Contents of this Article
- What is Protein?
- Why Protein Powder?
- How to Choose a Protein Powder
- Best Protein Powders for Weight Loss
- Best Protein Powders for Gaining Muscle
- Best Plant-Based Protein Powders
- Protein for Other Uses
- Tips on Using Protein Powders
- Final Thoughts
You might associate protein powders with dudes who want to beef up at the gym, right? But, protein powder is definitely not for men only.
Protein is also incredibly important for women and is probably the macronutrient that most women aren’t getting enough of in their diets. Also, if you want to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight, protein is your best friend.
A quality protein powder can help you meet your goals and your daily protein needs.
What is Protein?
Protein is the building block of every tissue, organ, and muscle in your body. The word protein comes from a Greek word meaning “primary”. Of the three macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, it is the only one the body cannot survive without.
The protein molecule is a complex structure made up of molecules called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that combine in a different order to make up the larger molecule, depending what the protein will be used for. Of these 20, nine are “essential” meaning the body cannot make them on its own. The other 11 can be made from other proteins or nutrients.
Protein needs vary based on your body weight and activity level. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein for an average person is 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight. This translates to about 55 grams per day for 150 pound woman (1). This number is a bit misleading as it is the lowest number to prevent muscle loss, not the actual number you need to support a heathy weight or build muscle. Most people probably need significantly more protein.
A 2016 study evaluated the protein intake of over a thousand people ages 60-99 years old. They also measured body fat percentage and muscle mass. Only 33% of women and 50% of men were meeting the RDA for protein. Those who did eat enough protein had significantly more muscle mass and less body fat, compared to those who did not (2). This study indicates that many of us are not eating enough protein to even support the muscle mass we have. For older adults, as in this study, this is a major problem because lack of muscle mass can lead to falls and injuries.
A better way to figure out your protein needs is to calculate it based on the % of total calories that come from protein. The recommended % is 10-35% of your calories should come from protein (3).
How do you figure out what that means for you?
First, you need to know how many calories you need. The most accurate way to calculate calories is by using an equation called the Mifflin St. Jeor.
Let’s say you need 2000 calories per day, just to make the math easy.
If 10-35% calories of those calories come from protein that would translate to 200-700 calories.
Protein has 4 calories per gram, which means you need 50-175 grams per day.
Yes, that is a huge range for your protein needs.
If you are very sedentary, you can probably get away with eating on the lower end of that range. If you work out or are trying to lose weight, aim for the higher end.
If your goal is to eat on the higher end of the range, this can pose a challenge. Protein is very satiating, meaning it makes you feel full fast. In order to meet the 175 grams of protein per day you would need to eat about 25 ounces of meat (beans, eggs, tofu, cheese, yogurt, and milk are also good sources).
This would probably make you feel quite full, but protein powder can help you meet your goals without feeling stuffed.
Why Protein Powder?
There are many reasons to use a protein powder. As I mentioned, it is a tasty and convenient way to boost your protein intake. It allows you to have your protein on the go if you need to. Protein powder doesn’t need to be cooked or prepared like meat or other sources. It is a great option for people who just don’t have the time to cook and still need to eat enough protein.
Many protein powders are a good base for adding a variety of flavor combinations. This can reduce boredom when you are able to mix up the taste of your smoothie every day. Powders don’t need to be limited to drinks or shakes only, they can be used in a variety of different ways, as a snack or even a meal replacement on a busy day.
There are a few downsides to protein powders that should be mentioned. A supplement will never provide the same nutrition as real, whole food, no matter how many “healthy” ingredients are added. So, protein powders will never fully replace food, no matter how hard some companies may try to do so. Some can be high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, which you would not find in real high protein foods.
Protein powders are not for everyone. Too much protein can be harmful for people with kidney disease. Those with diabetes will need be very cautious of the sugar content of the product.
Overall, for most people protein powders are a healthy and convenient choice to meet your protein needs for the day.
How to Choose a Protein Powder
There are several things to take into account when choosing a protein powder.
First, think about dietary restrictions. Are you vegan or vegetarian? Lactose intolerant? Or do you have any food allergies? All of these types of questions will guide you to which type to choose.
Second, what are your goals? This article will focus on muscle building, weight loss, and overall health as goals for how to choose a protein powder. But, if you have medical conditions that need to be considered also, speak to your doctor or dietitian about the best choice for you.
Third, you want to consider cost, taste, and how well it mixes with liquids. Protein powders can vary significantly in cost and just because it’s more expensive, doesn’t mean it’s better for you or even tastes better. Some can be gritty and really need to be blended to taste right.
You may have to try a few different protein powders before you find one with a tolerable taste. Maybe ask some friends what their favorite is, so you don’t waste money purchasing different powders you will never drink.
Best Protein Powders for Weight Loss
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories and exercise more. If you have ever been on a diet, you know how hard this can be. Your body resists weight loss and sends out all sorts of hormones to get you to eat more so it can maintain its normal weight. Eating more protein can make cutting calories and losing weight a bit easier.
A higher protein diet has been found to increase metabolism and satiety compared to a low protein diet. A high protein intake naturally leads to a lower calorie intake overall. Also, a high protein diet has been found to increase weight and fat loss, compared to diets high in other macronutrients (4). So, if you want to lose weight, protein is your best friend.
One thing to note, in terms of weight loss, extra calories are extra calories. So, even if you are eating all your calories in protein, if you are eating too much you won’t see the results you are looking for.
A good option for a protein powder for weight loss will have at least 15-20 grams of protein, but keep the calories at 150 or less. If you plan on using the protein powder as a meal replacement aim for at least 20 grams of protein and the calories could be a bit higher too.
Whey protein is the ideal protein for weight loss. A 2008 study evaluated the impact of a whey protein supplement on weight loss of subjects who were already following a low calorie diet. The subjects received either a whey protein supplement or a placebo beverage 20 minutes before breakfast and 20 minutes before dinner for 12 weeks. They also cut 500 calories from their daily intake. Body fat, lean muscle mass, and weight was recorded every 4 weeks.
Although both groups lost weight, the group that received the protein powder lost significantly more body fat and less muscle when compared to the placebo group. The ability to maintain muscle mass while losing weight may make it easier to keep the weight off long-term (5).
Another option for a good protein powder for weight loss are products that have added caffeine or fiber. Caffeine has consistently been shown to slightly speed up metabolism and boost exercise performance (6). If you can work out harder, you may be able to lose weight faster. Fiber, on the other hand, helps you feel full longer, which could eventually lead to eating fewer calories (7).
There are many different options for protein powders that can help with weight loss. The important thing in choosing one is to keep the calories and sugar low, but the protein high.
Check out: The top 10 ranked whey protein powders
Best Protein Powders for Gaining Muscle
Weight training and body building isn’t just for men. Many women are also interested in gaining muscle, not just losing weight. Without protein you can’t put on muscle mass, since muscles are made from protein.
The two best protein powder options for gaining muscle are whey and casein. These are the two proteins found in cow’s milk, so they may not be appropriate for people with allergies or who follow a vegan diet.
Whey protein is the most common type of protein used in the body building community. It is an easily absorbed, high quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. Whey has significant research behind it to back up its use as a muscle building supplement. It has been found to increase lean body mass and strength (8). Whey protein powder also usually tastes pretty good, so that’s an added bonus.
Casein is the other protein found in dairy. Like whey, it is also a complete protein, but it is not as fast acting. It is probably best used as a meal replacement, as it can stick with you longer. Some research has suggested that casein might even out-perform whey in increasing muscle strength (9).
One thing to note, some people tend to be sensitive to casein. For those that are, it can cause skin and digestive problems.
Check out: The top 10 ranked casein protein powders
Best Plant-Based Protein Powders
Many women prefer to eat a vegan or a vegetarian diet and protein intake becomes even more critical for those who don’t eat meat. Luckily, there are a lot of high quality options for plant-based protein powders. The main types are: soy, pea, hemp, and brown rice powder.
Soy is the only complete plant protein available. It is quite neutral in taste. One thing to note is that most soy is genetically modified, if this is important to you, you will need to avoid soy. Soy also contains phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body. This may be a concern for people with certain hormone-positive cancers (10).
Check out: The top 10 ranked soy protein powders
Pea protein is made from yellow peas. It is not a complete protein, as it is low in the amino acid methionine. It does contain phytic acid, which can block nutrient absorption. It can also be a bit gritty, so it is usually mixed with other types of proteins.
Check out: The top 10 ranked pea protein powders
Rice protein is also not a complete protein, but is a great source of fiber and B-vitamins. It is also very hypoallergenic and appropriate for people who have food sensitivities. It may also be just as effective as whey in helping boost muscle mass (11).
Check out: The top 10 ranked rice protein powders
Hemp protein comes from the seeds of the cannabis plant. It does not contain any psychoactive properties. It is a good source of omega-3 fats, potassium, iron, and fiber (12).
Check out: The top 10 ranked hemp protein powders
There are several blends of plant-based proteins on the market to provide a product that is a complete protein by combining different sources.
For example, brown rice protein is low in lysine, but has adequate amounts of methionine.
When it is combined with pea protein (high in lysine), it forms a complete protein. A blend is probably your best bet when choosing a plant-based protein, to make sure you are getting all the essential amino acids in your supplement.
Check out: The top 10 ranked plant based protein powders
Protein for Other Uses
There are several other options of protein that can help address other health concerns.
Here are a few different choices:
Collagen for skin health.
Collagen is an incomplete protein, it does not contain the amino acid tryptophan, but that doesn’t mean it has no value. Collagen supplements may help skin stay healthy as you age (13). One of the amino acids in collagen, called glycine, is important for wound healing and immunity (14).
Check out: The top 10 ranked collagen supplements
Bovine Colostrum for Immune Function
Colostrum is the first milk that comes out after a cow gives birth. It is extremely high in nutrients, antibodies, and probiotics and has been called “liquid gold”. Research has found that it may help boost the immune system, lessening the duration of respiratory infections (15).
Check out: The top 10 ranked colostrum supplements
Tips on Using Protein Powders
Protein powders are extremely versatile and can be used in many different ways as a meal or as a snack.
If you are opting to use the protein powder for a smoothie, the options are endless. Start with your liquid of choice. You can use water, milk, or a non-dairy milk like almond or soy. A little bit of ice gives it a nice thick flavor. Throw it into a blender for a quick drink.
But, you don’t have to stop there. You can always add fruit, veggies, or healthy fats like chia or flaxseeds. Just be aware of how many extra ingredients you are adding to your smoothie particularly if your goal is weight loss, your smoothie could pack in a lot of calories.
A combo I enjoy is chocolate protein power with almond milk and frozen strawberries. I always try to throw in a handful of spinach as well because it doesn’t change the flavor while adding a boost of nutrition.
Protein powder can be used beyond smoothies. It can be mixed into hot cereal, like oatmeal, to increase the protein content. You can mix an unflavored powder into coffee, to give it a nutrient boost. You can also mix unflavored powder into soups to thicken them and add a bit of protein.
There are many recipes out there for “energy bites” or baked goods using protein powder. These are a great way to get your protein while enjoying a treat.
A protein powder can be an easy way to add some extra protein to your diet and help you meet your goals. But, beware of marketing surrounding these products. Take a look at the actual ingredients in the product, not just the hype surrounding it.
A good quality product shouldn’t contain more than 10 ingredients. Avoid products with artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, thickeners and gums, and fillers. Also, not that a higher price doesn’t always mean a higher quality product, so do your research to find the best protein powder for you.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from Oleg Romanko / Rimma Bondarenko / Africa Studio / George Rudy / f2.8 / Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.