How To Choose the Best Protein Powder for You and Your Fitness Goals
Maybe your goal with protein powder is to increase muscle mass, as part of a protein dense, high-antioxidant post-workout smoothie to build and repair damaged muscles. Protein powder is a particularly useful tool when used as a recovery snack and immediate source of fuel.
Reasons To Choose Protein Powders for Your Next Recovery Snack
“While protein powders aren't more nutritious or effective for muscle recovery than protein from real food, their main benefit is convenience,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. Stashing protein powders in your gym bag guarantees readily available nutrition to settle midday munchies and assist if it's been too long since your last bite of food or grocery trip—where you haven’t had time to replenish your snacks department with fresh food.
Blending an organic protein powder, for example, can also help ensure adequate nutrient supply in an easy format (chugging it down), especially if you’re having difficulties sustaining appetite, whether due to post-workout appetite suppression, stress or certain illnesses, explains Jones.
“For those engaging in moderate to vigorous activity, ingesting adequate protein shortly after completing a workout contributes to optimizing recovery and making progress towards fitness goals,” says Jones. Protein powders are best used as an immediate fuel option for replenishing depleted nutrients and electrolytes. However, it's important to consume protein throughout the day to optimize recovery, not just sipping on shakes made with dairy free protein powders, nuts and greens as a means to get in some protein to satisfy your post-workout needs, alone.
“So, if you have time to make a meal with whole food protein after exercise, do so, and save the protein powder for another time of the day where it may be harder to get that protein boost in when on the go and in enough quantity, such as with breakfast when you’re rushing out the door or at night for a quick snack before bedtime.
How To Read Protein Powder Labels
It's important to recognize serving sizes on labels and realize they’re suggestions and not necessarily specific and universal, so they actually depend on your body’s needs. It's helpful to familiarize yourself with how to read labels so that you can determine how much to use of your protein powders to find an adequate dose that’s a fit for your body and to realize the amount may vary and change based on what you’re using it for, too.
“Supplements are not well regulated in the US, so I recommend first looking for products that are Informed Choice Certified, NSF Certified for Sport, or Certified Organic, as this helps ensure they do not contain banned substances, and on top of that, read labels to avoid artificial ingredients and junk,” says Jones.
Next, your fitness goals play a large role, where you may increase or decrease the number of scoops of protein powder you use. “The size of a protein powder scoop can vary, so you may want to be more aware of how many grams of protein you get compared to the product's weight in grams,” says Jones.
As a hint, “to optimize muscle recovery, one should consume about 0.25-0.3/kg (0.11-0.14g/lb) of protein 4-5 times per day, so knowing this, 20-25 grams servings are adequate for the majority of people,” Jones says. “If however, someone is participating in Olympic lifting or even ultra-endurance races, needs may go up to 0.4g/kg (.18g/lb) and a larger serving size can be helpful,” Jones explains.
Either way, a protein boost as part of a snack or healthy meal addition doesn’t hurt, and it will only give your body and muscles some extra juice. There are a few things to consider when choosing a protein powder that’s fit for your unique body and needs.
How To Choose the Best Protein Powder for You
Factors include sourcing of protein (in relation to plant vs. animal protein and whether it’s organic protein powder or not), dietary restriction needs (where you may choose gluten free protein powder or dairy free protein powder formulas), other ingredients to maximize health and satiety, quality in protein and amino acid profile and the cost, among other considerations too.
There are so many options for protein powders and it’s very individualized. “Taste is super important because you shouldn't have to chug down something you hate,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, dietitian and the author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
Whey tends to be popular as protein powder for weight gain and is widely available. “There are many options on the market that have delicious flavor and texture, with plant-based proteins sometimes taking on a grassy or woodsy flavor and grittier texture,” says Harris-Pincus. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you have a dairy allergy or are plant-based or vegan, though.
Going with organic protein powders can also help guarantee purity and high quality protein and product. “It's wise to look for powders that have a third party certification such as NSF or Informed Sport so you know there are not any banned substances hiding in there,” says Harris-Pincus.
“Orgain offers many organic protein powders, but their Protein & Superfoods Plant-Based Protein Powder is an option that can work regardless of your goals and contains carbohydrates, which can help replenish energy stores, without adding excess or added sugars, and offers 21 grams of protein,” says Jones. It’s one of the best organic protein powders you can find and tastes great.
“I'm also impressed by its high iron content, among other nutrients, and that it contains 50 superfoods, including beet, turmeric, and tart cherry,” says Jones, for antioxidant power to aid in recovery and muscle repair and growth.
Simple ingredients are best and it's a good idea to see if the manufacturer has a certificate of analysis on their website to check for heavy metals or any other substances you may not want in your product. Those should be listed on reputable brands. In general, plant proteins tend to be higher in metals because of the soil content, so pay extra attention to the levels of metal when choosing dairy free protein powders and plant-based organic protein powders.
It may take some experimenting before you find what you like, and you might need to do some trial and error for a while. What’s more, there's a reason to test out several kinds to figure out how to choose protein powders and the best for you, too. “I recommend a variety of choices to include in your overall diet for different nutritional benefits,” says Harris-Pincus.
How To Choose the Best Protein Powder for More Nutritional Value
Although it depends on the individual, there are a few pointers to keep in mind when choosing protein powders that are of high value. In general, look for protein powders that offer at least 20 grams of protein per 100 calories, which you can find in many whey based protein powders and plant-based powders, for example.
Another tip is to pick a protein powder that’s lower in sugar, especially added sugar, and uses a healthier sweetener option to avoid elevating and spiking blood sugar levels and hindering your performance, workout results and progress. Many diabetic and keto-friendly sweeteners work.
“Personally, I prefer using naturally derived zero calorie sweeteners including monk fruit, erythritol, stevia or allulose versus artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame or acesulfame potassium,” says Harris-Pincus. Some people prefer unsweetened/unflavored powders that allow them to customize their desired level of sweetness.
And keep the ingredient list short and sweet, with simple, comprehensible terms that you’ve heard of and know to be safe. “Look for powders with minimal ingredients when possible, around five is easy to find, and if you are using the powder for a meal replacement, without other add-ins like fruit, then a small amount of added sugar is ok, as you do need some carbohydrate to help your muscles use the protein more efficiently,” says Harris-Pincus.
For example, Harris-Pincus suggests using protein powder in a smoothie or shake post-workout that has a total of 15 grams of carbohydrates, if its purpose is for a meal replacement.
How To Choose Plant-Based Protein Powders
Best likes Garden of Life Organic Plant-Based Sport, which is made with exceptional protein powder and is a plant-based option. “Depending on how many scoops you use you can take in either 15 or 30 grams of protein and any plant-based protein should provide an amino acid panel where it contains all 20 amino acids and all 9 essential amino acids to make a complete protein,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD.
Another top pick from organic protein powders that are plant-based and recommended by Best includes Better Body Foods Organic Protein. “This line of protein provides 16 grams of protein for just 90 calories and is made with pea and quinoa, which makes it free of most allergens like soy, dairy, and gluten,” Best says.
Watch the video to learn more about the best vegan and vegetarian protein sources:
How To Choose the Best Protein Powders for Weight Gain and Muscle Building
Carbohydrates and sugars increase calories fast, but won’t aid in muscle building, so they aren’t the best protein powders for weight gain in a healthy manner. Total carbohydrate count often depends on other smoothie ingredients, rather than the protein powder itself. (In general, protein powders are low in carbs.) It’s common to choose protein powders based on fitness goals and to vary carbs, accordingly.
If you’re trying to pick a protein powder for weight gain and increase in muscle mass, keep carbs and sugars low and instead bulk up on protein, healthy fats and calories with rich, heartier ingredients, like peanut butter and avocado, rather than starches, like grains and fruit.
And stick with whole foods for these high-protein, fiber-dense and healthy fat containing add-ins to increase calorie count and help build muscle and increase weight. Protein powders for weight gain should include clean fats and proteins, rather than processed fats and oils.
“I recommend adding your own healthy fats such as avocado, nuts or seeds to your smoothie vs choosing a powder that has oil included,” says Harris-Pincus. “Low processed foods are always better when using a protein powder for convenience, so try to combine it with those whole forms of healthy fats when possible,” Harris-Pincus suggests.
And if you’re mixing protein powders with water instead of milk or plant-based milk for refueling, it's important to figure out how to choose protein powders with more carbs, which allow your body to better utilize protein, suggests Jones.
For those looking to gain muscle, look for recovery formulas as they’re the best protein powders for weight gain and muscle mass. “They tend to provide a balance of macronutrients along with the protein, and this helps ensure the body is getting enough energy from carbs and fat so that the protein can be used for its important functions, rather than just as an energy source,” says Jones.
Jones recommends BioSteel's Recovery Protein Plus, which provides 24 grams of protein, 3 grams of leucine, and 38 grams of carbohydrate to replenish energy stores and provide available and immediate energy for the body’s recovery processes. It is also NSF certified for sports and athletes.
Best also likes Muscle Milk Pro Series Protein, for those wanting to get protein powders for weight gain, particularly muscle, since Muscle Milk's Pro Series is a line of protein powders formulated with that concept in mind, and it offers 50 grams of protein per serving with only 3 grams of added sugar. “While this may be an excessive amount of protein for the typical athlete, those who are focused on intense exercise for muscle building could be beneficial,” says Best.
How To Choose the Best Protein Powders for Low-Carb or Keto
You must keep carbs and sugars low in order to stay within your carbohydrate bank and not exceed your budget, and when you pile on different fruits, nuts and seeds, the carbs and sugars can increase quickly and you’re way past your daily intake maximum before you know it.
Any organic protein powders, dairy free protein powders and gluten free protein powders generally are lower in carbohydrate content, as a protein powder alone. However, as a rule of thumb, plant options are heavier in carbs than whey protein powders and egg based protein powders, which will be lower in carbohydrates than plant-based protein powder alternatives.
It’s really just about the ingredients you then add in that can cause the total to skyrocket. “The carbs in the powder should be low, ideally less than 5-8 grams,” explains Harris-Pincus. You can also learn how to choose the best protein powders for you based on body reactions, so consider jotting them down in a journal if you’re in the process of experimenting with new powders.
Fiber is another factor particularly useful for those on the keto or low-carb diet plan, since many foods they eliminate happen to be high-fiber. Leafy greens are great fiber-rich examples to include in these protein powder smoothies, and they will likely want to go with whey protein powders and egg based protein powders, or other organic protein powders, instead of the higher carb options, like dairy free and gluten free protein powders.
“While fiber can help you feel full and has benefits to the digestive tract, I advocate for including enough via whole plant foods throughout the day, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains,” says Jones. Of course, the amount allowed is budgeted for those who are diabetic or low-carb.
“For people who experience post-exercise appetite suppression, I'd rather they keep the fiber content of their protein powder low so they can get what they need without feeling overly full and then focus on fiber later,” Jones suggests. That might be with a fiber booster supplement or by eating a leafy green salad, with non-starchy fibrous veggies for lunch.
How To Choose the Best Protein Powders for Maximum Protein Absorption
Whey protein is going to be best. “Whey protein in the form of meal replacements is an easy way to get in extra protein, or simply meet your protein needs, which can improve muscle mass as well as satiety,” Best. “This form of whey can also add to bone density as it provides extra calcium, and whey also contains an amino acid known as cysteine, which is essential for making glutathione, a powerful antioxidant,” Best continues.
If you are on a gluten free diet, you’ll need gluten free protein powders as formula for your post-workout recovery shakes and meal replacement smoothies. Harris-Pincus likes BiPro Elite Whey. “BiPro is a delicious whey based powder with only five ingredients and is free of fillers or artificial flavors, is sugar-free, gluten-free, hormone/RBST-free, certified kosher and is also certified by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to be free of banned substances, which means it’s approved for use in sports,” says Harris-Pincus.
As a bonus, BiPro contains 2.55 grams of muscle building leucine, an amino acid, per serving. You can also use whey protein powders if you are gluten free and need gluten free protein powders, too.
How To Choose Protein Powders for Dietary Restrictions
If you’re on a dairy-free diet, then dairy free protein powders will be your go-tos, and that means you can’t have whey protein powders and must go with plant protein powder instead. “Orgain Organic Protein Powder (chocolate) is one of the best gluten free protein powders not only organic, but also gluten free and plant-based.
“These factors make this protein powder ideal for a wide range of people with varying dietary needs and with 21 grams of protein and no added sugar, Orgain's protein powder is one that will boost your health in various ways,” says Best.
“Protein powder with the whey protein from dairy is so popular due to decades of research showing it is superior to other proteins for maximizing muscle recovery, however, if someone is allergic to dairy or has digestive upset from the concentrated whey, soy protein is an effective alternative,” says Jones.
“It is considered high in quality, like whey, due to its amino acid profile, and NOW's Soy Protein Isolate contains 25 grams of protein and is rich in BCAA's, with over 2 grams of leucine,” says Jones. It also has Informed Sport certification, which is an important third party certification for collegiate and professional athletes and is representative of high quality protein sourcing.
Ascent Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder is another great option, which Harris-Pincus recommends. “A combo of organic pea, sunflower and pumpkin protein, this powder blends really easily, which is not a given with plant-based varieties and it contains zero artificial ingredients, no added sugar and is also “Informed Sport Certified,” organic and gluten free,” says Harris-Pincus.
Should You Use Multi-Collagen Protein Powders?
“Collagen protein powders are ideal for skincare and other overall health benefits aside from muscle building because collagen is essential in keeping skin healthy and vibrant,” says Best. “Collagen protein typically contains around 8 to 16 grams of protein, which allows it to give the consumer a moderate amount of protein,” Best says.
One of the best multi-collagen protein powders is Ancient Nutrition Multi-Collagen Protein, says Best. “This protein powder is unique in that it provides both collagen and protein, and I like that this protein powder focuses more on collagen yet provides 9 to 18 grams of protein per serving, depending on the number of scoops used,” explains Best. This way, you’re adding more protein and getting those collagen benefits too.
Another option for a multi-collagen protein powder that blends protein is Biochem Collagen Plus Protein, with Types I and III collagen peptides, which are combined with whey protein isolate to provide 20 grams of grass-fed protein and thus reach a complete amino acid profile. “It's also grass-fed with no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners,” says Harris-Pincus.
“The benefits of collagen protein powder are still being researched, but so far, studies have shown improvement in skin hydration and elasticity when using hydrolyzed collagen supplements for 90 days,” says Harris-Pincus.
And since collagen is not a complete protein, meaning it does not contain all of the essential amino acids, choosing the powder combining both whey and collagen offers the both worlds, as with the examples above. If you’re not and only using multi-collagen protein powders Harris-Pincus recommends adding it to your coffee rather than using multi-collagen protein powders as part of your power-workout recovery shake.
An example of a straight multi-collagen protein powder recommended by Harris-Pincus is Orgain Collagen Peptides, which have only one ingredient total, are grass-fed and pasture-raised bovine collagen peptides (Type I and III collagen) and are unflavored, so it’ll take on the flavors of the ingredients and masks well for high variety. “Each scoop contains 35 calories and 10 grams of collagen hydrolysate,” she says, then you can add in more protein, as needed.
“While there is emerging research that collagen may aid recovery from joint injuries in athletes, it does not replace protein from food or traditional protein powders,” says Jones. You’re better off using multi-collagen protein powders for beauty and skincare and other protein powders for workout recovery.
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