Protein powders are a quick and easy nutritional supplement used by everyone from athletes to bodybuilders to those looking to lose weight.
But with thousands of options to choose from, how do you know which one to pick?
Your goals should be your guide
Choosing a protein powder effectively depends on your goals and overall health, as opposed to any claims made by the manufacturer.
According to Barrett, athletes, for example, need protein for different reasons than someone on a weight loss journey.
“Athletes consume protein after practice or games because the exercise causes micro tears in their muscles and the protein helps repair them,” Barrett notes. “For weight loss, protein gives the feeling of fullness after a meal, so people tend to eat less between meals unnecessarily.”
When looking at labels, Barrett suggests opting for products with minimal ingredients. The best protein powders often have whey isolate, soy protein or pea protein first on the list.
Other protein products like bars can be high in sugar, which might be an option for a student-athlete before practice due to convenience and portability. Anything with 15 grams or more of protein is acceptable, but they should still be considered supplemental.
“The bars and shakes are to supplement the diet or provide energy, not replace a meal,” Barrett says.
Be wary of added ingredients.
To help people eyeing protein powders in their diets, Barrett offers this checklist:
- Look to see if a trusted third party like USP (US Pharmacopeia) or NSF (National Science Foundation) regulates the product.
- Be wary of proprietary blends with catchy names. Most lack a complete list of ingredients. “A study showed a lot of unintentional doping by athletes because of ingredients in their protein powders and other dietary supplements,” Barrett says.
Because protein powders are considered supplements, they are not regulated like medicine, he says. Using one effectively requires a conversation with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition to avoid any negative interactions with other medications.
Consider your protein needs
A dietitian can help determine what – if any – protein powder or protein products could help you reach your goals.
“Make sure you’re taking it for the right reasons. Most people have the ability to get enough protein through food sources in a regular healthy diet,” Barrett says.
A dietitian can also help you determine the amount of protein you need each day to reach your goals.
Recommendations are based on the amount of lean muscle mass, age (older people need more), medical history and diet preferences. Vegetarians and vegans need slightly more, because plant-based protein is poorly absorbed in comparison to protein from animal sources. Athletes should try to replace their bodies’ protein with 20 to 40 grams after play to improve the recovery process.