Adding a jug of protein powder to your pantry is a convenient way to get more of the muscle-building macro in your diet. But with the overwhelming number of protein powder supplements out there — from whey to casein to soy and pea — how do you know which to pick?
Whether you're looking to build muscle or shed some weight, the type of protein supplement that's best for you depends on your health goals. Before you head to the local supermarket or health store, make sure to cross-check your goal with the appropriate type of supplement in our guide below.
Protein Supplements Vs. Food
The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for healthy individuals is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily — but that's the bare minimum required to maintain basic health. In an ideal world, a person would 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily in order to maintain more muscle and support your metabolism, according to a March 2016 report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So if you weigh 150 pounds, your protein goal would be 82 to 136 grams from a daily diet that focuses on lean meats, nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs and quality whole grains.
Foods that contain protein also have other important nutrients. For example, 3.5 ounces of grilled sirloin steak not only has more than 28 grams of protein but also has iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and vitamin B12. However, it's not always possible to eat enough "real food" to hit those protein marks every single day. That's when supplements can help.
"Supplements can play a role with certain goals," Erin Green, RD and professional triathlete, tells LIVESTRONG.com. For example, if you're trying to build muscle, a protein shake or powder can be very convenient, Green says. "It's transportable, and liquid protein often goes into the system and is broken down into amino acids more quickly than eating meat."
Keep in mind that it's possible to overuse protein supplements, particularly if you consume them in favor of high-protein traditional foods like steak and eggs. Too much protein can lead to constipation, weight gain, kidney problems and even cancer, according to Harvard Health.
Best Protein Powder for Weight Loss
Protein supplements can help with weight loss because they promote satiety and help preserve lean muscle mass, Monica Auslander Moreno, RD and founder of Essence Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com. However, she adds that eating enough protein needs to be combined with other factors, such as getting enough physical activity.
If you're exercising a lot, protein supplements can be quite valuable for both your athletic performance and your recovery. In fact, consuming protein after a workout both optimizes your physical performance and improves the recovery process, a study published in September 2018 in Frontiers in Nutrition concluded. The researchers also noted that people who strength train and follow a calorie-restricted diet should get even more protein — ideally, 2.3 to 3.1 grams per kilogram of body weight — to offset any potential loss of lean muscle.
When your goal is weight loss, the specific type of protein powder you choose — such as whey, casein, soy or otherwise — doesn't matter as much as finding a brand that's free from added sugars and dextrins or maltodextrins, which are sweeteners made from starch, advises the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, skip the protein supplements with branched-chain amino acids, which dietitians recommend for muscle growth and weight gain.
Plus, it's important to keep your calories in check when weight loss is your goal. Most protein powders have between 90 and 120 calories per serving. Add yogurt, juice, banana, honey and other fruit, and suddenly your sensible snack ends up with more calories and sugar than your meals! Instead, mix the powder into low-fat milk or water when you use it as a snack. If you're using protein powder as a meal replacement, add just a half to one cup of fruit and a half cup of low-fat milk to keep the calories in check.
Protein Supplements for Muscle Gain
Consuming enough protein is key to building muscle — which might not be much of a surprise, considering protein is part of every tissue in the body, including muscles. When it comes to picking a protein supplement for muscle gains, stick with a classic: whey. "Whey protein is the gold standard, which science has deemed ideal for muscle gains, especially when engaging in weight-bearing activities," Moreno says.
For optimal results, choose a whey protein isolate rather than a concentrate. The latter is made by extracting the protein from liquid whey with heat or enzymes, but the process causes the resulting powder to have a lower concentration of protein and a higher amount of carbs and fat. Isolates, on the other hand, have a protein concentration of 90 percent or more and are free from carbohydrates (including fiber) and fat.
"I personally love how there is so much research on the bioavailability and bio-utility of whey proteins," Moreno says. "It's incredibly useful for athletes. Consuming whey 30 minutes before bedtime can result in increased muscle protein synthesis."
If you need to skip whey protein because you prefer to avoid dairy, try rice protein powder. In a small study of 24 people published in 2013 in Nutrition Journal, researchers found that rice protein worked just as well as whey in improving muscle mass, as well as perceived post-exercise recovery and soreness.
Protein Powder for Appetite Management
The key to feeling full, notes Moreno, is enjoying foods with plenty of protein, fat and fiber — but standard snacks are typically carbohydrate-based. However, you can switch to a snack that's boosted with a protein supplement, such as a protein smoothie.
For appetite management, there's not one right choice for a protein supplement, so go with what you like. If whey doesn't suit your needs, try soy or pea powder. "If someone is vegan or needs to stay away from dairy, soy protein is a great alternative," Green recommends. "For most people, you're not going to see a huge advantage of whey over soy. Pea protein is fairly new on the supplement market, and I'm seeing some really cool things with it."
Vegetarians and vegans can also look into a mixed plant-based protein powder. These typically combine proteins from two different plants, such as hemp, rice, pea, alfalfa, chia, flax or quinoa. Not all plant proteins are complete; that is, they're missing one or more of the nine amino acids that humans need in their diet. However, multiple plant proteins can be combined to make a complete protein. If you want a single-source supplement, choose one that's derived from quinoa, buckwheat, hemp or soy, which are complete proteins on their own
Protein Powder for Sensitive Stomachs
Protein supplements can cause an upset stomach for some, but it's probably not the protein itself. Instead, it could be the fiber in a protein powder or it might be the lactose if you're choosing a dairy-based powder. Artificial sweeteners or dextrins/maltodextrins may be causing the problem, too.
If you find yourself struggling with stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea or other unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects after drinking a whey or casein supplement, go for a plant-based protein powder.
Collagen Protein For Skin and Joint Health
Also consider supplementing with collagen, the most abundant protein in your body. A review of 11 studies with more than 800 participants, published in January 2019 in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, found that collagen supplements may help wound healing and slow skin aging. Additionally, Penn Medicine reports that supplementing with collagen might ease osteoarthritis-related knee pain and back pain, as well as help prevent bone loss and build muscle mass.
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Tips for Choosing the Best Protein Powder for You"
- Penn Medicine: "4 Head-To-Toe Ways That Collagen Can Improve Your Health"
- Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: "Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications"
- Nutritional Journal: "The Effects of 8 Weeks of Whey or Rice Protein Supplementation on Body Composition and Exercise Performance"
- USDA National Nutrient Database: "Beef, Loin, Top Sirloin Cap Steak, Boneless, Separable Lean only, Trimmed to 1/8" Fat, Select, Cooked, Grilled
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "When It Comes to Protein, How Much Is Too Much?"