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Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Protein Powder
Some athletes, bodybuilders, and physique competitors have become memes online for doing things like eating 12 raw eggs as a breakfast drink in pursuit of having a high protein diet.
For some, that may work. For the rest of us, the thought of doing that makes our stomach churn.
Luckily, you don't have to eat five pounds of chicken and a dozen eggs each day to hit your protein intake goals. If you eat a diet that's in the ballpark of your target macros, you can round out your protein intake with a protein powder.
This article breaks down the types of protein available to you, which proteins are best for your individual needs, and why protein is so important for active people.
Take this short quiz to find out what type of protein may be best for you, or read on to learn everything you've ever wanted to know about protein powders!
What types of proteins are available?
Depending upon your goals, dietary needs, and budget, there are a variety of protein powders available to you. Ultimately, whatever you choose, you're going to be able to use them to get more protein in your diet. In its simplest form, that's what any protein powder will do for you. However, let's take a closer look at the options available.
Whey protein powders are probably the most common. You can find them in most grocery stores, pharmacies, supplement shops, or sporting goods stores.
Whey proteins are derived from, well, whey, which is a milk-fat product. Whey proteins tend to be fast-absorbing and contribute to muscle growth and recovery. Because of this, most of the protein shakes that you see folks drinking soon after a workout are going to be whey proteins. They're fairly high protein by volume, can be pretty cheap, and they're readily available.
Because whey protein is derived from milk, whey protein is not suitable for people who are lactose intolerant.
Whey Isolate Protein
Similar to a standard whey protein, whey isolate is also derived from whey. However, in a whey isolate, all that you're getting is the extracted protein and none of the other milk byproducts. Because of this, whey isolate protein powders are lactose-free.
Whey isolates function much the same as whey protein once they're in the body, though there is some research to suggest that they may be slightly better for body composition. If you can consume lactose though, a whey protein is probably going to be a more affordable option than a whey isolate.
Whichever you take, a whey and whey isolate are both going to be fast-absorbing, rich in amino acids, and will help with muscle growth and recovery.
Casein protein is also derived from milk, but unlike whey and whey isolates, it is a slow-absorbing protein. Casein protein is generally better for body composition as it can aid in fat loss, but the direct benefit to your muscles is a bit more gradual.
If you're trying to get lean or are in a cutting phase of your workout cycle, casein may be an ideal way to round out your macros while contributing to the fat loss process.
Casein proteins generally do contain lactose, so they should be avoided if you cannot have dairy.
Egg proteins are derived from egg whites. They're rich in amino acids, generally providing all nine essential amino acids (meaning, the nine amino acids that your body doesn't create on its own).
Egg proteins are generally going to be a little more expensive than dairy-based proteins, but they're great for body composition and they don't come with some of the side effects, such as gas and bloating, that people often report with dairy-based products.
Depending upon the brand of egg-based protein you purchase, an egg protein can have just as high a protein content as a whey or whey isolate.
Pea protein takes that side dish we're all ambivalent about and turns them into a plant-based protein that is quite satiating.
Peas– as you can probably guess– aren't as high in protein as animal-based products, so you're not going to be getting quite as much protein per scoop with a pea protein as you would with an animal-based product.
However, pea protein can still be a great way to round out your diet. It's also a very filling protein, meaning that a pea protein shake can make for a very satisfying snack that keeps you feeling full. As a result, it's a popular choice for folks whose wellness goals include weight loss.
One important note on pea protein is that most pea proteins will not contain all nine essential amino acids, so if you are vegan or vegetarian, you'll need to look to another protein source to get those.
Hemp protein is my personal favorite of plant-based proteins. Hemp is full of healthy fats and amino acids. If you are vegan or vegetarian and need protein to round out your macros and provide necessary fats and amino acids, hemp protein is the right choice for you!
Because hemp is still heavily regulated (get it together, feds), hemp protein may be harder to find or more expensive than other types of proteins. If it is available to you, however, I would recommend keeping some on hand.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein is, obviously, derived from rice. It has similar shortcomings to pea protein in that it's not going to contain the fats and all essential amino acids of other types or protein types.
However, rice protein tends to be easy to digest (so, low likelihood of causing gas or bloating) and is good for body composition, meaning that it's a solid plant-based choice for folks looking to get lean or who are in a cutting phase of their fitness cycle.
Why is protein so important?
Regardless of your activity level, it's important that your diet contain a decent amount of protein.
Building and Repairing muscle and Tissues
Proteins are made of amino acids, which are critical for a wide variety of bodily functions. The function we most often think of with proteins is muscle growth and maintenance. In order for your muscles to continue to operate healthfully and avoid atrophy, they need to be able to repair themselves. The amino acids in proteins fuel the cell turnover cycle.
This is especially important when you're exercising regularly. Exercise strains your muscles. Activities focused on building muscle– such as weightlifting– produce small tears and damage to your muscle fibers, which your body then repairs. This process of strain and repair leads to stronger, thicker muscle fibers, and protein is necessary for that to happen.
Providing you with Energy
Protein is also a source of energy for your body to consume as needed. Throughout periods of activity, your body breaks down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to provide you with the energy you need to keep moving. The synthesis of protein is an important part of the ATP/CP pathway and glycolytic processes, which is a complicated way to say that having a diet that's balanced with fats, proteins, and carbohydrates helps prevent you from getting too fatigued during periods of exertion.
If you've ever had a sugary breakfast (such as a piece of fruit or sweet pastry) with no protein and found yourself feeling fatigued or shaky by lunchtime, then you know how important it is for your body to have slow-digesting protein in its system as an energy source as opposed to only having nutrients that breakdown quickly, like carbohydrates.
Providing Structure to Tissues
Having adequate protein in your diet also helps your body produce enzymes and amino acids needed for bodily functions we don't often associate with protein.
Collagen, keratin, and elastin are all types of fibrous proteins that help form your body's connective framework. Tendons and other connective fibers that bind muscle to bone rely upon these proteins. Additionally, your hair, skin, and nails– and the health of each– are also products of these proteins within your body.
How Much Protein do You Need?
How much protein you actually need entails a bit of debate, and much of it will depend upon your personal goals and dietary needs.
In general, the average adult needs a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (0.36 grams per pound) to maintain bodily function. So, if you weigh 180lbs, then your diet should include about 65 grams of protein.
To put that into perspective, a single six-ounce chicken breast will have about 52 grams of protein.
0.36 grams per pound, however, is a minimum. That is the baseline for what your body needs.
If you are looking to build muscle, then you should aim to be closer to 0.8 grams to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. For example, I currently weigh an even 200lbs. Because I'm in a leaning phase of my fitness cycle, I aim for 190 grams of protein per day, or 0.95 grams of protein per pound.
For folks who have a moderate to high activity level but who aren't particularly looking to build a significant amount of muscle, then somewhere around 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight should suffice.
As with any nutrition advice, it should be noted that these are baselines and generalized recommendations. Your individual needs may vary, so please consult a dietician or your physician if you have specific questions about your body's individual needs. Do not consult TikTok health gurus who use words like "detox" or who say that you should always avoid or fear certain types of foods.
Should I Drink A Protein Shake Before or After My workouts?
A common topic in workout circles is the idea of the anabolic window– a concept in which it's theorized that you should consume your protein supplements within a specific timeframe relative to your workout if you want to build muscle.
There are dozens of pieces online about the benefits of taking protein before your workouts and dozens more about the benefits of taking protein after your workouts.
As with most topics in fitness and wellness, the most accurate answer is that whether you should have protein before or after your workouts just kind of depends.
Research suggests that there is no significant difference in body composition outcomes based upon protein intake timing relative to workouts. What's important is that you are consuming enough protein. The timing of when you consume it is not important.
One semi-caveat to this is that if you are doing a fasted workout (exercising on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning), you are more likely to fatigue quicker. Having some protein (and fat and carbohydrates) in your system before you exercise can help you sustain your workouts longer. That said, a heavy, dairy-based protein shake before a workout may also be hard on your stomach and cause you to feel bloated or uncomfortable.
As far as what is best for you and for building muscle, though, it doesn't matter if you drink your protein shakes before your workout, immediately after, or an hour after. Just make sure that you're getting adequate protein each day.
Ultimately, what your body needs day to day is going to vary based upon your activity level, physiological needs, and dietary preferences. Supplements can help you fill in gaps, but it's important to remember that a protein supplement cannot take the place of a well-rounded diet. Real foods that you love and which fuel your individual needs are the best way to make sure you're getting what you need.