Updated: Jul 17
Protein powders are super popular these days, but with so many types and brands available on the market, it can be very overwhelming to pick one. As someone who recommends protein powders a lot, as a way to more easily meet protein requirements, I decided to summarize below answers to some common questions as well as pro's and con's of different types of protein powders. Keep in mind there are wayyyyy too many out there for me to have tried them all, and this is general information, not specific to any product.
What should I look for in a protein powder?
First is the source of protein, which depends on personal preference. Do you prefer plant based? Most versatile for 'other' uses beyond shakes? Do you have a dairy sensitivity? Are you particular with texture? Read the section 'Protein Powder Comparison' below for more details on the different sources.
Secondly, it's not ideal to have a protein powder loaded with sugar - so you want to make sure there's less than 5g sugar per ~20g protein. Also checking the ingredient list can help you understand more about added ingredients - protein powders are processed foods so are definitely going to have some added ingredients, but less is better and ideally you can read all the added ingredients.
Third, additional nutrients - some protein powders can act as meal replacements when they have added vitamins and minerals. I generally don't recommend this as your main protein powder unless you've consulted with your healthcare provider. It can also change the flavour profile of the powder, so keep that in mind if you're particular about taste!
Protein Powder Comparison
Whey protein, or whey isolate, is the most common and preferred option. There are many options on the market.
Pros - High quality and balanced protein source with many health benefits. Often preferred for muscle building but can also support many other areas of health.
Cons - Some find the flavour unfavourable, but I think this depends on the brand. Some people may also be sensitive to whey protein due to it's dairy source, so you may want to avoid it if you're lactose intolerant. Whey isolates seem not to have any digestive effects for those with mild lactose intolerance. Some commercial brands have high sugar content, so check the label and look for <5g per scoop.
Plant proteins can be from a wide range of potential sources - soy, pea, rice, pumpkin seed are some common ones.
Pros - Typically preferred by vegans/vegetarians. Plant proteins are lactose free and generally support health but the specifics are not well studied compared to whey.
Cons - The texture and digestibility of some plant protein may not be ideal for certain people (eg. pea protein if you have IBS). It is difficult to achieve the correct balance of amino acids, so protein quality is lower, and they also tend to be lower in grams of protein per scoop - so you need to consume more of it. Some plant proteins with a combination of sources have better balance and quality, but still likely not as good as animal based protein sources. Soy protein specifically can benefit hormone balance and contain healthy fats and other nutrients.
Beef protein is becoming more popular and available from a variety of brands.
Pros - by far the best tasting and textured (my preferred, and no - it doesn't taste like beef). High quality, balanced, and easily digestible. It is very versatile with ideal texture/consistency for baking, protein pancakes, etc. May be higher in collagen as well!
Cons - May not be best for some due to the beef source, and is often more expensive. Because it has some fat content, it usually needs to be blended if mixing with a liquid (a shaker cup doesn't quite cut it) - so not convenient for a quick post-gym shake unless you make it in advance (or your gym has a blender?)
Keep in mind, It may be trial and error to find one you like regardless of the information above. Preferences in flavour, texture, and ingredients are very individual, but I hope this helps you with the decision on where to start or what to try next!
You can find my favourite protein powders HERE.
Ways to use protein powders
Protein powders can be used in so many ways beyond the typical 'protein shake' (ie. powder + liquid). These are some of my favourite ways to use protein powder to bulk up your protein intake to meet your macro goals, stay full for longer, regulate your blood sugar, and support your muscle and metabolic health.
Combine a scoop of your flavoured or unflavoured protein with some fresh or frozen fruit & veg, and liquid of your choice. Consider some highly nutritious bonuses like almond butter, greek yogurt, hemp hearts, flax seeds, 1/2 avocado, and more! Then blend it up and enjoy!
Consider making it into a smoothie bowl by using less liquid (for a thicker consistency), and topping with whole fruits, nuts, seeds, coconut flakes, or anything else tasty and nutritious.
There are quite a few options when it comes to breakfast foods:
Overnight oats: Mix 0.5-1 scoop of protein powder with your quick oats before adding your liquid.
Super high-protein greek yogurt: Mix 1 scoop of protein powder with 3/4c greek yogurt (it seems like a lot at first, but blends nicely within a minute of mixing)
Protein pancakes/waffles: Mix a scoop of protein powder with your classic pancake/waffle mix OR skip the flour and blend 2 eggs + 1 banana + 1 scoop of protein powder + 0.5+cup quick oats (to get the right consistency). Add cinnamon, vanilla, or whatever else you like to flavour your pancakes. Then fry as usual.
You can usually substitute a fraction of the flour in muffins, banana breads, cookies, and other baked goods with protein powder. It's not a perfect substitute (and I'm not a baker) but you can find lots of great recipes on Pinterest.
I hope you feel inspired to use protein powder more often and in diverse ways!
In health & happiness,
Dr. Nicole, ND