Protein powder: Finding the right one and how to use it

Wherever possible, it is best to get your protein from food sources. Sometimes it may not be possible to do so. In those cases is can be a perfectly appropriate and healthy option to use some form of protein powder. With so many options, the most difficult part for some can be deciding which protein powder to use. When walking down any aisle of a store that sells protein powder, the options can sometimes seem endless and confusing. Hopefully by understanding the types of protein powder and knowing some key tips for selecting protein powders, you can make an informed choice.

Types of Protein Powder

Animal sourced

  • Whey powder – Whey is a protein found in milk. Specifically it is the protein that remains in the watery part of milk once the curds and cream (used to make butter, cheese, etc.) have been removed. Whey is a complete protein meaning it contains all essential amino acids (EAAs). It does have a bit of a milky taste, so I find it works best in foods or beverages that would work well with dairy.  Try mixing in soups, smoothies, yogurts and hot or cold cereals. Whey is general well tolerated as it is digested and absorbed easily. When buying, try to buy whey isolate rather than concentrate, as isolate typically has more actual protein.
  • Casein powder – Casein is the main protein in milk and requires a little more time to be digested and absorbed, which can help you feel full for longer.  As with whey, it is a complete protein. Again, as it comes from dairy, it works best in the foods mentioned above.

Note: Because both whey and casein come from milk, those with a dairy allergy would not tolerate these types of protein powders, but I have seen that those with a lactose intolerance are usually able to tolerate protein powders.  If you do have a lactose intolerance, try protein powder with other foods that you know you can eat, to make sure it does not cause any discomfort.

  • Egg white powder – This is a complete protein, but it is not absorbed as well as milk protein. It does mix well with smoothies and can be used in some recipes, such as pancakes.

Vegetarian sourced

  • Soy powder – Soy is a complete protein and provides all EAAs when used a protein supplement. Soy is digested at a medium rate and so provide some satiety (feeling of fullness). It works well in smoothies and hot cereals as well as some baked goods. It is important to know that if you have had a hormone-sensitive cancer, you may need to limit soy intake. I would suggest speaking to a Registered Dietitian to determine if soy-based protein powder is right for you and the correct amount to use.
  • Pea powder – Usually made from yellow split peas, pea powder is easy to digest. It’s not a complete protein, so it can be often found combined with other protein sources such as flax or quinoa to provide all EAAs.  It can be used in smoothies or as substitute for some of the flour in baking.
  • Hemp powder – Hemp protein powder provides the benefit of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids (keep an eye out, my blog series on fat will be coming soon, which will include information on omegas). Hemp can have a little less protein than other powder options, so it is best when mixed with other protein sources. As with other protein powders it works well in smoothies, cereals and baked goods. Similar to pea protein powder, hemp can be used as substitute for some of the flour in baking.
  • There are other plant based protein powders available but these are the most commonly available.

Now that you know the types how do you pick the right one?

  • Try to choose a protein powder that has a short ingredient list. Some brands have a lot of “fillers” (which results in less protein per serving) and/or extra vitamins or minerals added. Before taking any vitamin/mineral it is recommended that you speak with your family doctor or a registered dietitians even when  added as supplement in a protein powder. Although many feel that vitamins and minerals are harmless, it is possible to take too much, which could be dangerous depending on the type and/or your medical history.
  • A powder with 20-30 grams of protein per scoop is ideal especially when making smoothies, as you can typically use just one scoop. The other components of the smoothie, such as dairy or milk alterative, will also provide protein. Remember, studies show that taking a large amount of protein at one time is not used by the body as efficiently as when it is spaced out.  Please refer to my protein blogs for more information on proteins.
  • If you have some stomach upset when you start using a new protein powder check to see if it has artificial sweeteners. Some artificial sweeteners can cause stomach upset. If this is the case for you, try switching to a different product. You can always add a sweet taste through fruits or natural sugars, if desired. I suggest avoiding sweeteners or sugar in a protein powder unless recommended by a doctor or registered dietitian for a specific health reason.

Protein powders can be an excellent way to help meet your protein needs if you are unable to do so with foods alone. If you have any specific questions or concerns including if protein powders are right for you please speak with a Registered Dietitian. If you are an Ontario resident looking for a private practice dietitian please take a look at the “Nutrition Services” tab on this site for the various services I provide including virtual consults.

As always, if you enjoyed this blog and/or found it useful, please let me know. Keep an eye out for the next instalment of this series on fats.

Disclaimer:  The above information is intended for general public education and is not intended to be dietetic advise in any respect or to any person. Use of this information does not make any person a direct client of Tanya Brown,RD for any purpose and no such relationship will exist unless a formal client relationship has been entered into. Please consult your Doctor or a Registered Dietitian for individual recommendations prior to making any dietary or lifestyle changes.

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