Could finding the best protein powder seem any more complicated? (Seriously.)
Besides the crazy 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. My schedule doesn’t always allow for getting grass-fed, pastured, organic 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).
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. Shakes are what people use when they’re bulking because you can stuff a ton of extra calories into them, and they digest fast…exactly the opposite of what you want for fat loss.
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 0.8 g of protein per pound of bodyweight and possibly work your way up to 1.0 g per pound of bodyweight.
That means that as a 155 pound female who lifts heavy three times a week and does jiu jitsu three 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 125 g (0.8 g x 155) to 155 g (1 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).
For fat loss, muscle gain and to speed recovery, try 1.0 g per pound of bodyweight and see how you feel. I regularly eat 1 gram protein per pound of bodyweight, and even that is not an easy task for me some days.
If you don’t have any specific training goals and don’t feel like doing the math, shoot for 20-30 g of protein with each meal. This will keep you full and help support your adrenals. That’s about 4 ounces of beef or chicken or one serving of a high-quality protein powder.
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. No artificial sugars or sucrose!!
2. Choose a powder that works for your body. I like whey protein. And because whey protein is an isolate, it doesn’t contain 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 and beef protein isolate 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 that your body will actually use.
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 has a complete amino acid profile and is easy for your body to use. Bonus points: Because it’s an isolate of milk, it doesn’t contain the components of dairy that bother most people (casein or lactose). It also contains something called bioactive milk peptides (BMPs) that can improve sleep and reduce stress (source).
Whey isn’t “strict” paleo, but your personal context matters more than narrow dietary labels. Read more thoughts about that here.
My favorite is a whey protein made from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows. It’s free from GMOs, hormone treatment, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. They also test really high in the amino acid leucine, which is one of the main BCAAs that helps your body build and maintain muscle. Puori (“pur-ee”) PW1 Grass-Fed Whey Protein has about 1.8 g of leucine per 20 grams of protein.
(Puori used to be called Pure Pharma, but the company rebranded in May 2017. I’ve personally used their products since 2013.)
In terms of quality, value, and bang for your buck, whey is the best protein powder for many people. But there are other options.
Edit as of March 1, 2018: Results of the Clean Label Project are in, and Puori received a Top 5 ranking in terms of quality and purity. Plant-based powders like the popular Vega brand scored the worst. Click here to see the full results.
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 best 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 Puori’s PR3 Organic Rice Protein. It’s got organic rice protein plus freeze-dried coconut water for electrolytes and 2.5 grams collagen per serving.
UPDATE as of 4/6/2018: Puori has discontinued its PR3 protein because of supply issues, but they are developing a new dairy-free protein option. Stay tuned.
Plant-based proteins come with a couple of other issues:
- Plant-based proteins are incomplete, so you’ll need to supplement with another protein source.
- 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, especially in the paleo / real food scene. 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: better, tighter, younger-looking skin and happy joints).
These aren’t essential amino acids (meaning, your body can actually make these on its own); but supplementing is always 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 don’t work as a post-workout protein powder because they’re almost devoid of branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
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 also perform really specific roles in muscle building and recovery, which is why so many athletes supplement with them (source). In fact, 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 tear it apart at the gym.
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.
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-working timing is looser – within about an hour of training. Post-workout, try to get a 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 supplement aisle of your local health food store and that you’re able to pick the best protein powder for your body and your goals.