Protein powders were once the stuff of pro athletes and ultra meatheads, but have gone mainstream over the past 10 or so years. I first tried it when I was 15. When I told a personal trainer I’d been seeing with my mom that my goal was to get a 6-pack, he recommended I take 2 scoops of muscle milk powder 1-2 times per day. So mom and I dutifully trekked down to GNC and bought the vanilla flavor. And it was AWFUL. I don’t think I took the recommended dose even once, and I certainly never got said 6 pack. I couldn’t get it to dissolve in anything – not water, not milk, not a smoothie. Only now, looking back with educated eyes, do I see how completely ridiculous it was for this bro to tell a 15 year old athlete to take a mostly unregulated supplement! The industry has gotten much better since then in terms of taste and palatability, but it is still mostly unregulated and athletes should pay attention to ingredients and types of protein.
There are many types of protein powder, but the most common are milk proteins, soy, and egg.
The protein in eggs is the most bioavailable (meaning it is easily used by the body) form of protein, making egg powders the most bioavailable protein supplement on the market. It can be found as both egg white protein and whole egg protein. While whole eggs as food contain more nutrition than egg whites, the process to create whole egg protein powder involves high heat, which can oxidize the cholesterol in the egg and make it more harmful than the cholesterol found in, say, your hard boiled eggs.
Soy protein is a plant-based source of protein, produced by removing the fat and carbohydrates from soy flour. The most common form of soy protein found in supplements is soy protein isolate, which is about 90% protein and generally has a neutral flavor.
On Whey and Casein
Milk proteins – whey and casein – are the most popular form of supplements. Whey protein is absorbed more quickly, whereas casein is absorbed more slowly and stays in your body longer. There are several types of whey, which are:
1. Whey Protein Isolate – this is the most pure form of whey protein and the most available to the body for absorption. It is about 90% protein by weight and tends to be the most expensive kind.
2. Whey Protein Concentrate – this is generally 29% – 89% protein by weight. While more affordable than WPI, it also contains a little more fat and lactose.
3. Hydrolyzed Whey Protein – this type of protein is predigested. While on one hand it is easier to absorb, there is some debate about how effective it is compared to un-hydrolyzed protein, and it’s more expensive.
- It can provide a quickly absorbed source of protein. Generally, liquids are digested more quickly than solid foods. So, by “drinking” your protein, your body is absorbing it faster, which is good for rebuilding muscle after a workout.
- It’s convenient – it tends to be easier to carry powder and water than foods that may or may not need refrigeration.
- It’s a source of added calories.
- It’s expensive. Depending on how good the stuff is, it cost anywhere from $20 – $30 per pound.
- There can be unpleasant stuff in there. The front label will say 100% whey protein. Cool. Until you read the ingredients label, which can include artificial flavors. xantham gum, soybean or other oils, artificial sweeteners, sugar (hint: anything with “dextrose” on the end is a sugar), and other ingredients that may be healthy or may not but unless you have a PhD in chemistry, who knows!
- It’s a source of added calories. I realize this is in the pro section too. But if you are trying to lose weight, you’re better of waiting an extra 20 minutes to get home and make your next meal OR having a snack. The food will obviously also have calories, but it’ll make you more full than the protein powder. When you’re trying to lose weight, staving off hunger is a huge help!
- It’s not paleo. Because I don’t care how happy and grass fed the cow is, you cannot tell me you object to processed foods but are totally OK with drinking extracted cow’s milk protein with artificial sweetener and other additives in powder form.
Who Needs Protein Powder?
Whether or not you need a protein supplement depends on your goals. I would recommend a protein supplement for you if:
- You have difficulty gaining and maintaining weight, but your goal is to increase muscle mass and/or weight.
- You are currently training at a high volume. A protein supplement can help with recovery, which will be a priority for you.
- You have had weight loss surgery. Because weight loss surgery can cause you to absorb food poorly and greatly reduces portion sizes, regular protein supplements are highly recommended.
I would not recommend a protein supplement for you if:
- You are trying to lose weight. Hunger is often a challenge during weight loss, and you’re better of waiting an extra 20 minutes to get home and make your next meal OR having carbohydrates and protein in the form of FOOD. The food will obviously also have calories, but it’ll make you more full than the protein powder.
- You are training at lower volume or intensity. For the average gym goer, taking a protein supplement is usually more expensive than it’s worth.
If – after considering your goals – you think protein powder is right for you, here’s some advice for using it optimally.
- Find a brand that has a short ingredient list (no more than 3-4) and do your homework so you understand all the ingredients.
- Take the protein supplement once per day within 15-30 minutes of a challenging workout.
- Take enough protein powder to equal about 30 grams of protein. Any more than that and your body won’t use it as efficiently. You’re better off taking 30 grams at one time and eating a nice steak and salad or vegetable omelet an hour or so later than taking 60 grams of protein in one shaker bottle.
- Don’t use protein supplements as a meal replacement. For meals, food is always best. Unless your jaw is wired shut.
- Whey protein is my favorite option, and I recommend whey protein isolate, as it’s the most available form of whey. If you are a vegetarian or allergic to dairy, soy and egg protein are good alternatives.