By Christine Fitzgerald, Regional Director of Nutrition
Protein powder is a quick and effortless way to get high-quality nourishment, it’s ideal for a post-workout recharge, and it’s obviously a great way to boost protein intake. But choosing the right protein powder can be a task daunting enough to be the next installment of Mission: Impossible.
When I walked into the health food store for the first time 10 years ago, I thought buying protein powder would be a pretty simple task, but it turned out to be extremely complicated. The large selection of protein powder out there — not just brands, but types — was overwhelming. Actually, it still is, and probably even more so.
It’s worth it, though. The last thing you want to do is shortchange yourself with a protein source that doesn’t work for your needs. If you’re thinking about buying protein powder for the first time or if you’re considering a switch, let’s navigate these convoluted waters to find the best type for you.
Why Supplement With a High-Quality Protein Powder?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our bodies need these proteins to promote energy, immune health, muscular strength, and recovery as we work to create optimal health. Our bodies need about 20 amino acids to keep us going, and out of those, nine can only be obtained through diet. That’s why taking protein powder is so beneficial for anyone looking to take control of their health. First things first, however — you need to choose the correct protein for your lifestyle.
The First Step: Find Your Perfect Match
When it comes to supporting your body’s needs, high-quality whey protein is at the top of the list. Full of essential amino acids needed to build muscle and increase energy (leucine), as well as those needed to support immune function and your body’s natural detoxification process (beta-glucans and immunoglobulins), it’s easy to see why whey is a top choice.
That said, there are two different kinds of whey to weigh when it comes to making your pick: Whey protein concentrate, which has a lower protein percentage but is full of wonderful benefits for the immune system, and whey protein isolate, which is perfect for bodybuilders and those who are lactose intolerant.
Either way, make sure to look for whey from grass-fed, pasture-raised, rBGH-free cows because the result is a high-quality protein that supports stronger health and performance. Also, select whey protein that isn’t micro-filtered, hydrolyzed, cross-flow filtered, or ion-exchanged, as minimal processing maintains nutritional value and integrity.
Remember that scene in Rocky in which he downs raw eggs before his morning run? Well, egg is a popular form of protein among athletes and bodybuilders because it contains, aside from protein, essential fats, vitamins, minerals, and good cholesterol. Luckily, there now is a wealth of egg supplements, so no need to chug a few raw ones.
Plant-based protein powders are a great alternative for people seeking non-whey powders for various reasons, among them:
- The need for a variety of protein powder without sacrificing muscle-building benefits
- Want to boost your intake of plant proteins, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids
- Are a vegetarian who does not want to consume animal products
- Have a dairy sensitivity or have been advised to limit dairy
Made from yellow peas, pea protein powder is a great source of protein for vegans, vegetarians, and individuals who wish to avoid dairy, soy, and gluten. It’s easy to digest, keeps you full longer (thus combating cravings), and has an excellent array of amino acids, including high levels of BCAAs.
Soy protein is similar to whey in speed of absorption and amount of essential amino acids, which is rare in non-animal protein sources. Some of the things to watch out for, however, are that it can contribute to gas, bloating, and low testosterone levels (because it’s a plant-based estrogen source).
Brown Rice Protein
Perhaps the weakest of all the proteins out there, brown rice by itself doesn’t provide the nine essential amino acids that the body needs. Therefore, brown rice protein powders generally contain quinoa or chia proteins in order to compensate for what brown rice lacks. Read the label carefully to make sure. Furthermore, it’s common to combine brown rice protein with pea protein to create a superior amino acid profile.
That said, brown rice could actually help you with weight loss due to its unique properties, but it should be used as a supplement in a diet already high in protein. Other benefits of brown rice protein are that it’s hypoallergenic, easy to digest, and is free from gluten and dairy.
Admit it — when you read “hemp,” you immediately thought of marijuana. While hemp protein does come from the seed of the cannabis plant, hemp seeds DO NOT contain psychoactive or intoxicating compounds. In fact, hemp protein is a nutritional powerhouse and an excellent source of protein with a broad range of amino acids and a balanced ratio of the omega-3, -6, and -9 essential fatty acids (omega-3 acids are especially beneficial for vegetarians and vegans that don’t eat fish).
If you’ve ever seen a Bear Grylls survival TV show, you know he always eats bugs and talks about their high protein value. Now you can reap those benefits without having to tread through swamps or trek through forests for the biggest insect you can find. Cricket protein supplements are new to the market and their nutritional profile is incredible. Here’s a rundown of its qualifications:
- More iron than spinach
- More calcium than milk
- Double the protein of beef
- More B12 than salmon or beef
- Nine times more omegas than wild salmon
Then there’s its sustainability compared to beef: Crickets grow 13 times faster, drink 2,000 times less water, consume 12 times less feed, require 2,000 times less land, and they don’t fart (they emit 100 times less greenhouse gas).
When you finally go to pick protein powder, there are some things you should look for or avoid. Here’s a quick rundown.
- Protein isolates are stripped away from their nutritional co-factors. I advise consuming against them because most isolates are exposed to acid processing, your body can’t assimilate proteins in isolated form, and over-processing can alter the protein’s key amino acids.
- Avoid soy lecithin at all costs, as it’s a waste product laden with solvents and pesticides.
- Be aware that not all whey protein is the same. Consumer Reports tested various bodybuilding protein powders and found that many were contaminated with heavy metals. Many powders also use artificial sweeteners, which are dangerous and known to damage gut flora and cause neurotoxic reactions, among other things.
Meet Christine Fitzgerald
Christine Fitzgerald is a two-time published author, a certified nutritionist, and holds a Master’s in Nutrition. Christine specializes in hormone education, testing, and balance; weight management; athletic performance; and recovery. She holds quarterly nutrition seminars across all ClubSport clubs.