The Ultimate Guide to Protein Powders

The Ultimate Guide to Protein Powders


For decades, bodybuilders have been guzzling protein shakes. And, perhaps upon seeing this, you thought, “I don’t want to bulk up like them. I want the long, lean look.” Or, “Protein shakes have too many calories in them and I want to lose weight.” But, if you’re trying to slim down and pack on muscle, it’s a good idea to focus on protein.

Supplementing your exercise program with appropriately-timed protein consumption doesn’t have to add a whole bunch of calories to your daily meal plan. When you increase your protein intake, you can cut down on calories from other sources without feeling deprived because protein aids in satiety, similar to fiber.

But it isn’t always as simple as just getting protein into your body. You’ll want to be smart about your protein intake. Here’s what you need to know about protein sources and powders.

What’s the Fuss About Protein?

Amino acids are the functional units of proteins. This means that any protein you consume —whole food or dietary supplement — will be broken down into amino acids. Once broken down in your body, amino acids play several key roles: They assist your immune system, act as building material for your tissues, and sometimes serve as a fuel source for your body.

While your body can produce a few of these amino acids on its own, there are nine you cannot make. These are known as essential amino acids because you have to consume them as part of your diet. The nine essential amino acids (EAAs) are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, tryptophan, valine, and methionine, threonine, and phenylalanine.

If your goal is to increase muscle mass, it’s paramount to consume enough protein every day — especially those EAAs. Although you can do this by eating protein-rich foods, such as beef, chicken, tuna, or soybeans, some people find it easier to achieve their daily protein requirements with the aid of protein powders.

Understanding the Different Types of Protein Supplements

Walking down the supplement aisle can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of different types of supplemental proteins from which you can choose, with each company claiming theirs is better for you. While the choice can seem dizzying, there are really only two main categories: animal or vegetable.

Animal Protein

Many popular animal protein supplements on the market are milk-based. Milk protein is 80 percent casein and 20 percent whey. Whey, a fast-digesting protein, is very anabolic, stimulating protein synthesis (AKA muscle growth) more than any other form of protein, according to a study at McMaster University, in Canada. Casein, a slow-digesting protein, also promotes muscle growth, but is particularly effective at preventing muscle breakdown (i.e., catabolism). When combined, as they are in milk and some protein supplements, they make for a potent food for your muscles.

All else being equal, however, whey is the king of protein supplements. That’s why you can’t walk down a supplement aisle without being bombarded with products containing it. There are three main whey variants: Whey isolate (90 percent protein), whey concentrate (35–80 percent protein), and whey hydrolysate, which is “pre-digested,” and thus partly broken down into its constituent amino acids.

While whey concentrate and whey isolate are fairly similar, whey hydrolysate differs slightly. Hydrolyzed whey digests faster and tastes bitter, so you may want to try a sample before buying a whole tub. It is also the most expensive of the three whey options, although it has no clear advantage over the others, except perhaps benefitting people with slow or weak digestion.

As for casein, there are three main variants of this as well: Calcium caseinate, micellar casein, and hydrolyzed casein. Calcium caseinate is the most soluble, but micellar casein is the purest (more casein, less everything else), and generally regarded as the most effective. Hydrolyzed (“predigested”) casein is the least useful, since it robs casein of its greatest attribute: a slow digestion rate.

Vegetable Protein

Vegetable proteins are usually seen as inferior, because most of them are not “complete,” lacking one or more of the nine essential amino acids. There are exceptions, however, and the most popular of these is soy protein.

As a supplement, soy protein comes in two forms: concentrate and isolate. Depending on the processing technique, soy protein isolate can have more estrogenic (i.e., estrogen-mimicking) isoflavones than soy protein concentrate. But unless you consume more than 200 grams on a daily basis, you have little to fear regarding your testosterone levels. For women who might be concerned about whether consuming estrogenic isoflavones can contribute to health issues such as breast cancer, a review published in the British Journal of Cancer revealed that soy intake was unrelated to breast cancer risk in populations who consumed 0.8–0.15mg daily. Either way, there’s not much difference between the two variants, and that similarity extends to how they compare with whey protein.

Soy is inferior to whey for stimulating muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise, according to the same Canadian study mentioned above. The likely reasons, according to the researchers are because whey is digested (and absorbed) faster than soy, and because it contains more leucine, an amino acid that plays a central role in muscle growth.

Besides soy, you may also stumble upon rice, pea, and hemp protein. Consumed separately, pea protein and rice protein aren’t complete proteins. However, a 70:30 pea-to-rice blend boasts an amino acid profile very similar to that of whey, the golden standard. A 50:50 blend isn’t too bad either. Pea protein is also useful when blended with whey and casein, as its digestion rate falls between the two.

Hemp protein isn’t a complete protein either (and no, it doesn’t contain THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana) and thus is seldom a pure protein supplement. It usually contains fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acids (with equal ratios of omega-3s and omega-6s). Unless your diet needs more fat and fiber, opt for one of the previous mentioned proteins.

What Is the Recommended Daily Allowance of Protein?

In the United States, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (.36 grams per pound). For a 150-pound person, that comes out to 54 grams of protein per day. Such an amount may be fine for sedentary people trying to maintain their current bodyweights, but if you work out, you’ll need more protein to optimize your results — regardless of your age or gender, or whether you’re trying to lose fat or gain muscle.

How Much Protein You Need to Consume to Build Muscle

If your goal is to build muscle, your daily protein intake should be .7 to 1.4 grams per pound of lean (fat free) body mass per day. Many scales will give you both your total weight (also known as body mass, or TBM) and your body fat (BF) percentage. To calculate your lean body mass, multiply your TBM by your BF percentage, and then subtract that number from your TBM. You can also use an online fat free mass index (FFMI) calculator. If you want to keep things simple (albeit slightly less exact), you can also just consume .5 to .9 grams per pound of bodyweight per day.

In addition, you’ll need to consume enough total calories to promote muscle growth, as well as enough carbohydrates to help decrease the breakdown of protein for energy so that more of it can be used for muscle growth. This article can help you figure out how many calories you should be eating each day.

How Consuming Protein Can Help with Fat Loss

Protein isn’t just used for building muscle; it can also support fat loss in several ways. First, protein can help curb hunger thanks to its satiating quality. Second, the body expends more energy (calories) digesting protein than it does digesting carbohydrates or fat. Finally, eating enough protein can help prevent muscle breakdown during periods of caloric restriction when losing fat, not necessarily weight, is the goal.

For fat loss, your daily protein intake should be 1.0 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (or .45 to 1.00 grams per pound). If you have a lot of fat to lose, base your protein intake on your goal bodyweight to avoid overeating.

To recap, here are the recommended ranges of protein to consume each day depending on your goal. We’ll use a 150-pound person as an example.

  • If you’re sedentary, consume .36 g/pound (54 grams of protein)
  • If you’re looking to build muscle, consume: .7 to 1.4 g/pound of lean body mass or .6 to 1.2 g/pound of your total body mass (the latter is less exact) (105-210 grams lean body mass or 90-180 grams total body mass)
  • If you’re looking to lose fat, consume .45 to 1.0 g/pound (67-150 grams)

Post-Workout Shakes

You’ve probably heard people talking about the “anabolic window,” that brief period after a workout when your muscles are especially receptive to protein. But recent studies show that it may last longer than most people think — on the order of four to six hours instead of 30 to 60 minutes.

But if it has been a while since your last meal, and if your next one is still a ways off, then a post-workout shake makes a lot of sense, and research shows that it can boost muscle growth. Indeed, a single 20g serving of whey immediately post-workout can maximally stimulate protein synthesis, according a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A Final Note: Protein Myths

You may have heard that high-protein diets can damage your kidneys, liver, and bones, but there is very little evidence to support those claims. For most people, the protein intake ranges mentioned in this article are considered safe.

Another somewhat popular myth of protein supplementation is that it is analogous to taking steroids. This notion simply isn’t true. Protein supplements are a way to help individuals hit their protein goals for the day. They bear more dietary resemblance to chicken, meat, and fish than they do to any performance-enhancing drug. If, however, your diet is low in protein and you begin to supplement, you might discover a small, but noticeable, boost in exercise performance.

At the end of the day, protein supplementation doesn’t need to be an overwhelming experience, as long as you listen to your body. It’s also important to remember that you shouldn’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to it. Your protein needs should depend on your fitness goals, diet, and personal preference.