle growth and weight gain.
- Stay vegetarian or vegan — If you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t choose milk-based protein shakes (like whey, milk proteins); instead use 100% plant proteins-soy, pea, hemp.
- Go low-sugar with diabetes — Patients who have diabetes should choose protein shakes without added sugar (don’t choose protein powders with sugar listed as one of the first three ingredients). It’s also best to look for a shake that’s low in carbohydrates ( 5-15 grams per serving).
- Limit protein for kidney disease — People with kidney disease can’t tolerate a lot of protein at one time. Stick with powders that have a lower-range protein content (10 to 15 grams per serving).
- Avoid gastrointestinal problems — Patients with irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance should choose powders that don’t contain lactose sugars, artificial sweeteners or dextrins/maltodextrins. If you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity, don’t choose powders that contain gluten.
- Stick to your budget — To save money, buy tubs of protein powder instead of ready-to-drink protein shakes, which are more expensive because they’re convenient.
Get the most from your protein powder
Here are a few things to consider:
- To recover after exercise, an athlete or avid exerciser should consume protein within 60 minutes of a workout. That’s when your muscles are most responsive to the use of protein for the repair and growth process.
- To control your weight, it’s best to consume a steady supply of protein at each meal and snack to help keep you full.
Although there’s no magic number for how much protein to consume at one time, it’s best to aim for at least 3 ounces or 20 grams of protein per meal.
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