The Ins and Outs of Protein Powders
Are you interested in adding more protein to your diet? Then supplementing with a protein powder may be a beneficial way to do so. If you have ever browsed the protein powder section of your local health food store you may have felt overwhelmed by the number of products on the market. You may be wondering which works the best, which ones taste good or if they are even healthy to use or just a lot of hype. There are many upsides to using protein powders and a few caveats that I think are important to understand. Let’s take a closer look at protein powders to get a better understanding of what they are, what they do (and don’t do) and if they are right for you.
What Are They?
Protein powders can be a bit of mystery to the new user, but in short, they are isolated protein, taken from real food and compounded into a powder form. All food we eat comes in three categories, protein (animal meats, eggs, beans, etc), fats (cooking oil, avocado, nuts, etc.) and carbohydrates (all fruit, veggies, grains). Protein powders evolve from real foods, some animal based and some plant based, and their protein components are isolated from the rest of the macronutrients (many foods contain a combination of macros) to create pure protein powders.
What Do They Do?
Protein powders can be used for several purposes but some of the primary reasons that people use them is to add more protein into their diet. Why would you want to consume more protein? For many reasons including:
To provide a quick, nutrient dense meal
To increase muscle mass
To increase weight and or maintain muscle mass
To raise protein levels for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet
To have an easy to digest form of food for those with digestive disease, chronic illness and swallowing issues
To add non-animal sources of protein to the diet
To help speed healing after surgery or serious burns
To help sustain energy and focus and curb cravings for carbohydrates
To prevent nutrient deficiencies
All of the macronutrients are critical for optimal health. Many people consume a healthy amount of protein, although not all consume healthy forms of protein. Those with specific health issues, those with specialized diets or those troubleshooting things like weight loss or building muscle will often benefit from increasing their overall protein intake.
Protein provides a long term, stable energy source for the body. It is critical to help run the liver’s detoxification pathways, provides a base for neurotransmitter formation and provides the nutrients necessary to heal inflammation and injury within the body. If your not getting enough protein to meet your health or energy needs then adding in a protein powder into your diet may be beneficial for you.
Which One Is Right For Me?
There are a ton of protein powders on the market today. You can find single protein powders or complex superfood blends. The one that is right for you usually comes down to a combination of health goals and personal taste preference.
Here’s a brief overview of the different types of protein powders and an explanation of their health benefits.
This is one of the most popular types of protein on the market. It can be found in powder form or also found in premixed smoothie beverages. Why is one of the highest in protein of all the protein isolates on the market. It is a rich source of glutathione, one of the strongest and most important antioxidants in the body. It is also a natural source of immunoglobulins and lactoferrin, immune enhancing nutrients that are also naturally found in human breast milk.
Whey is sourced from dairy. The isolated protein should not contain any lactose and should be fine for those with lactose intolerance, although those with true dairy protein allergy should avoid whey. There is a huge range of quality in whey products. The best products come from either organic sources or grass fed, antibiotic and hormone free cows. I would avoid purchasing whey from big box or chain stores, as quality can be extremely questionable.
Rice protein is isolated from rice, usually brown rice and it is easy to find organic sources. It has a moderate amount of protein per serving and is a vegetarian protein source. Rice protein blends easily, has a neutral taste and is a good choice for those who are new to smoothie making.
Rice protein will usually take on the taste of what it is mixed with (fruits, veggies, nut milk). Some find the powder to be a bit gritty in a smoothie, although I don’t, which might be a slight taste deterrent for some.
Yes, there is a protein in peas! Pea protein is an excellent vegetarian source of protein, contains moderate amounts of protein. Like brown rice, it is easy to find quality sources including organic, my preference.
Pea blends easily into a smoothie and tends to make a creamier, richer tasting smoothie than rice. This texture tends to make it a more popular protein source to those new to protein smoothies. Because it has a richer flavor, it makes a nice addition to certain foods. You can try adding it to oatmeal, pancakes and soups to add more protein into your diet.
Collagen is an extremely popular protein right now and for good reason. Collagen is a nutrient that greatly lacking in the Standard American Diet. Most carnivores in the US consume animal meats only, as opposed to other cultures and countries who consume the whole animal, nose to tail. Collagen is a vital nutrient found in human and animal skin, hair and nails. It is also a critical component of bones, creating the “glue” that holds the minerals together to create bone.
Collagen contains moderate to lower amounts amounts of animal sourced protein. Although it might not contain as much protein as whey, rice or pea, its rich collagen content provides beneficial nutrients for improved hair, skin, nails and bone.
In small amounts the flavor is neutral, but larger doses can have a detectable presence. But not to worry, many of the collagen powders on the market come in a variety of flavors to choose from. Collagen can be added to a smoothie, and due to its neutral taste can also be added into soups and soft foods to boost protein levels. Collagen makes a great protein powder for those wanting to avoid grains and dairy, or those with food intolerances and sensitivities.
It makes a great addition to the infamous Bullet Coffee, which is trendy drink containing coffee and large amount of fat in the form of butter, coconut oil and/or MCT oil. Adding collagen to your Bullet coffee provides a stable source of clean, non-jittery energy, keeping you satiated for hours. It’s like a meal in a mug!
Hemp protein is isolated from hemp seeds, and has an earthy, herbaceous flavor. This may be a good flavor profile for some, but if you're new to protein powders, you may want to stick with the more neutral flavors of whey, rice or pea varieties. Hemp protein contains moderate to lower amounts of vegetarian sourced protein.
An interesting bonus to hemp protein is that it contains small amounts of omega 3 essential fatty acids. Omega 3’s are challenging to find naturally in the diet and optimal amounts help to reduce inflammation and can be beneficial to brain health and the cardiovascular system. Hemp also makes an excellent protein source for those who want to avoid dairy and grain based proteins and for those with food sensitivities and allergies.
This is one of the fastest growing markets for protein powders. These blends can have just about anything in them from vitamins, minerals, probiotics, fibers, herbs, mushrooms and super food nutrients such chlorella, acia, spirulina and more! Super blends can be a great way to get a broad range of nutrients into your diet all in 1 sitting. This makes them an ideal choice for busy people on the go. On the down side, these blends can be loaded with sugar, additives and colorings. Having so many poor quality ingredients can really offshoot the benefits of the good ingredients. There are some quality blends from high end clinical brands like Thorne Research, Seeking Health and Designs For Health that I really like, but outside the clinical grade brands, I caution clients from using these products.
Are Protein Powders Good For You?
This is a more complex question and it really depends on what your health goals are. Some negatives about protein powders- they are processed, are not whole foods, and I do encourage all my clients to try and get as much of their nutrients from real whole foods as possible. Also there are a lot of junkie protein powders on the market. I would avoid any protein powder made of soy and I would avoid buying poor quality protein powders from big box chain stores and your local drug store. Chances are they have poor quality ingredients, additives and added sugar.
On the positive side I do think that quality protein powders make an easy to digest, quick meal source. They only take a few minutes to make, can be drank on the go, are easy to assimilate and can be a great vehicle for adding other nutrients into your diet such as veggies, fruits, herbs and superfoods.
Ready to start using protein powders and superfood smoothies? Discover new recipes, interesting ingredient ideas and flavorful food combinations in my E-book The Ultimate Smoothie Guide.