How to choose the right protein powder for you
There’s a vast difference between want and need. Only true endurance athletes, for instance, really need to quench their thirst with sports drinks to replace electrolytes.
But they’re tasty, and they’re a nice reward at the end of a half hour at the gym. In the long run, as long as you realize you’re gulping down 150 calories after the walk that burned 200 calories, it’s not the worst vice.
In the same light, most meat-happy Americans do not need a protein powder. But for those looking for an easy boost of protein—or, for the underweight, ill or super-athletic—it’s an easy way to supplement the diet.
We spoke with Julie Rhody, a master nutrition therapist with Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, about what to look for in a protein powder.
“Protein powders can be really healthy and they are a convenient way to get the protein we need, but they should be thought of as a supplement,” she says. “You can use them as a meal replacement or a snack, but they should never replace whole foods.”
So, how do you choose between the hundreds of powders on the market?
First, consider your dietary needs. Keep in mind that ingredients like whey are not good for the lactose intolerant, for instance. If taste is a factor, Rhody notes, some products are much tastier than others. But first, be sure you’re choosing a complete protein.
“Whey is the most available,” she says, adding that those who are vegan or lactose intolerant might look toward a plant protein, such as soy or hemp.
And, unless you’re undernourished, there’s no need for the powder to double as a multivitamin, she says.
“Don’t pay extra for more nutrition unless you have a specific reason for it,” Rhody advises. “Watch out for added sugar and definitely stay away from any products with artificial sugar.”
Next, consider the source of the ingredients in the powder.
“Do you care about organic ingredients, GMOs or hormones? Know where the ingredients come from,” she adds.
Finally, before you purchase a powder, consider its use. If you’re using it to lose weight, look for basic whey proteins, which help with satiety. Those who need to gain weight should look for proteins with carbohydrates and fats added. Toss the powder in a blender with bananas, nut butter or berries to up that calorie count even more, Rhody says.
And, like energy drinks, endurance athletes should tap the power of powders. She suggests whey protein, which will help with muscle recovery.
Finally, vegans often have a difficult time getting enough protein. If you’re vegan, look for hemp, soy or a combination rice and pea protein.
Rhody, who is also a nutrition therapist with the Fit:30 gym in Denver, runs down the most common powders out there:
Whey: Complete protein, and many say it tastes the best. It’s good for weight loss and workout recovery, and is the most available on the market. Casein is similar to whey protein but digests more slowly. This is less desirable after workouts.
Hemp: Its downside is that many don’t care for the taste, and it’s more expensive than other powders. But it contains good fats, which makes it a good bet for vegans who want to gain weight.
Soy: The other vegan choice is tastier to many. Some worry about studies that too much soy can lead to higher rates of cancer, but Rhody doesn’t believe this is anything to worry about.
Pea: While it’s vegan, it’s an incomplete protein that needs to be paired with another protein to be complete. Pair it with rice, another incomplete protein, and you’re all set.