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All About Protein Powders and Which One You Should Take


December 13, 2023
Protein Powders

Proteins — complex substances made of amino acids — are essential for life. Every cell in the body needs proteins to function. Consuming protein in the diet helps the body make new cells and repair existing ones. Research has also shown a positive relationship between having protein before bed and overnight muscle recovery after exercise. For children, teens, and pregnant women, protein is also needed for growth and development.

Dietary protein can come from plants and animals. Protein powder is an increasingly popular type of protein supplement derived from various sources. Understanding the benefits and risks of different protein powders is essential for creating a high-protein diet that is safe and healthy.

Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein — a group of eight proteins found in milk — is the most popular protein powder in the United States (US). The whey proteins found in milk, in order from highest concentration to lowest, include:

  • Beta-lactoglobulin
  • Alpha-lactalbumin
  • Glycomacropeptide
  • Immunoglobulin
  • Bovine serum albumin
  • Lactoferrin
  • Lactoperoxidase
  • Lysozyme

During the milk manufacturing process, milk separates into curds and liquid whey. Manufacturers use curds to make cheese. Liquid whey contains lactose (sugar) and fat. Most manufacturers pasteurize this liquid to kill bacteria and dry it, creating whey protein powder.

After drying, manufacturers process whey protein into three different forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Whey protein concentrate products have varying amounts of protein, lactose, and fat. Whey protein isolate is consistently high in protein and low in lactose and fat.

Whey protein powder has several potential benefits. Whey protein is a complete protein. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that the body can’t make. This type of protein is especially helpful for building muscle. These amino acids also help with wound repair after injury or surgery.

Whey protein is also a good option for people who need to gain weight but can’t get enough protein from solid sources. People with long-term illness, for example, are more likely to have difficulty tolerating solid foods. Whey protein powder drinks are a good option in this case.

Except for people with a dairy allergy, whey protein is safe for most people to use. That said, there are some downsides. If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight for whatever reason, whey protein may not be a good option due to the potential for weight gain.

Many of the whey protein powders sold today also contain added processed ingredients, such as artificial flavors, sweeteners, and sugar. As a result, it’s generally recommended to get protein from whole foods instead of shakes or a supplement. Whey protein can also cause digestive problems for some people, including diarrhea, nausea, and constipation. These symptoms become more common when people consume large amounts of whey protein.

Casein Protein Powder

Casein is a protein found in dairy milk from cows, goats, and sheep. Casein makes up 80% of the protein in milk, and the other 20% is whey.

Given that they both come from milk, it’s not surprising that casein and whey protein have several characteristics in common. Both are animal-based complete proteins and good calcium sources. As a complete protein, casein protein powder is a great option for muscle building. It’s also great for reducing muscle breakdown.

The most significant difference between whey and casein is that the body digests casein more slowly. When it enters the stomach, casein forms a gel-like substance, which takes longer for the body to break down. As a result, casein provides muscle cells with amino acids over a longer period. This action promotes muscle recovery after exercise.

Casein protein can also help with weight loss because it keeps people full longer. Having casein a couple of times throughout the day can help reduce cravings and snacking between meals for people trying to lose weight.

Before using casein protein powder, it’s important to consider possible side effects. People with milk allergy are allergic to both casein and whey. A severe milk allergy can cause anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that causes throat swelling and difficulty breathing.

Since whey and casein are both milk products that contain lactose, people with lactose intolerance may also have difficulty tolerating these protein powders. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, gas, gas pain, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and bloating.

Egg White Protein Powder

Protein Powders

Egg white protein powder is another protein supplement with various health benefits. Egg white protein is a complete protein and contains most of the essential nutrients that the body requires, except for vitamin C and dietary fiber. Like casein, egg protein is released more slowly than whey, promoting fullness throughout the day.

Other benefits of egg white protein include:

  • Improves blood cholesterol levels
  • Improves cognitive function
  • Increases body protein and decreases body fat

Egg white protein powder is generally considered safe, except for people with an egg allergy. Symptoms of egg allergy include vomiting, stomach cramps, indigestion, difficulty breathing, throat swelling, and hives, among others.

Plant-Based Protein Powder

Plant-based protein powders include pea, hemp, and brown rice protein powders. In recent years, plant-based protein sources, including protein powder, have grown in popularity for their sustainability. Some argue that compared to animal-based protein, the environmental impact of plant-based protein powder options is significantly lower, which might make them more earth-friendly options.

Pea Protein Powder

Three types of pea protein products are currently available and all are made from the yellow split pea. One type that is commonly found in stores is pea protein isolate. Pea protein isolate contains only pea protein and amino acids. Similar to casein protein and whey protein isolate, pea protein isolate is a good weight loss option due to its high protein content.

Another common type is pea protein concentrate. Pea protein concentrate contains less protein and more carbohydrates and/or fats. Similar to whey protein concentrate, this option is better for weight gain and for use as a meal replacement.

The third type is textured pea protein. Textured pea protein is less processed and uncommonly found in stores. It’s mostly used to make plant-based meat alternatives.

Importantly, although one cup of yellow peas contains 8 grams of protein, a scoop of pea protein isolate contains 15 to 20 grams of protein. Pea protein is also high in iron, and, unlike high-fat meat products, pea protein is digested easily and has fewer stomach-related side effects. Pea protein powder also has a creamier texture when consumed as a shake than other options, such as whey protein.

Pea protein is also an excellent option for people who are vegan or vegetarian or who want to avoid animal-based protein supplements for other reasons. Additionally, because pea protein is gluten- and lactose-free, it’s an ideal option for people with these and other allergies.

One drawback of pea protein, when compared to animal-based protein powders, is that it isn’t a complete protein. Pea protein lacks essential amino acids, so it isn’t recommended as a meal replacement. People who use pea protein powder should also incorporate complete protein sources into their diet. Other than this drawback, pea protein is generally well tolerated and without major downsides.

Hemp Protein Powder

Another plant-based option is hemp protein powder. Hemp protein powder is derived from the hemp plant — a type of cannabis plant that has only small amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Because of its low THC content, hemp doesn’t have psychoactive (causing a high) effects.

A main advantage of hemp protein over other protein powders is that it requires minimal processing. Other proteins, such as soy, require several extraction steps to create a protein powder. Hemp powder just requires grinding hemp seeds into a fine powder. Growing and harvesting hemp is also sustainable and low-impact, making it a great earth-friendly protein powder option.

Hemp protein powder also has several health benefits. Hemp, like whey and casein proteins, is a complete protein. It’s also high in fiber. Four tablespoons of hemp protein powder contains 11 grams of fiber, which is about one-third of the daily adult recommendation for fiber intake.

Hemp also contains omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are beneficial for maintaining heart health, immune system function, and digestion. The body can’t make omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, so consuming them in the diet is important. Hemp powder is also high in iron, magnesium, and manganese, which are essential micronutrients. Like other plant-based protein powders, hemp protein is an excellent option for people who are vegan or vegetarian.

Unless someone is allergic to the plant, hemp protein contains very few risks. Because of its high fiber content, hemp protein can also cause bloating, gas, and other digestive issues for people who aren’t used to high-fiber diets.

Brown Rice Protein Powder

Although brown rice is usually thought of as a carbohydrate (which it is), it’s also a good source of protein. In one cup of cooked brown rice, there’s about 5.5 grams of protein or 10% of the daily recommendation for a healthy adult weighing about 140 pounds.

Although brown rice isn’t a complete protein, it’s still comparable to other complete protein powders. According to research comparing brown rice, soy, and whey proteins, brown rice protein is an acceptable alternative to soy or whey protein based on amino acid content.

Brown rice protein powder has several other benefits. As a plant-based protein powder, brown rice protein is an excellent protein supplement option for people who are vegan or vegetarian. It’s also a great option for people with allergies, as brown rice allergy is relatively rare. Brown rice protein is also dairy-free, gluten-free, and soy-free.

Based on findings from a research study in hamsters, brown rice protein may also be a better protein powder option for weight loss than white rice protein or soy protein. The same study found that brown rice protein may also promote lower cholesterol. Brown rice protein isn’t associated with any harmful side effects.

Soy Protein Powder

Protein Powders

Soy protein is another commonly used protein powder option. Like hemp protein, soy protein is a complete plant-based protein. As a plant-based protein, soy is another great option for people who are vegan or vegetarian. Soy-based proteins are considered a primary substitute for animal meats in most vegan diets because of their high protein content and health benefits.

The form of soy protein used to make protein powder is soy protein isolate, and this is its most refined form. The process of making soy protein isolate makes it easier to digest. Soy protein also contains health-supporting micronutrients, including iron, calcium, magnesium, dietary fiber, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Several research studies have also shown that soy protein may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Additionally, soy may improve menopausal symptoms and prevent bone loss in osteoporosis. The antioxidants in soy protein have also been linked to reducing cancer risk, promoting healthy weight, and reducing diabetes risk. Antioxidants are substances that prevent the formation of dangerous oxygen-containing chemicals in the body.

Hesitation remains about soy’s safety, despite its many potential benefits. Some of this hesitancy is due to soy’s complex effects on the body. Soy contains high amounts of a type of plant estrogen called isoflavone. Estrogen refers to a group of steroids important for the development of female characteristics. Isoflavone acts similarly to human estrogen but with less-potent effects. This estrogen effect may help explain how soy helps with menopausal symptoms.

Because of its isoflavone content, some concern exists about soy’s potential to increase the risk of breast cancer. This risk is not supported by research. Dietitians generally recommend soy as a healthy protein option when consumed in moderate amounts (one to two servings per day).

Choose the Protein Powder That Works for You

The right protein powder for you depends on your needs and goals. Any of these options will help you build muscle, but some are better for weight loss and contain more nutrients. Others are better for people who follow plant-based diets. Reviewing the information presented here is a good place to start when considering protein powders. Consulting with your doctor, dietitian, or friends can also be helpful in deciding which protein powder is best for you.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.
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