Whether you’re a hard-core triathlete or the average gym-goer, it’s crucial to include plenty of protein throughout the day to build strong muscles and stay full. But when scrambled eggs and chicken breasts get a little boring, protein in powdered form can come in handy.
“While whole-food protein provides nutrients that isolated powdered proteins do not, powder supplements can be a simple and convenient way to get ample protein in your diet,” says Heidi Skolnik, a New Jersey-based sports nutritionist. “Try adding a scoop to your oatmeal or making a smoothie with 100%-percent orange juice for a full day’s supply of vitamin C, tons of potassium, and B vitamins for a post-workout snack.”
When it comes to buying the right type, it's easy to be confused by the tons of different powders on store shelves. Use this handy breakdown to determine which is best for your personal needs and dietary preferences.
1. Whey: Whey is a complete protein made from milk that’s easily digestible (unless you have a lactose or dairy allergy, in which case you should steer clear). “Whey can limit muscle breakdown and help with muscle repair and rebuilding, especially when consumed within 60 minutes of your sweat session when enzyme and protein synthesis is most active,” Slonik says. “Look for whey protein isolate—not concentrate—as it contains the highest protein concentration (90 to 95 percent) and very little fat.”
2. Casein: Another milk protein, casein is absorbed by the body much more slowly than whey, says Heather Mangieri, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This means it's a good choice for meal replacements, which helps you stay fuller longer, or to take right before bed when it will supply the body with protein throughout the night when you enter a catabolic state.” One downside is that casein is less water-soluble than whey, so it doesn’t mix quite as well with liquids. Look for the ingredient “calcium caseinate” on the label to ensure you’re getting the purest form of the protein.
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3. Soy: As a complete plant-based protein, soy is a great option for vegans or anyone who’s lactose intolerant. However, Skolnik wouldn’t recommend soy as the sole way to get your protein since it is highly processed and some studies have linked soy consumption in women with a history of estrogen positive cancer to an increased risk of breast cancer. If you do choose soy, consume it in moderation, and be sure look for labels that read soy protein isolate, which contains more protein, isoflavones, and less cholesterol and fat compared to soy protein concentrate.
4. Brown Rice: While rice is mostly composed of carbohydrate, it contains a small of protein, which is extracted to create brown rice protein. “However, since it's plant-based, it's not a complete protein, so pair it with other plant-based proteins like hemp or pea powder to complete the essential amino acid profile,” says Brendan Brazier, formulator of Vega and author of Thrive. Brown rice protein is hypo-allergic and easily digested, making it an excellent alternative for anyone with a sensitive stomach or allergies to soy or dairy.
5. Pea: This plant-based protein is highly digestible and has a fluffy texture. “Plus pea protein is high in glutamic acid, which helps convert carbs into energy so they won’t be stored as fat,” Brazier says. Again, since pea protein is plant-based, it isn’t a complete protein so it needs to be paired with other vegan sources of protein, like brown rice or hemp.
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6. Hemp: A near-complete plant-based protein, hemp offers the inflammation-fighting power of omega-6 essential fatty acids and is high in fiber, it’s a great choice for those following a vegan diet. Some studies have also suggested hemp protein may be more helpful in weight loss, thanks to its high fiber content, than other protein powders, says Mangieri.
The bottom line? “Dairy-based proteins like whey and casein are great choices for their muscle-building benefits as well as their bioavailable zinc and iron, if you’re not a vegan or suffer from dairy allergies,” Skolnik says. However, there’s a strong case to be made for integrating plant-based proteins into your diet as well, even if you’re not vegan or allergic. “These proteins are easily digestible and have been proven to fight inflammation and reduce muscle soreness more effectively than dairy-based proteins, which makes them a good choice for any athlete or active person,” says Brazier.
Since one plant-based powder alone won’t offer a complete protein, look for a product that combines several to create a full amino acid profile, such as PlantFusion or Brazier’s Vega One line, which provides complete proteins, omega-3s, probiotics, greens, antioxidants, and more in each serving.
What's your protein powder of choice? Tell us in the comments below or on Twitter @Shape_Magazine.