With so many different protein powder options to choose from, it can be difficult to discern the right one for you. Not to worry, you’ve come to the right place!
Ahead is our breakdown of the types of protein powders, plus the accompanying research to help you make a more informed decision for your health and fitness objectives.
Whether you’re looking to:
. . . we cover the applicable protein supplements for your goals below.
Now, before addressing the options, let’s shake things up a bit and look at why people seek to supplement their diets with protein in the first place.
Credit: Adam Noffsinger
Why Take Protein Powder?
Firstly, they have the ability to serve as a convenient and concentrated source of high-quality protein.
High-quality protein powder can be especially beneficial if you do resistance training, strength training, or if you simply have a hard time reaching your daily protein intake goals through a whole foods diet alone.
Some of the many benefits to using protein supplements include:
- muscle gain
- reducing your appetite
- decreasing fat mass
- increasing lean mass
. . . as well as being an integral part of an overall weight management strategy.
These powders can also assistant you on your weight loss journey; adding them to a low carb, high protein diet can help with decreasing fat mass and increasing lean mass simultaneously.
Related: Start your weight loss journey with our calorie calculator tool.
What is a high-quality protein?
Essentially, concentrated sources of protein derived from either animals or plants, such as:
- red meat,
- and other plants and meat.
These proteins contain all the necessary amino acids and offer a high biological value; whilst being efficiently digestible by your body. Many of these protein powders are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, with calcium being the most common additive.
Which protein powder is best for my goal?
The reason WHY people choose to take protein powder supplements, or eat protein bars, varies, but usually its because they want to improve muscle growth during exercise. When it comes to training, certain types of protein may be more effective at giving your body what it requires.
We’ve referenced scientific research supporting this in the guide ahead, to showcase which powders can help you meet your specific fitness goals ahead.
Honestly, if your diet is already full of high-quality protein, you probably won’t see a significant difference in your muscle mass or exercise regimen by adding these powders.
- increase muscle gain,
- improve body composition,
- and facilitate fat loss.
If you’re interested in muscle gain, for example, there are a variety of options which may differ from a primary goal of weight loss. The most optimal choice for you should be made after doing a bit of research – you might end up trying a couple of different ones before deciding on the right one for you and your body type.
We’ve done the research for you, find the one most pertinent to your objectives below.
Protein Powder for Muscle Gain
Per the studies cited below, research has consistently shown the ability of whey protein to promote, not only muscle mass building, but recovery as well. So if you’re looking for the right type of protein to incorporate into your muscle-building efforts, follow the ‘whey‘.
ⓘ Whey contains lactose, which many individuals have difficulty absorbing and can lead to digestive problems.
Whey protein is derived from milk. It is produced when liquid separates from curds in the process of traditional cheese culturing. It’s high in protein but since it’s derived from milk it may not the best choice if you are lactose intolerant.
One alternative you could try is the isolate type of whey protein, which contains only small amounts of lactose because most of it is lost during the extraction process.
Whey concentrate is typically less expensive than whey isolate, as it contains less protein when measured by weight.
Meal replacement shakes with added whey protein and whey supplements have both been shown to decrease appetite and provided the largest reduction in caloric intake among participants in controlled studies. Additional studies on whey protein seem to suggest that it can reduce appetite and curb cravings as much as other forms of protein (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
However, whey protein may not be the most ideal choice for post-menopausal women who fared no better than those taking a placebo when combined with resistance training compared to whey protein (6).
Whey may also reduce appetite and promote fat loss. Other studies found ample evidence that whey may help to improve certain heart health markers in obese and overweight individuals, along with reducing inflammation (7, 8, 9).
How whey protein helps with muscle building
Whey is a quickly digested protein that provides a quick rise in amino acids which can increase strength and muscle mass. It also contains leucine, one specific type of amino acids that plays a key role in supporting recovery after weight training and endurance exercises.
It also plays a major functional role in muscle growth (10). As the amino acids are absorbed into your bloodstream, they become available for the creation of new muscle also known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS) (11).
Many studies looking at athletes suggest that whey protein can help maintain existing muscle mass as well as help build new muscles. Also, it has been shown particularly helpful for athletes who may be recovering from intensive exercise and resistance or weight training (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
Additionally, whey has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS) 132% more than casein protein and by 31% more than soy protein when used in conjunction with resistance training (17).
Protein Powder for Weight Loss
Per the studies cited in the research above, whey protein is an excellent choice for weight loss; and if your primary goal is shedding pounds, then you may want to consider adding casein to the mix as well.
We recommend a combination of the two for promoting fullness and fat loss.
ⓘ Like whey, casein is a protein found in milk, take note if you’re lactose intolerant.
In studies involving low-calorie diets among overweight men findings suggest that when calories are restricted, casein may be more effective at improving body composition than compared to whey; when done in conjunction with weight training (21).
Casein is digested evenly and absorbed a little slower than whey. This ultimately leads to a slower, more even release of amino acids into the bloodstream, which can reduce the breakdown of protein found in muscle cells (22).
Compared to the effects of soy and wheat proteins, casein is more effective at increasing muscle protein synthesis and overall strength. Ultimately, research into three of the other alternatives tested, determined whey to still be the most superior in this regard (9, 10, 23, 24, 25, 26).
Protein for Vegans & Vegetarians
To avoid downfalls and achieve desirable results, it’s best to choose a protein powder based on your dietary preferences, food tolerances and health and fitness goals.
For the vegetarians and vegans among us, you have a number of high-quality protein options that are 100% plant-based.
Options such as pea protein, hemp protein, and brown rice protein; depending on your dietary restrictions. There are also a number of exciting mixed plant protein powders on the market which combine a number of these together into a single supplement.
Aery popular choice among vegetarians and obviously vegans; it serves as a great option for those who might be allergic to dairy and/or eggs. It’s made from high-fiber legumes that contain all but one of the full spectrum of essential amino acids.
Pea plant protein is also high in those important BCAAs.
One study found that pea protein is absorbed quicker than casein but slower than whey. It has also been found to release several hormones that signal fullness to the brain (27).
In studies involving resistance training for men, those who took a daily dose of 1.8 ounces of pea protein powder were found to have similar outcomes related to muscle mass and strength when compared to control groups who took whey protein daily (28).
Overall, however, research one pea protein supplements are quite limited, thus the interpretation of findings will need to be validated in future research on the matter.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein powders have been around for a while yet there still remains little research on them. They are considered low in lysine, and thus they’re not often considered a “complete protein.”
Generally, rice protein is considered to be equivalent or less effective than whey protein for building muscle.
One study found that rice and whey protein were fairly equal in terms of the changes in muscle strength, muscle recovery and other general changes to body composition (30).
Very little research exists, though, so the findings may be limited for interpretation. We’ll keep an eye on credible future research on the matter and update accordingly.
Hemp protein powder is another very popular plant-based protein supplement on the market.
Hemp is extremely potent and full of advantageous omega-3 fatty acids and a number of essential amino acids. Yet, hemp protein is NOT considered a complete protein.
This is due to the fact that it has negligible levels of leucine and lysine – amino acids important for muscle recovery. For this reason, there is currently not a ton of support for research on this protein, but it does seem to be a well-digested plant protein (31).
With the regulatory approvals for hemp growing and the subsequent seemingly exponential growth of the hemp industry in recent years, it’s likely that more funding will go into researching hemp-derived protein and it’s full potential.
Plant Protein Mixtures
Mixed plant protein powders contain an assortment of different plant source proteins to nourish your body with amino acids, an essential component of the muscle-building process.
Combinations of the following proteins are typically found in these mixtures:
Mixed plant proteins may be slower to digest when compared to animal proteins. Although this does not pose any serious problems for most people, it could limit the available amino acids in your bloodstream for use after exercise (32).
Other Types of Protein Powder
Some additional options you might consider are soy, beef or egg proteins as well. While there is limited research on beef and egg protein, soy is one that has been quite controversial.
Let’s clear up some of the confusion.
It’s time to make your amends with tofu and let’s start with the myths about soy and cancer. If you’ve been at the market and hesitated to try soymilk, hearing it could be linked to breast cancer, we can understand why!
The evidence is confusing. Let’s get you up to speed and clear up the confusion about soy.
First, it looked positive when studies in the early 1990s found that Asian women who consumed large amounts of soy had a reduced chance of getting breast cancer (33).
But then a different study shows that there was a possible increase in risk from eating soy. More studies throughout the 2000s found eating soy reduced survivors’ recurrence of different types of cancer (34, 35).
In 2006, the American Heart Association proclaimed that eating soy could be good for heart health. They later retracted that statement in 2008.
If this all sounds a bit confusing to you, don’t worry, you’re not the only one!
According to the experts – mostly registered dietitians, they all say there’s little evidence that eating soy (it’s high in protein and low in calories!) as part of a balanced diet will have any effects on your risk of developing cancer.
But from a research standpoint, measuring diet can be tricky, and is not easily accounted for methodologically in these studies, hence the variable outcomes.
The one thing we can agree on is that eating whole soy foods (edamame, tempeh, tofu) over any of the more processed versions like tofu-based “meat-like” products, soy burgers and hot dogs is often the wiser choice.
Jam-packed with nutrition, egg-white protein is high in quality and easily digested.
Eggs are a great source of high-quality protein and can be a great alternative for people with a dairy allergy who want animal-based protein. They can assist with weight loss goals by helping decrease appetite and keeping you feeling fuller for longer (39, 40).
Eggs have a very high protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS). This score is based on a measure of protein digestibility and the overall quality. Compared to other whole foods, eggs are the best in this score (41).
Egg-based protein powders are made from egg whites instead of the whole egg. Thus, quality remains first-rate but the yolks have been removed. So, you might not feel satiated for as long and you can expect a lower fat content.
Comparatively speaking, the research on egg-white protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or casein. In one study, however, female athletes taking egg-white protein showed similar changes in lean muscle and overall strength compared to those enhancing with carbs (42).
For those keto fans or anyone who’s allergic to whey and milk, it can be hard to find good protein sources. Beef powder protein is one option you might not have thought of or heard much about before!
If you want to supplement protein into your diet without having to consume potentially mercury-contaminated tuna, this is an excellent solution. It’s packed full of amino acids and high-quality protein.
You may also want to incorporate some lean red meats into your diet. Lean beef is generally signaled by the words “round” or “loin.” In addition to ample protein quantities, it’s packed full of B vitamins, selenium, and zinc.
Lean cuts of beef contain less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce serving (43).
One study found that beef can help generate muscle protein synthesis in participants and provided necessary amino acid precursors for the elevated synthesis of proteins. Beef protein can be comparable to whey or casein but without the dairy derivatives. (44)
Whoa, you made it to the finish line! Excellent, let’s briefly review it all.
We covered why people take protein and what constitutes a high-quality option. From there you were introduced to the ones best suited for some common fitness goals, dietary lifestyles, and other types you may not have heard of as often.
We hope that this overview of the different kinds of proteins will serve as a valuable reference in achieving your wellness goals. If you feel the same, pay it forward by sharing it with other like-minded people.
Keep Reading: The 7 Best Protein Powders for Women
Stock Photos from Top Vector Studio, Serbinka & Nick Starichenko / Shutterstock.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Molly.
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About the Author
I hold a PhD in Preventive Medicine and Health Behavior Research from USC- Keck School of Medicine and I’m also a certified health education specialist (CHES). I currently work as a freelance writer, researcher, and strategy consultant. I’m also a professor of psychology, sociology and health sciences at two amazing universities in Los Angeles. Finally, I’m an intuitive healing practitioner and I teach meditation with private clients in Hollywood and Worldwide. I specialize in mindfulness, clearing negative energy and releasing creativity blocks. My website is www.drmollyann.com. Email Molly.