Learn how to choose the best protein powder for post-workout recovery, building muscle, and getting stronger. Not all are created equal! | StupidEasyPaleo.com

How to Choose the Best Protein Powder

Could finding the best protein powder seem any more complicated? (Seriously.)

white woman with brown hair dressed in tank top and black pants doing a barbell deadlift

Besides the huge number of options available, there are piles of conflicting articles on protein dosing and timing. How much protein do you really need? Are protein powders even necessary?

Don’t worry, I have your back. This article will help you choose the best protein powder for your body and teach you how much to dose to get the most muscle gain for your buck.

In this post I cover:

  • If you should even add protein powder to your diet.
  • Figuring out how much protein to eat daily.
  • How to choose the best protein powder.
  • Types of protein powder and which is best.
  • What’s up with collagen as a protein source.
  • The role of BCAAs.
  • When to take protein powder.

Should You Even Add Protein Powder to Your Diet?

I’m a big fan of real food. It tastes good, and I generally know where it came from and how it was processed (if it was at all). Meals create community and cooking brings out my creative side.

Protein powders are not necessary for good health…they’re just more convenient and in some cases, an easier way to get a bit of extra protein, especially around workout time.

They’re still not nutritionally superior to real, whole food.

All that said, sometimes you need some quick protein post-workout to help support muscle growth and aid in recovery.

If that’s the case, I’m here to help you choose the right one for you.

Why you might consider protein powder:

1. You’re training hard. If you want to build muscle, you’ll need more protein than someone who just wants to maintain what they have. Adding a quality protein powder is easier than upping your steak intake. Less chewing.

2. You’re busy. Protein is super filling. Subbing a protein powder for a meal can keep you going through hectic days, all while balancing your blood sugar and keeping you full.

3. It’s easy to dose. You can be somewhat sure of your protein intake when you’re eating meat and eggs, but dosing is easier when you measure by the scoop.

4. It’s convenient. Your schedule may not always allow for 20-40 grams of protein at every meal. When I up my protein intake during a tough training season, protein powder is a must.

5. You digest it easily. Drinking your protein isn’t just convenient. The best protein powders are easily digested and assimilated into your bloodstream, so muscle protein synthesis is a cinch (source).

Learn how to choose the best protein powder for post-workout recovery, building muscle, and getting stronger. Not all are created equal! | StupidEasyPaleo.com

Side note: Protein powders are easier to digest and use by your body than, say, a burger. Your digestive system works hard to break down a meat patty into individual amino acids it can then use to rebuild muscle and other tissues.

That said, you still need slower-digesting proteins…you know, from food. Whole foods-based proteins keep amino acid levels steady over the span of a few hours, giving your muscles something to use over time. So, please, don’t replace all your meals with shakes.

And if you’re trying to lose a significant amount of body fat or you’re constantly hungry after a protein shake, opt for solid food.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

The amount of protein you need depends on your goals, your weight and body type, and how much you’re training.

If you’re working out more and want to start building muscle, start with about 0.7 g of protein per pound of bodyweight and possibly work your way up to 0.9 g per pound of bodyweight. (source)

That means that as a 155 pound female who lifts heavy three times a week and does jiu jitsu five times a week (aka quite active), I aim for around 155 grams of protein a day. I don’t always reach it but I try to be in the ballpark of 110 g (0.7 g x 155) to 140 g (0.9 x 155) each day.

More protein helps keep you fuller, longer, so upping your protein intake can also help you lose weight. Protein triggers the release of hormones of the hunger-stomping hormones CCK (cholecystokinin), glucagon, and ghrelin. (source, source, source).

One large review on satiety found protein to be more satisfying than fat or carbs. It might also increase your metabolism, meaning you’re burning fat and feeling satisfied (source).

If you don’t have any specific training goals and don’t feel like doing the math, shoot for 20-40 g of protein with each meal. (source) This will keep you full and help support your body in muscle protein synthesis for muscle recovery and repair. That’s about 4 ounces of beef or chicken or one serving of a high-quality protein powder.

Learn how to choose the best protein powder for post-workout recovery, building muscle, and getting stronger. Not all are created equal! | StupidEasyPaleo.com

How to Choose the Best Protein Powder

Let’s be real: There are way too many protein powders on the market. Here’s the lowdown on how to pick the right protein for your body and your goals:

First, the criteria:

1. The best protein powder will have fewer ingredients. More is not better when it comes to protein powders. Choose a powder that has five ingredients or less and is low in sweeteners and fillers.

2. Choose a powder that works for your body. I like whey protein. And because whey protein comes as an isolate if you seek that out, it’s low in the other components of milk that tend to bother people, like casein. But if whey protein upsets your stomach or if you’re allergic to dairy, try another form! Egg white protein, beef protein isolate, or a quality plant-based source are good options.

3. It’s in a bioavailable form. Different protein sources absorb in your body at different rates. Get the most bang for your buck by choosing a complete protein.

4. It tastes good. Don’t be a hero. A protein powder is only as good as it tastes. If it doesn’t taste good, you likely won’t use it. Period.

Now, let’s dig into your options so you can find best protein powder for you.

Types of Protein Powders and Which is Best

Whey protein

Whey protein has a complete amino acid profile and is easy for your body to use. Bonus points: Because it’s available an isolate of milk, is low in the components of dairy that bother some people (casein or lactose).

It also contains something called bioactive milk peptides (BMPs) that can improve sleep and reduce stress (source).

I use and recommend Legion’s protein powders. Legion is a science-based company committed to transparency.

Use my code STEPH to save 20% on Legion.

In terms of quality, value, and bang for your buck, whey is the best protein powder for many people. But there are other options.

Egg white protein powder

If you’re sensitive to whey and can handle eggs, you might want to try an egg white protein powder. It’s super bioavailable and boasts a complete amino acid profile.

Why just the whites? The yolks are easily oxidized during the powdering process, so most manufacturers just keep them out.

Without the yolks, of course, you’re missing out on a lot of nutrition an egg delivers – B vitamins, choline, and omega-3 fatty acids. Probably best just to eat some pastured eggs, yolks and all. But if you’re looking for convenience and can’t stomach whey, this might be a good option.

Plant-based protein powders

Yes, you can get protein from plants, but you don’t get the same bang for your buck. For that reason, they aren’t the most optimal protein powder, but they could be an option for some.

Plant-based proteins are WAY less dense than animal-based protein, so you need to seriously up the volume to get enough.

Biological value (BV) is a score from 0-100, 100 being the best bioavailability. In other words, you want the BV higher in order for your body to absorb more protein to feed muscle and tissue synthesis.

When it comes to protein powders, sources like peas, hemp, and rice have decent biological value scores, ranging from the 40s-80s. For context, whey protein is 104. BUT, they’re not complete proteins.

I recommend Legion’s Plant+. Probably one of best plant-based protein powders I’ve ever tried in terms of texture and flavor.

Plant-based proteins come with a couple of other issues:

  • Some plant-based proteins are incomplete, so look for one that uses a blend of sources such as pea with rice.
  • Some contain phytic acid (a plant’s natural defense mechanism that can block your absorption of some minerals); and lectins (another chemical plant defense that causes inflammation and autoimmune issues for some people).*
  • Pea protein is high in oligosaccharides, a naturally-occurring carbohydrate that can be hard on your gut.*

*Some manufacturers process their plant-based proteins to remove some of the phytic acid and oligosaccharides, so there is that.

Isn’t Grass-Fed Collagen the Best Protein Powder?

Collagen and gelatin have practically hit superfood status over the last few years. Totally valid – I’m a big fan of both and use them for specific nutrients and, of course, gelatin for texture.

And while there are amino acids in collagen and gelatin that support your body’s healing and recovery, this isn’t the best choice for a post-workout protein powder.

Here’s the deal:

Gelatin and collagen are sourced from the connective tissue of the animal – bones, skin, and other tissues – yum! They’re super similar in their amino acid profiles, but are processed a little differently. That’s why most collagen powders disappear in liquid, while gelatin would turn your morning cup of coffee into a giant gummy.

Benefits of collagen and gelatin are similar. They both contain the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, all of which you need to make your own collagen (read: firmer skin and happy joints).

These aren’t essential amino acids (meaning, your body can actually make these on its own); but supplementing is possibly a good idea, especially as we age. And glycine and proline are hard to come by unless you’re into gnawing on connective tissue, drink a ton of bone broth, or love organ meats.

So, supplementing with collagen and gelatin powders is great. But not super helpful if you’re looking to build some muscle.

Collagen and gelatin aren’t your best choice for post-workout protein powder because they’re quite low in the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) necessary to trigger muscle protein synthesis.

A 2020 randomized controlled trial, though quite a small subject group, tested whey protein versus collagen peptides for short- and long-term muscle protein synthesis. They whey protein group had greater increases in muscle protein synthesis compared to the collagen group. (source)

Click here to read more about why collagen isn’t a great post-workout protein.

BCAAs for Muscle Building and Recovery

BCAAs include the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are already in all animal-based protein, so it’s not 100% necessary for you to supplement if you eat meat and/or eggs.

But these are ESSENTIAL amino acids, which means your body doesn’t make these on its own, unlike proline and glycine.

BCAAs – primarily leucine – is important for muscle building and recovery, which is why so many athletes supplement with them (source). BCAAs are one of the main reasons I include a protein powder in my post-workout regimen.

Leucine: This is the good stuff. Leucine plays an important role in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the rebuilding of your muscle tissue after you work out.

Isoleucine: This amino acid makes it easier for your cells to drink up glucose for energy, making BCAAs not only great for muscle building, but will make your life less painful while you recover.

Valine: Some of the same benefits as leucine – used as an energy source by muscle tissue and helps to rebuild and repair muscles post-workout.

So while there are some sources of collagen that claim higher levels of BCAAs overall, be mindful of getting enough of these – especially leucine, and especially if you’re training hard.

Learn how to choose the best protein powder for post-workout recovery, building muscle, and getting stronger. Not all are created equal! | StupidEasyPaleo.com

When Should You Take Protein Powder for Muscle Building?

Nutrient timing matters when you’re training hard.

If you’re training multiple times per day or days in a row without rest, you need targeted nutrition to support rebuilding and recovery. This means a protein-packed pre-workout snack and a solid post-workout refeed of high-quality protein and carbs for most athletes.

Pre-workout timing is looser – within about an hour of training. Post-workout, try to get 20-40 grams of complete protein within about 30 minutes of training.

If you’re drinking protein shakes post-workout, don’t add a ton of extra fat. Fat slows down stomach emptying time…usually a good thing, but post-workout, no so much.

This helps to support muscle building and aids in recovery. Protein powders are perfect for this because they’re easy to prep and travel with.

Since hard workouts can sometimes curb your appetite for a little while, it’s nice to opt for some liquid protein instead of forcing yourself to eat a whole chicken breast on your way home from the gym.

I hope this helps you navigate the options you’re able to pick the best protein powder for your body and your goals.

Questions? Stories to share? Hit me up in the comments.

This post was updated October 9, 2021.

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62 Responses

  1. With the superfood status of gelatin and countless supplements and companies pushing daily supplementation, what are your thoughts? Is it beneficial to take daily for perhaps joint and connective tissue health or is much of this marketing and if you otherwise eat a nutritious “Paleo/real food type diet, you’re likely getting what you need?

    1. My thoughts on it are here: https://www.stephgaudreau.com/2014/02/02/gelatin-worth-the-hype/ …it’s a “nice to have” not a “need to have.”

      But I’ll reiterate a couple things. First, you don’t NEED supplements to get gelatin/collagen in your diet. It makes it more convenient, yes, but not 100% necessary. You can get collagen/gelatin from meat, bone broth, etc. The fact is that a lot of folks still don’t do very well with diet, so it may help close the gap.

      I use it from time to time if I feel I’m not getting enough in my daily routine, but it’s not an every single day or multiple times a day thing. Adds up in terms of cost.

      For people training hard, it is absolutely NOT a good source of the branched chain amino acids which are needed for muscle recovery. The one thing I see out there online is bloggers, etc promoting collagen use for post-workout protein. Mixing it into whey or egg white protein, fine. But it’s not going to do anything for muscle recovery on its own.

      If you DO opt for a collagen/gelatin supplement, make it from high-quality source like Vital Proteins: https://www.stephgaudreau.com/vpcollagen

      Hope that helps!

      1. Thanks! Wow, I missed your reply and had a similar question today after reading your post on IG and thought “I already asked this let me check that old post.” Thanks so much for your reply. I’ve been supplementing vital proteins inconsistently and haven’t noticed much, but plan to do it daily to see how I feel (interested in joint and hair benefits) but like you said it gets costly so daily will involve some days of the glorious chicken stock in the freezer. Curious…no one talks about pork rinds as a source of collagen. If sourced from a quality source it seems another option? Fill snack craving and collagen needs 🙂

  2. This is super helpful, thank you for the post! I work out 5-6 days a week, 2-3 of those days lifting weights, but I haven’t been seeing much muscle definition. I usually don’t have breakfast right after a work-out, so having a post-workout protein shake would be ideal to help see the results I’ve been looking for. Do you have any brands of BCAA’s that you recommend?

    1. If you’re doing BCAAs, pick something unsweetened with no fake color/flavor. I recommend Poliquin or Now Sport.

  3. I’ve been using pumpkin seed powder in my morning shake (with blueberries, spinach, pineapple and cashew milk). It’s a bit gritty but great for breakfast as it’s super filling and I think has much more useable nutrients than whey. Do you fave any thoughts about using pumpkin seed powder?

    1. It’s not a dense source of branched chain amino acids. I would add a better source of branched chain amino acids to your breakfast…eggs on the side, for example.

  4. Thanks for such a great information. What’s your view on type of carbs and amount for post workout? Do we need fructose ? At the moment I do plant based protein mixing with rice milk as my carbs for post workout. Is this a good combo?

    1. Glucose based carbs (ex: starchy carbs, white rice) or high glucose fruits (ex: banana, pineapple, etc) are best. Fructose has to go to your liver to be processed and isn’t great for post-workout recovery. You need carbs if you’re doing any hard training, and if you can get 20-40 grams it’ll help. I would recommend blending a frozen banana with your protein powder and a little bit of water instead of the rice milk.

      1. Thanks for your prompt reply.is there any other easier source of carbs that I can bring in my bag besides a whole bananas? Can’t blend a bananas in my shaker right after gym.

  5. I get up really early to workout (usually between 4 & 5 am). I don’t usually eat anything before my workout. Would a boiled egg or some type of protein bar work to get the protein I need? I don’t want to make any noise in the morning because of sleeping children(who hear everything! ?). I’ve been using Rootz protein powder but don’t like the grittiness of it. I’ll have to try the one you suggested in your article. Thanks for all the great info!!

    1. Hey Lois…yes, I often recommend a boiled egg and a handful of nuts or something like that. You’re doing just fine 🙂

  6. Sounds like the Vital Proteins collagen would be beneficial to take (daily or few X/wk) for us older ladies with thinning hair who don’t train vigorously like you younger pups ?!

      1. Reading this article again, & can’t find where I thought it was Vital Proteins collagen that you rec – is it or does Puori make one ?

        Or would you suggest women over 64, who only work out twice a wk for 30 mins with trainer, to take the Puori whey protein on those work out days ?

        Can then take the collagen to help with hair & skin on the days not training, but just walking an hr ?

        Thanks for input.

        1. Hi Terissa…if you’re working out for 30 minutes twice a week, I really don’t think you need a protein shake on those days. Just eat some protein and carbs after you get home and you’ll be fine.

          You can use a collagen supplement for general support…I just wouldn’t take it after I worked out thinking that it was helping me build muscle.

          The link to Vital Proteins collage is here: https://www.stephgaudreau.com/vpcollagen 🙂

          1. Thank you, will order collagen from your link for Santa to give to me ! If I click on the blue highlighted Puori link in your post above, will you receive the credit from Puori ? Plan to order the choc whey protein powder for my husband & adult son.

  7. Hi they I was just wondering what the best protein powder to use In my smoothie when have multiple sclerosis. Anti inflammatory but all the nutrients to build a strong immunity? Thank you

  8. Thanks for all the info! What do you think about beef isolate protein powder, like Equip foods Prime Protein? Is it a complete protein, unlike a pure collagen supplement?
    I think whey causes me to break out so I’m trying to find a good dairy free post workout protein. I’ve been blending 1/2 serving Prime Protein, 1/2 serving Vega Sport Recovery (plant based), 1/2 serving Equip Foods Clean Carbs (sweet potato), and some spinach. Sometimes I throw in egg white powder but I have no idea what I’m doing, I just figured if I have a variety in protein I’ll get lucky and get all the right nutrients. Ha!

    1. Write to them and ask for transparency in their sourcing. Not all so called “beef” protein powders are actually from muscle tissue…I’m not familiar with the brand nor have I seen their website but I would recommend doing some research. If you can’t find transparency on their site, I would consider a different source. The problem is that some “beef” protein powders are actually derived from hide and other connective tissue and are nothing more than collagen while the consumer is led to believe otherwise. Food for thought.

      1. Thanks! I just found this on their site ” 70% of this is protein from the muscle meat and 30% is the collagen and gelatin including the micro nutrients you’d find in a 4oz steak”

  9. I’ve been using Opportuniteas Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate, which I think is quality protein. Its only whey protein isolate with no added ingredients. My family doesn’t care for the taste but I don’t notice it.

    My question is someone told me whey protein causes inflammation, is this true?

    1. Nothing that I’ve used personally really…go with the criteria of 5 ingredients or fewer and preferably grass-fed.

  10. Hey Steph – thank you SO much for the helpful information. I read of your blogs & listen to your podcasts – SUPERFAN!
    I do have a supplement question – do you have any recommendations for casein protein?

    1. Hi Sarah…I’m glad it was helpful. Casein is one that I don’t have personal recommendations for because I’ve never been able to take it. Casein gives my guts a hard time. I would apply the same criteria as you would for other protein powders: 5 ingredients or less from a grass-fed source.

      1. Hey Steph – I recall reading that you used the templates from RP (Renaissance Periodization) somewhat recently. I’m curious what you substituted for the night time casein since you stated above that you don’t take it.

  11. Hi Steph
    I’ve been looking for something to help with recovery; I tend to have a lot of tenderness (inflammation I believe) in my shoulders & hips. I am usually very sore for a few days after working out. This has made it hard to really build muscle and keep with my workouts. Massage therapy and chiropractic work has been helpful. I try to stick with a Paleo diet, so would Collagen be something that could help with this? Thank you

    1. Possibly though I would suggest something like a turmeric/black pepper supplement for inflammation. It could also be tight tissue causing alignment problems when you lift. Possible?

  12. HI! Thank you so much for sharing all this research with us. Do you have a blog post about probiotics? I hear a lot of things about their benefits, but I would love to know more about “dose” (similar to what you mention about collagen, the paleo community LOVES probiotic foods, and I am wondering if eating lots of fermented things multiple times a day is necessary or if its a “once in a while is plenty” sort of thing). On an unrelated note, would love a recommendation for a whey protein with BCAAs that is sweetener free. The best ones I found still have coconut sugar or stevia leaf in them. Thanks for all that you do for your readers!

    1. Hi Katie…you’re welcome. Not yet…but that’s coming soon. Will try to incorporate what you’re asking into the post.

      In terms of whey protein that’s unsweetened 100%, I haven’t found many good ones in my travels. There’s one that I could get locally at our farmers market but to my knowledge they don’t distribute online. Why is it important that it be sugar-free? Post-workout is when you’d want to have your carbs anyway, so a little coconut sugar (Puori has just a few grams) isn’t a terrible thing. I hear you on stevia, hate the flavor.

  13. Hey Steph!

    I was wondering where you received certification as a holistic nutritionist? I am looking into similar education for myself and would love to hear more. Thanks in advance and keep up the great work!

  14. Thanks so much for this post! I am starting to train for my first marathon and there is so much info to process. You keep it short and clear. I love that. I know I am going to need to up my protein for the strength training! This was perfect timing as always Steph!
    Thanks again!!

  15. Hi Steph!
    Because of my schedule, I often have only 40 min between waking up and leaving my house to go to the gym.
    It would be very convenient if I can just drink protein shake, instead of making and eating breakfast in short time and running to the gym.
    What do you recommend, what would be the best solution?
    I’m looking to build more muscle and maintain my body fat.
    Thank you

  16. Steph,

    I’m a newbie looking for a clean source for BCAA’s. Where can I get a list of the BCAA’s in Puori’s PW1?

    Thank you

    Mark

    1. Mark, the BCAAs in a protein powder like this are not isolated like what you’d find in a BCAA pill or powder. The BCAAs in whey protein, a milk derivative, are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

      The cleanest (and usually most cost effective) source of BCAA are quality meat, fish, and eggs.

  17. I’m paleo and also have some adrenal issues, and just found out I have milk, whey, egg and banana allergies… I need to eat a protein heavy breakfast *right* when I wake up (which makes cooking tricky) so I was hoping to figure out a protein powder solution that I could make a shake from a few days a week.

    I’ve found some vegan protein powders at my local shop but it’s such a minefield, and I’m not sure what else I’d need to use to supplement…

    Any thoughts?

    1. Karen, we had that issue for a while in our household. My husband couldn’t eat eggs for a long time either. Instead, I would make something in the slow cooker overnight that he could eat when he woke up. Or, something like a sweet potato/veggie/meat hash was another of his favorites.

      If you have adrenal issues that also extend to blood sugar, keeping your first meal focused on solid foods means a slower digestion time and will prevent faster spikes in blood sugar. In this case, I would stick to solid foods that you can reheat or something that comes out of the slow cooker or Instant Pot.

      This post has a grip of non-egg options: https://meatified.com/30-days-whole-30-breakfasts/

      Best of luck!

  18. Have you ever used Thorne Protein Powders? How do they compare to the one you recommend here? Also, our gym also sells Shakeology. What are your thoughts on those for a protein source? Thanks so much.

  19. Hi Steph! Just came across this article while researching protein powder :). I am looking for a ready to drink protein shake that my clients can purchase after training. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to make fresh shakes at the gym. Do have any recommendations for good quality, ready to drink protein shakes? Thanks for all the great content!

      1. Yep, I am sure people could do that. I think that is a great idea, I will definitely tell my Clients to do that :). The country club I train at was asking me for recommendations for ready to drink shakes for their members. I found two ready to drink shakes… Iconic (Grass Fed) and Apres (plant) but not sure about the quality. Not sure if I should go with completely dairy free (I read thin info above about plant protein). I understand my options are limited.

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Hi, I'm Steph!

Lord of the Rings nerd, cold brew drinker, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more, not less: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.

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