Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

One thing that surprises me is how few people pay close enough attention to the labels on protein powders.

Choosing a protein product has to involve more than picking one with eye-catching marketing and a cheap price tag.

But how exactly do you pick protein supplements?

That's something I get asked almost daily, so I put together a quick guide to help you understand what factors should influence your choice.

Factors On How to Choose Protein Powder

There are 5 key factors that I recommend to all my clients before they make a final choice.

1. Sources Of Protein

When you look at the shelves in sports nutrition stores or your local gym, you'll see protein powders with all sorts of different ingredients. This is where a lot of the confusion starts, so let's help you learn some nutritional facts.

Animal-Based Protein

animal based protein

Whey - This is, by far, one of the most popular products you'll find. Whey is extracted from milk, and one of the reasons it's so popular is that the body quickly absorbs it. It can be available to your muscles within 30 minutes, which makes it ideal for post-workout recovery.

Casein - This is another milk-based protein, but it is less common as a fitness supplement. Because it takes a lot longer to digest, it's not as suitable for muscle building, but can help with weight loss [1]. See the list of recommended casein protein powders.

Collagen - For high-performance athletes and bodybuilders, collagen is vital as it supports the repair of connective tissue. Tendons and joints undergo a lot of strain when training. Collagen is often lacking in people's diets, so proper supplementation may be necessary. One of the excellent sources of collagen is in protein powder form.

Egg - Eggs are rich in protein, so you'll often see them in bodybuilding meal plans. One bonus advantage with eggs is that they're low in carbohydrates, which can support your diet and weight loss efforts.

Plant-Based Protein

soy and rice

Not only vegan athletes opt for plant-based proteins. If you're lactose intolerant, then some of the better choices you can make are based on plant foods.

Soy - One of the more common ingredients in plant protein powders, soy is an excellent option as it contains very little saturated fat. Studies have also shown that choosing a soy protein supplement can have a positive effect on your cholesterol levels [2].

Pea - Pea is one of the most sustainable protein sources. However, you will often see it in a blend of rice and soy. Pea alone doesn't provide the complete range of amino acids needed for muscle growth. Check this page to see a list of my top brand recommendations.

Rice - For anyone with gluten, soy, and other food allergies, rice is possibly one of the best choices. It's considered hypoallergenic, which means it causes very few known reactions.

Hemp - Hemp protein demand has grown largely in the last couple of years. When it comes to plant-based products, I generally recommend this as the healthiest option.

From an essential amino acid content point of view, it's the only plant that provides the full range. It doesn't need to be blended with other sources. Click here for a list of my favorite hemp protein powders.

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2. Isolate Vs Concentrate

The two primary forms of proteins are referred to in terms of isolate and concentrate. The main difference is that isolate has been processed more extensively, making its carb and fat content less. While it is more expensive, it can be worth its value from a health and digestion perspective.

3. BCAAs

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a set of essential amino acids that your body does not naturally produce. They are vital fitness and muscle growth goals, and choosing a supplement with these added is always a good idea.

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4. Added Sugar

Sugar, corn syrup, and all the artificial sweeteners have become so common in supplements it's gone beyond a joke. If you need to make something taste good, then you probably have something to hide, so avoid such empty nutrition at all costs.

5. Third-Party Seal

If you're a professional athlete, then this is an absolute must, but even health conscious amateurs should consider these. One of the main ones to look out for is a seal by the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) International.

An NSF seal means that the product has been tested for banned substances and contaminants, and the production facility is audited annually for food quality.

Choose A Protein For Your Goals

From a health, fitness, and nutrition perspective, three main goals will influence what type of protein you choose.

1. Weight Loss

woman losing weight

Most people just think of protein from a post-workout recovery perspective, but it can actually assist you in achieving your weight loss goals faster.

There have been numerous studies that support the idea that a higher protein diet can help in healthy weight management.

It can also help you to suppress hunger cravings to help with longer fasting periods.

So, between recovering from exercise faster, direct impact on weight reduction, and appetite suppression, you can make a huge impact on losing some pounds.

2. Muscle Mass

muscle gain

Muscle growth is basically impossible without eating plenty of high-protein food.

If you ever look at the daily menu of professional bodybuilders, you'll see mountains of chicken, eggs, and dairy.

And despite all that protein-rich food, these athletes will rely on the best protein for bodybuilding, which usually is a combination of whey, creatine, and BCAAs.

These will have to be the absolute best quality options available, and you'll never see those cheap supermarket brands on their supplement shelves.

Each time you take BCAAs, you should go with about 5-10 grams. Timing matters. The most critical time to take them is around workouts, so add 5-10 grams to your pre-workout and post-workout shakes. If you do fasted training, you'll really notice their effects.

- Jim Stoppan, Ph.D. in exercise physiology

3. Restriction Diets

Man restricted with diet

Whether you're doing keto, paleo, vegan, or just some extended fasting periods, getting the right amount of protein is going to be crucial.

There are health benefits to all these diets, but to optimize their nutritional effects, you will need proteins that the body absorbs much more slowly.

You won't need that sudden boost that is helpful after a workout session. Thus, casein or many plant-based proteins would be the best choice.

Timing Your Protein Intake

At this stage, you should be in a position to identify the types of protein that will suit your goals. Now the question becomes what's the best timing.

Pre-Workout BCAAs

BCAAs can be helpful as an energy booster. They can also work for muscle recovery. Some athletes will take them about 15 minutes before they start a workout, while others will wait until about half-way through it.

There really is no right or wrong approach to it, but if you're just getting started with a BCAAs, then I would suggest taking them before you head to the gym.

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Post-Workout Recovery

The absolute best time to take protein after your workout is immediately after your cooldown phase and before you head for the sauna or steam room.

It will take your body about 30 minutes to start absorbing the protein. This coincides with the repair and recovery processes in your muscles.

Weight Management

If you're trying to support a diet to lose some flabby stuff, then there are two ways to approach it. You can either add some protein powder to your recipes. One good idea is a healthy morning smoothie.

Or, you can take a simple casein shake first thing in the morning to help you fast until the afternoon. Click here to see my recommendations.

FAQs

Can protein make you gain weight?

Yes, protein can make you gain weight if you take substantial amounts without exercising. While protein has a lower calorie content than carbs, those calories will be converted into fat reserves if you don't burn enough energy. For more info, click here.

Which protein is best for beginners?

The best protein for beginners is whey isolate or hemp protein for vegans. They provide the complete amino acid profile and are the most easily digested options. However, it’s probably more important to work out how many grams you need to support your goals.

Is it safe to take whey protein without working out?

Yes, it is safe to take whey protein without working out, as it is an essential nutrient that your body needs regardless of the level of physical activity. However, if you end up taking a lot of protein without working out, then you could end up facing weight issues.

When should you drink protein powder?

Generally speaking, you should drink protein powder after you finish your exercise routine. Your muscles will need a significant protein supply to support the recovery phase. However, BCAAs are a bit different as they can help during your workout, so they can be taken as a pre-workout shake.

Final Thoughts

I tried to keep this post to the essential facts and avoid all the nerdy physiology that I often end up spending hours learning about with my dietitian.

But these basic facts are more than enough to help you figure out which type of supplement can give you the best results.

Definitely check out our extensive product recommendations that cover many different supplements for a wide range of goals. And if you have any questions, then feel free to reach out to us on social media.

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References:

1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC25140/
2) https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/soya-products-and-serum-lipids-a-metaanalysis-of-randomised-controlled-trials/180FD802B992EE018ED5763CD7F73ECB/core-reader

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