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Your Guide to Protein Powders

Katie Breazeale, MS, RD, LD

There are so many different types of protein on the market these days.  Do you understand what the differences are between whey, casein, and branched chain amino acids?  Let’s be honest those three are the tip of the iceberg considering there are also plant-based protein powders as well.

Protein powders are often thought of as nutritional supplements for athletes. This is completely understandable because most protein powders focus on selling their products to athletes. But, while athletes do need more protein than most people, everybody needs to consume a minimum amount of protein every day for good health.

An average person needs 0.8 grams of protein for every kg of body weight. This means that if you weigh 70 kg (154 lb), you need 56 grams of protein every day. If you weigh 90 kg (198 lb), then you need 72 grams of protein every day.

These are the minimum requirements for most people, although some need more. For example, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those who have difficulty gaining or keeping on weight, such as some older adults or those with HIV/AIDS, may benefit from additional protein.

If you are an athlete or are very physically active, you need more nutrients for energy—including more protein for recovery. Research shows that eating high-quality protein within two hours after exercise can enhance muscle repair and growth. Athletes should aim for 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. This means that a 70 kg (154 lb) athlete needs 84-140 grams of protein every day, while a 90 kg (198 lb) athlete needs 108-180 grams of protein every day.

The most common protein we see on the market is Whey Protein Powder.

Whey protein will have the highest amount of branch chain amino acids.  Whey protein has been shown to be a safe product for consumers.  It is effective for meeting higher protein needs.  Whey may help with increasing muscle size as a post workout supplement.  Studies show that muscle protein synthesis is optimized in response to exercise by the consumption of high-quality protein.  Ideally 20 g 0-2 hours post exercise.

Casein has the ability to provide your bloodstream with a slow and steady flow of amino acids that could last for hours.  Casein turns to gel in the stomach causing a slow absorption rate.  Casein can take 5-7 hours to digest. Intake of casein can have a higher metabolic rate while sleeping and a better overall fat balance. Also, of note satiety levels are higher.

Combining casein and whey creates for better weight loss and greatest increase in fat free lean mass.  Another positive to this source of protein is its high glutamine content. Glutamine helps boost the immune system and speed up recovery. People also use casein during the day to help stay full and to keep a constant supply of protein in your body to supply the muscles with proper nutrition for hours after drinking the shake.

BCAA’s are used for energy during prolonged exercise when glycogen levels are low.  You will see them as their own supplement or mixed in with pre-workouts.  They compete with tryptophan, an amino acid associated with mental fatigue. 

Have you ever noticed on the label that BCAA’s only have 4 out of the 9 essential amino acids needed for muscle building.  Leucine has been shown to resynthesize muscle the fastest after a workout and this is found in BCAA’s.  Just keep in mind it will take all 9 to repair and build muscles.  BCAA’s are considered safe.  Research has shown they are not effective for improving performance.  Research has also shown that there are positive effects on immune response and reduction of post exercise induced muscle fatigue.

Soy is one of the plants that are high in protein and contain all of the essential amino acids (it’s a complete protein). Soy-based protein powders are a popular choice for people who avoid dairy.

Pea protein powders can be used by those who avoid dairy and soy. Pea protein is rich in eight of the nine essential amino acids, so it has low amounts of just one amino acid (methionine). Pea protein can be mixed with rice or animal-based proteins to provide a complete protein.

Hemp protein is low in two essential amino acids (lysine and leucine), however it does contain some of the essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Overall, your best choice is a whey protein option.  It has the highest amount of BCAA’s, it is safe, and it has research showing its effectiveness for increasing muscle mass and meeting higher protein needs.  If you’re unsure what brand to buy, a sport’s dietitian can make some excellent recommendations that a third party tested plus how to incorporate them into your daily program.  

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