In the nutrition industry we focus on three different macronutrients – carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Carbs and fat have gotten a lot of attention with the dieting industry. The push is to limit or eliminate carbohydrates and increase fat, leaving protein as the red-headed stepchild. However, protein is as important as both carbohydrates and fat for optimal health. This post will outline the protein, but more specifically protein powder benefits.
Estimating Protein Needs
We can start by better understanding protein needs. Protein consists of basic building blocks called amino acids. Some amino acids are are considered essential amino acids, meaning we can not produce them in the body and we must get them from food. Others are called branch-chain amino acids (BCAA) which are necessary for building muscle.
There are many ways to determine protein needs and certainly your current wellness conditions will play a role. However, here are some guidelines to be able to determine your specific protein needs.
- The average person, approximately 0.45-0.55g/pound of body weight is a good place to start, which would be 90-110g protein for a 200 pound person
- If strength training or muscle building the recommendations increase to 0.73g/pound of body weight which is 146g protein for a 200 pound person
- The maximum amount of useable protein is about 1g/pound of body weight or approximately 30g protein at a time
- The minimum needed for survival is 0.35g/pound body weight, which is 70g for a 200 pound person
My observation is that most women don’t get enough protein throughout the day to aid with keeping you feeling full and balancing carbohydrates and fat. Using protein powder is a useful tool to aid with getting enough protein on the regular.
What you should know about protein powders
There are so many different kinds of protein powders that it can be dizzying. Here are some things that can help you decipher the rows of powder to find what works for you.
Protein powders are derived from different sources. Animal-based protein comes from whey, collagen, bone broth protein, casein, and egg. Plant-based protein comes from pea, rice, soy, and hemp. They all have pros and cons for them which we will discuss.
Protein powders are used for different reasons.
- Meal replacements – usually has protein with carbs + fat to emulate a balanced meal
- Energy boost – usually has increased carbs to provide energy
- Endurance/recovery – usually has increased carbs + branch-chain amino acids to aid with muscle building
- Concentrated protein – is just protein in powder form
Additionally, some protein powders have added ingredients for various reasons.
- Sweeteners – fructose, honey, lactose, maltose, juice, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose; the sweeteners recommended are erythritol, stevia, or monk fruit
- Caffeine – coffee extract, guarana, mate, cocoa
Protein powder benefits
Animal-based protein powders
Whey protein powders are the most common protein powders with the most variety. Whey is the liquid portion of milk (remember curds and whey?). They are easily digested and are a source of calcium.
It is considered a complete protein, which means it has all of the 26 amino acids within the protein powder (essential + BCAA). This makes whey protein effective when building muscle and can improve fat loss in people working to lose weight (with the addition of exercise, of course). Additionally, whey protein can lower fasting glucose after exercise.
Whey protein contains all of the ingredients needed to make glutathione, which is a powerful natural antioxidant in the body. This makes it useful for potentially having cancer fighting abilities.
In women there are specific concerns. Due to the hormones fed to cows to enhance milk production, question has been raised regarding estrogen passing into the protein powder. This was thought to potentially increase estrogen in the body, however this has been shown to not be true. Additionally, there is question regarding the soy in feed that would transfer isoflavones, thus potentially increasing estrogen. Again this is not shown to be true.
There are different kinds of whey including whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. The biggest difference is about how easily they are digested. Whey hydrolysate is the easiest to breakdown and absorb.
The downfall is that not everyone can tolerate whey. If you can’t digest and breakdown milk then whey may not be the best protein powder for you.
There has been a recent surge in the use of collagen. Supplemental collagen is great for building collagen in the body, decreasing wrinkles by increasing skin volume, elasticity, and hydration. For the vanity in all of us, collagen has also been shown to decrease cellulite. Other benefits of collagen are to prevent joint pain, healing burns, and those with pressure sores.
One of the great things about collagen hydrolysate is that it easily blends into hot or cold foods or beverages, making it’s use very versatile.
The down side of collagen is that it is not a complete protein. This means that collagen does not have all 26 amino acids in it. Specifically it is missing the BCAAs that contribute to muscle building. So while collagen is a good protein source it should not be use exclusively as a protein and will not be helpful if trying to build strength.
Another newly popularized protein powder is bone broth. Bone broth protein powder is typically derived from chicken or beef bones. Overall the amount of amino acids and protein content will vary depending on the length of time the bones are simmered.
There are no real clinical studies on bone broth in comparison to other types of protein powder. The only concern is that there is the potential for lead contamination due to lead accumulation in bones.
Other animal based proteins
The other types of animal based protein powders are casein and egg white protein. Casein is the other main protein found in milk. It is a larger protein molecule, making it more difficult to break down and absorb. Egg white protein is available. However, eggs, while a good protein source are one food that has a high allergy component. For these reasons neither of these protein powders are often used.
Plant-based protein powder
While plants are not known to be high in protein, they do all contain small amounts. This is how the food industry is able to produce protein powder from foods not high in protein – rice, pea, hemp, and soy. These plant based protein powders can be found individually or in combo with other protein powders.
When you think of rice typically you think of it being a carbohydrate. However rice does have some protein, which is where the powder is derived. Rice protein is hypoallergenic and easy to absorb. It is a complete protein and contains all amino acids, however only about 1/3 the amount found in whey protein.
Yes hemp protein comes from the hemp plant, specifically hemp seed. It does not have any qualities that will make you feel, you know, funny. In fact, hemp protein is a complete protein where it contains all essential amino acids and BCAAs. One of these amino acids that’s high in hemp protein is arginine, which stimulates growth hormone and is a treatment for various types of cardiovascular diseases. Additionally it is a good source if fiber. Because hemp is new to the scene it has not yet been well researched.
Pea protein comes from, you guessed it, peas. It is a complete protein, however it is not high in BCAAs. This means it may not be the best protein to use if you are trying to build muscle. Again, there is not a lot of research on pea protein powders, however they can be used as an excellent protein source.
As you can see there is a wide variety of protein powders, all with small caveats regarding their use. Most frequently used to make smoothies, they can also be added to foods such as oatmeal, grits, or chia seed pudding. They do not contain magic but they are another tool in your arsenal to be able to add protein to your diet. In fact, I use them almost daily.