How to Choose Protein Powder That Works

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: January 3, 2024
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I'm surprised how many people overlook the labels on protein powders. Choosing the right product is about more than just looks or price.

So, how exactly am I supposed to choose protein powder? Well, there are a few things you must take into consideration before making your decision. As we all know, there are different sources of protein. You need to identify the source of protein you want to consume.

This article will guide you in making an informed choice about the right protein powder.

Quick Summary

  • Understand the source of protein before choosing protein powder for your body.
  • Determine your fitness goals before choosing the right protein powder.
  • Comparing rice and whey protein, rice protein has a slight edge with 27g of protein and 117 calories per serving, while whey protein offers 26g of protein at 109 calories per serving.
  • In my opinion, rice protein powder stands out due to its fiber content and antioxidants, offering unique benefits that make it an excellent choice for specific dietary requirements.

Factors On How to Choose Protein Powder

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

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 food

Whey - This is, by far, one of the most popular protein powder 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

plant based food

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 - Based on Cambridge University, 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. These pea protein powders are my top brand recommendations.

Rice - For anyone with gluten, soy, and other food allergies, rice protein powder is possibly one of the best choices. It's considered hypoallergenic, which means it causes very few known reactions [3].

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. A National Library of Medicine explains that it doesn't need to be blended with other sources. Click here for a list of my favorite hemp protein powders [4].

Related posts:

Rice Protein vs Whey Protein

Rice protein edges out a bit with 27g and 117 calories, while whey offers 26g at 109 calories.

From my experience with rice protein powder, I've noticed it offers unique benefits not found in whey, thanks to its brown rice origin. It's a great source of fiber, aiding digestion, and it's also packed with antioxidants and B vitamins, which I've found beneficial for overall health.

Studies show rice protein can match whey's effectiveness. If you're looking for bang for your buck per scoop, rice protein is a smart pick.

Rice protein isn't a complete protein, but whey is. It's packed with all 9 essential amino acids and lots of BCAAs, boosting muscle growth and performance.

Important Factors For Your Decision

A person listing down notes on a table while in the kitchen beside food

There are 4 key factors that I recommend to all my clients before they make a final choice.

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.

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.

Added Sugar

Sugar, corn syrup, and all the artificial sweeteners have become so common in supplements it's gone beyond a joke. Sugar free protein powders help you dodge this issue entirely.

If you need to make something taste good, then you probably have something to hide, so avoid such empty nutrition at all costs.

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.
Now for the interesting part.

Choose A Protein For Your Goals

From a health, fitness, and nutrition perspective, three main goals will influence what type of protein powder mix you choose and how you use the powder correctly.

Weight Loss

woman-losing-weight

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

Numerous studies have supported the idea that a higher protein diet can help in healthy weight management [5].

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

So, between recovering from exercise faster, having a direct impact on weight reduction, and appetite suppression, you can greatly impact losing some pounds. Additionally, specific types of protein powders, like whey isolate, can be particularly effective for weight loss due to their high protein and low-calorie content.

Muscle Mass

muscle gain

Muscle growth is 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 powders 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 protein powder brands on their supplement shelves. Furthermore, combining protein powders with resistance exercises can significantly increase muscle protein synthesis, leading to faster and more effective muscle growth.

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

Restriction Diets

Man restricted with diet

Whether you're doing keto, vegan, or paleo, getting the right amount of protein will be crucial.

All these diets have health benefits, 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. Thus, casein or many plant-based proteins would be the best choice.

For those with diabetes, choosing protein powders with a low glycemic index, such as plant proteins or whey, can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, which is crucial for diabetes management.

Timing Your Protein Intake

A person taking an egg full of protein from a bowl

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 beginner with protein powders and just getting started with BCAAs, then I would suggest taking them before you head to the gym.

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 add some protein powder to your recipes. One good idea is a healthy morning protein shake to help with that extra fat.

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

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.

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.

BCAA vs Whey Protein: What's the Difference?

BCAAs are specific amino acids for targeted muscle support, while whey protein offers a full range of amino acids for broader muscle recovery and growth.


References:

  1. https://www.builtlean.com/whey-casein-protein/
  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
  3. https://asitisnutrition.com/blogs/health/everything-you-need-to-know-about-brown-rice-protein
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6245118/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22397883
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