Trying to eat healthier? Then you’ve likely heard about the importance of protein. Like carbs and fats, it’s a macronutrient, meaning your body needs it in large quantities. Protein is essential for your bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood, and your body uses it to help build and repair lean muscle. But unlike carbs and fat, your body can’t store extra protein, so you have to make sure you’re eating enough of it on a regular basis.
Do you even need protein powder?
Foods such as eggs, lean meats, nuts, and dairy all contain protein. You’re probably also familiar with the powdered version found in large tubs in health food stores. But, does the average exerciser really need to buy protein powder, a substance long been associated with bodybuilders trying to build Hulk-like physiques?
Well, it depends. “No one really needs protein powder. But if you’re not getting enough protein through food or you need protein sources that are portable, easy, and quick, then protein powder is a good option,” says Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Fueling Young Athletes. (We’ll explain later how to figure how much protein you actually need.)
If (like most of us) you have an on-the-go lifestyle, having a convenient and quick protein source is probably at the top of your nutrition wishlist. And , if you’re trying to build muscle, you may also be interested in reaching for a protein powder tub.
For an active person looking to optimize their body composition, it’s nearly impossible to get the proper amount of protein without the use of a protein powder, says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., nutritional consultant and author of The 6 Pillars of Nutrition. Protein is also proven to help increase satiety (or that feeling of fullness after a meal).
Another group who may benefit from protein powder: vegetarians and vegans. It can be hard to get all your essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) from vegetarian protein sources, so protein powder can help fill in the nutritional blanks, Roussell says. The only folks who wouldn’t benefit from protein powder? People who are not exercising, or who are already getting at least 30g of protein per meal from food, Roussell says.
How much protein do you need?
First and foremost, you should talk to your doctor before making any changes to your eating habits or adding supplements to your diet. There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation for protein intake. The baseline daily protein requirement is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, Mangieri says. (Multiply your weight in pounds by 0.45 to find your weight in kilograms.)
But if you’re working out more frequently and trying to build muscle, aim for 1.2 to 2g per kg of bodyweight, Mangieri suggests. (That’s 81g to 135g of protein for someone weighing 150 pounds.) Roussell adds that for most people, 90g of protein per day is a good goal, although your max intake of protein can be as high as your bodyweight in pounds. (Or 150g for a 150-pound person.)
What’s even more important than how much protein you’re eating is when you’re eating it, Mangieri says. Try to consume protein throughout the day every time you eat—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks—and aim for about 25 to 30g per meal. That’s where protein powder can play a helpful part: You’d have to eat a lot of eggs (which have 7g of protein each) to get 30g of protein at breakfast, while most protein powders have about that much in a single scoop.
What kind of protein powder is right for you?
Here’s a rundown of the most popular types of protein powder on the market.
This is the best all-around option, Roussell says. It tastes great, dissolves well in water, and is typically inexpensive. Whey protein is easily and quickly digested by your body, which helps build and repair muscles post-workout.
Drawback: Since whey is derived from dairy, stay away if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant.
On its own, casein is super thick, so Roussell doesn’t recommend using it solo. But when combined with whey, you’ve hit the protein powder jackpot. “The combo of casein and whey gives you a delicious and creamy protein shake,” Roussell says. Plus, unlike rapidly digested whey, casein is absorbed more slowly by your body. Casein helps prevent muscle breakdown, making the combo especially beneficial when taken post-workout or before bed.
Drawback: Again, casein is a protein derived from milk, so not an option for vegans or lactose intolerant folks.
This plant-based is a good choice for vegans or those who are lactose-intolerant, Mangieri says. Plus, soy has also been shown to boost your cardiovascular health. Research shows it works just as well as whey protein to improve body composition and post-workout recovery. And if you’ve heard warnings that it messes with your hormones? “The buzz about soy protein disrupting or influencing hormonal function is blown way out of proportion,” Roussell says. Just be sure you’re choosing soy protein isolate, which is purified to remove the components of soy that could potentially drive those problems.
Drawback: It doesn’t dissolve as well in water, Mangieri says, and some people don’t like the taste.
Another plant-derived protein, hemp protein also heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. And even though it’s made from the cannabis plant (where pot comes from), you can’t get high from it, Roussell says.
Drawback: Hemp is higher in fat and not as high in protein as other powders. Pay attention to how much protein is actually in each serving—and the fat and carbohydrates that are coming along with it, Roussell says.
This is another good option for people looking for dairy-free or vegan protein powder. Powdered peas offer up a high-quality protein source that contains all the essential amino acids, Roussell says.
Drawback: The taste may leave something to be desired, he notes. Plus, it doesn’t contain certain non-essential amino acids. “But, as long as you aren’t living off of pea protein alone this shouldn’t be an issue.”
Quinoa or Rice
You may think of these foods as carbohydrates. But, when certain components are stripped away, they provide a pretty decent amount of protein. Quinoa and rice are often found in vegan protein blends. These blends are specifically formulated to help people following a plant-based or dairy-free diet to get an optimal amino acid profile, Roussell says.
Drawback: Again, it’s a matter of personal preference, but some folks don’t love the taste of these plant-based supplements.
How can you use protein powders?
If you have a flavored variety (like chocolate or vanilla), you can simply mix the protein powder with water. This also helps you avoid the added carbs or sugars that many smoothies contain.
If you want something a little more hearty (and tasty), try Mangieri’s delicious recipe for a Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake.
1/2 scoop whey protein powder (or protein powder of your choice)
1/2 cup nonfat milk
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon peanut butter (or any nut butter)
Directions: Blend all ingredients together with 1/2 cup ice.
If you want to boost the nutrition, add a cup of spinach—it may turn you shake a little more green, but you won’t be able to taste it!
This contains 30g carbs, 22g protein, and 10g fat, Mangieri says, making it a nicely balanced recipe.