Protein Powders: Your Complete Guide

Our bodies need protein because as the body’s building blocks, they help in the development, maintenance and repair of body tissues. Protein is also needed to boost metabolism and keep the immune system strong while supporting tissue growth like hair, skin and nails. According to Monique Piderit, a registered dietitian from Nutritional Solutions, the average person needs 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight each day – which works out to 56g of protein or a person weighing 70 kg. This ratio, however, is more if you’re an athlete, which is why many make use of supplementary protein powders. For endurance athletes like runners and cyclists, as well as strength athletes in initial stages of training, the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends double the amount of protein per day: 1.4 – 2.0g of protein per kg (98 – 140g of protein for the same 70 kg person).

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which the body can readily produce on its own.

However, there are 9 amino acids (referred to as essential amino acids) that are vital for good health and can only be obtained through dietary means.
Whole foods, such as eggs, almonds and oats are great sources of protein but many people are choosing a different route in order to increase their protein intake – be it for health or dietary reasons. For this reason, many of them have shifted their attention to protein powders.

About protein powders

These powders are supplements that are mostly used by people looking to lose weight, gain muscle and improve athletic performance. They are concentrated sources of protein from animal or plant foods, such as dairy, eggs, rice or peas. Protein powders can also be used by individuals who have difficulty meeting their protein needs through food sources, due to them being ill or because they’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Types of protein powder

With so many powders in the market, it can be hard to discern which ones can provide the best and healthiest results. There are many types of protein powders out there, which is why we’ve compiled a list of the ones you need to look out for.

1. Whey protein

Whey protein is one of the most popular types of protein powder, often seen as the optimum choice as it is a complete protein – containing all nine essential amino acids. It’s quite popular amongst fitness-driven individuals due to its ability to help with weight management and aid in muscle building. According to one study, overweight adults cited a 5 pound weight loss per day after they consumed 56 grams of whey protein, over a period of 23-weeks. Studies have also highlighted whey protein’s ability to reduce ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates appetite.

Whey protein is formed as a result of cheese making. During the process, whey protein is the liquid that separates from the curds. Another way in which whey protein can form is when it’s separated from casein (another protein) during milk production. Once it’s been gathered, it’s then processed and produced into different types of whey protein; whey concentrates, whey isolates and whey hydrolysates. Whey concentrates are produced by extracting protein from whole foods using heat, acid and enzymes. They typically have a protein concentration of about 60–80% with the rest being calories from fat and lactose.

Whey isolates go through an additional filtering step that removes the fat and lactose, leaving the protein content at 90–95%. Lastly, whey hydrolysates are produced by further heating with acid or enzymes, which breaks the bonds between amino acids. This allows for your body to better absorb them. Whey protein also provides all the necessary amino acids for the production of the body’s most powerful antioxidant- glutathione. A deficiency in glutathione has been linked to health concerns such as the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, coronary diseases, cancer and muscle weakness and fatigue.

Speaking of muscle strength, one study, published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, showed that whey protein helps to speed up muscle recovery. The study also revealed that whey protein can help lessen muscle damage as a result of exercise in female athletes. As whey is as a result of dairy production, it’s not suitable for vegans or those who are allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant.

2. Casein protein

Like whey, casein is a popular protein that’s derived from milk production. Monique Piderit states that casein clots in the highly acidic stomach, resulting in slower breakdown and digestion of the protein. This slow steadier exposure of the muscles to amino acids can be of some benefit. According to one study, the consumption of casein protein can lead to a reduction in fat mass, gain of lean mass and increase in chest strength. Piderit suggests taking casein protein just before bedtime as it may provide the additional protein required for overnight muscle building.

3. Vegan protein powders

Pea protein and brown rice protein are two forms of protein that are slowly gaining popularity amongst vegans and individuals who can’t tolerate animal-based protein powders. Pea protein is made from dried, ground yellow peas and contains three essential amino acids. There have been studies that have pointed out its ability to help build lean muscle mass and reduce hunger, yet more concrete studies are needed to confirm these findings. Brown rice protein is a plant-based protein that provides many health benefits such as an increase in lean body mass and improved power and strength. However, more research is still needed to determine its effectiveness.

Choosing a protein powder

With a large array of protein powders to choose from, it’s important to know what to avoid when shopping for a protein powder. Many protein powders, especially the flavored ones, contain high levels of preservatives, artificial coloring and additives. That being said, it’s important to choose products that contain fewer ingredients. If you are looking to include protein powder in your diet, you can simply add it to your smoothies, mix it into your yogurt or even your batter for your baking goods.

Do we actually need to include protein powders?

“I do think it is important to stress that while protein supplements may be a convenient way to consume additional protein, protein powders are by no means superior to the protein we get from food” says Piderit. She believes in a “food first” approach that includes foods that are naturally rich in protein such as milk, yogurt, eggs, lean meat, chicken and fish. She suggests beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya beans and tofu as sources of proteins for vegetarians and vegans.

Furthermore, one serving of protein shake is around 21g of protein and this is the same amount of protein we find in:

  • Three eggs
  • 2 cups (500ml) of low fat milk
  • One medium chicken breast (120g)
  • 100g of beef rump steak

With regards to your consumption of protein through whole foods, Piderit recommends that you spread protein throughout the day in meals and snacks, rather than having the same amount of protein in a day over just one or two main meals. “This can be done by having eggs or baked beans on whole wheat toast for breakfast, including yogurt or biltong as snacks, and having lean meat or a grilled chicken breast with roasted vegetables and sweet potatoes at dinner. This will produce multiple spikes in muscle building over the course of the day.” Want to find out more? Click here to access the studies mentioned earlier.

Piderit also cautions on taking in excessive amounts of protein as excess protein is simply wasted as it is excreted as amino acids in the urine. In some cases, excess protein can even be stored as extra energy in the form of fat, and this is why bodybuilders and gym goers claim they can’t lose weight, regardless of their excessive gym routine and high protein intake.

Trying to get your protein intake from plants? Click on the link for our top 5 best plant-based proteins.