As protein powders continue to grow in popularity, it’s important to educate yourself first on the “do’s” and “don’ts” before adding them to your diet. Do you know what’s inside your protein powder? How to use it effectively? In this blog (and this youtube video), I answer all these questions and more to help you decide how, when, and if you should use protein powder. As the title states, here is everything you need to know about protein powder:
What is protein powder made of? And why do people use it?
Whey protein is the most popular type of protein powder on the market. Whey is a milk protein and is the liquid by-product formed in cheese making. Whey is considered a “complete protein” which means it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It’s also an excellent source of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are used to fuel working muscles, stimulate protein synthesis, and strengthen the immune system. Because the body quickly absorbs whey, it makes for a great source of immediate protein post-workout. Casein is the main protein found in milk. Unlike fast-absorbing whey, casein provides a sustained, slow release of amino acids into the blood. For this reason, casein protein is more commonly used at bedtime rather than immediately post-workout. Because whey and casein occur naturally in milk, having a source of dairy such as Greek yogurt or milk post-workout would provide the same benefit and BCAAs.
Protein powders are used by some to lose weight, by some to gain weight, and by many for the convenience factor of having a meal you can drink. Other commonly used protein powders include soy, pea, and brown rice. Vegan protein powders may also sometimes use a blend of different plant-based proteins together to provide similar amino acid contents.
When and how should I use protein powder?
Research has proven that consuming protein, in combination with carbohydrates, after your workout is a successful way to stimulate protein synthesis and restore muscle glycogen stores. I should repeat, in combination with carbs! You should consume a source of carbohydrates along WITH the protein for the full benefits. One of the biggest issues I see is when individuals mix their protein powder with water alone post-workout. Use milk instead of water or have a large piece of fruit, such as a banana, along with your whey.
Even better, mix your protein powder into a smoothie rather than just water/milk. Adding fruits and vegetables increases the nutrient content and antioxidant level, which are also very beneficial to exercise recovery. Plus, if you find it hard getting enough veggies in during the day, throw a few large handfuls of spinach into your blender along with fresh fruit and you won't even taste it! Also, more protein does not always mean better. Your body can only process so much protein at one time, meaning one serving will be plenty!!
Protein powders can also be a great way for athletes struggling to gain weight and have a hard time eating large volumes of food. I recommend adding unflavored protein powder to pancake and waffle mix, oatmeal, or making a shake and adding a multitude of nutritious foods such as oats, peanut butter, chia seeds, etc. to up the calories. (see blog on weight gain here).
Are all protein powders on the market safe?
No! The FDA does not regulate supplements so you must always use caution when choosing them. There are SO many protein powders on the market that you can't be sure what's a clean product and what's not. Here's a great example of one company in Nebraska who's product, once tested, was shown to have completely opposite of what was listed on the label...one of the flavors only had 21% of the protein promised and 1814% more sugar than on the label showed!! Read the full article here.
Athletes: Your protein powder should be NSF certified for sport. Required for athletes to assure they aren't taking any illegal supplements, NSF assures what's listed on that package is what's actually in the product. Even if you aren't in collegiate or professional sports, I still highly recommend seeking out a protein with this certification. Why? Because it's constantly going through rigorous testing to make sure it's legit. Find the list of certified products here or check with your dietitian to assure you’re using a safe product.
What’s the difference between whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate?
Isolate is at least 90% protein, while concentrate ranges between 30-89% protein, depending on the brand. The rest is primarily made up of fat and lactose. Isolate’s higher concentration of protein may offer slightly greater benefits and amino acids. Both types are easily digested by the body and readily available to muscles. If you’re lactose-intolerant, isolate may be a better choice as almost all the lactose is removed during processing. Many brands feature a “blend” of both isolate and concentrate in their product. These brands are often less expensive than pure isolate, while still offering many of the benefits of 100% isolate.
What types of protein powders or ingredients should I avoid?
If you see any of the following ingredients listed on the label, skip it and go for a better option: Mono and diglycerides, artificial flavors, crystalline fructose, corn syrup, artificial flavors, carrageenan, artificial sweeteners (i.e. sucralose/splenda, acesulfame K, aspartame)
You should avoid artificial sweeteners before any workout as these can lead to GI distress!
What kind of protein do you recommend?
The kind that comes from real food! Seriously. What better way to get your branched-chain amino acids and protein than from the original source itself – before all the processing! You don't need whey protein powders for the BCAA and protein. Since whey is naturally occurring in milk, eat some yogurt, milk, or cottage cheese for the same benefits. Other great (and cheaper) sources of protein: eggs, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, quinoa, nuts, nut butters, textured vegetable protein, tofu, or soybeans. You can see it's not just protein powder that's packed with protein! For the majority of people, protein needs can easily be met by diet alone – no powders needed. Enjoy real food when you can, and if you find protein powders to be more convenient for you and your schedule, go for it. Just make sure you're using a good product that fits the recommendations listed above!
Still have questions? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.