Whey protein is a supplement you should be taking, but how do you choose one? Here are 3 important things to consider when selecting and using a protein powder.
By Hannah Cabré, PhD, RDN, CISSN
THE INGREDIENT LIST MATTERS
With so many protein powders available on the market, it can be difficult to know which one is best. Unfortunately, not all whey protein powders are created equally. It is very important to look at the ingredient list on protein powders because supplement companies can add ingredients that don’t do anything for you – but helps them cut costs.
A high-quality protein supplement will have one of the following as the first ingredient listed:
- Whey protein isolate
- Hydrolyzed whey protein isolate
- Whey protein blend (whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, hydrolyzed whey protein concentrate)
The second ingredient should be related to the flavoring of the protein powder and may be something like cocoa powder or natural and artificial flavors.
The biggest indication that a protein supplement is low-quality is if maltodextrin is included in the ingredient list.
Maltodextrin is the chemical name for starch, and companies add this as a filler within the supplement. If the first ingredient is maltodextrin, this indicates that the majority of the supplement is a filler and may not actually be protein. It is also recommended that the second ingredient is not maltodextrin for the same reason, but some protein powders may have it listed lower in the ingredient list if the company wants to increase the carbohydrates in the powder (not always a bad thing). Protein powders that have maltodextrin as the first or second ingredient can lead to an upset stomach and are usually harder for your body to process.
A high-quality protein powder should also have 25 grams (at least) of protein per serving with very low added or no added sugar. The whole purpose of a protein powder is to consume protein quickly and in a large amount, which might not be possible in a meal.
If the protein powder has less than 15 grams, it might not be worth the money because you could get the same amount of protein through food sources (i.e., two hard boiled eggs). A protein powder should be used to supplement your diet, so you want to make sure that is what the supplement is doing. Research has demonstrated that 25 grams of whey protein is ideal for muscle recovery, muscle growth, and overall health benefits (1,2).
Your protein powder should have at least 2.5 grams of leucine. Leucine is an important amino acid that is needed for the body to properly use the protein to build muscle. It is the amino acid that is directly involved in activating muscle protein synthesis.
Research indicates that 2.5 grams of leucine is the threshold needed to trigger muscle protein synthesis (3). So, if your protein powder has less than 2.5 grams of leucine, you may not be building as much muscle as you could. SHIFTED protein powders use whey protein isolate and natural flavoring for their first few ingredients with 2.77 grams of leucine (per 25 grams of protein) maximizing the benefits of the protein supplement.
Whey protein is going to be the most effective version of protein supplements. Unless you are vegetarian or vegan, consuming a plant-based protein is not healthier or better for you. In fact, plant-based proteins are often missing all of the essential amino acids, so they don’t support muscle growth and recovery as well as whey protein. Additionally, you often have to consume more than one scoop of protein to get over 15 grams in a serving, so it is not as cost effective. In terms of casein protein versus whey protein, the biggest difference is the nutrient availability. Casein takes longer for the body to break down, therefore the rate of muscle protein synthesis will be lower immediately after your workout. It can be beneficial to have the delay if you can eat a meal right after working out. Otherwise, whey protein is best since it can be readily available to the muscles after you drink it.
PROTIEN TIMING MATTERS
Protein powders can be a great way to increase your total daily protein intake, but if you exercise, protein timing matters. Research is mixed on whether having more protein before or after working out is better for you (1,4). Yet, the one thing we all agree on is protein surrounding your workout is a must.
The most recommended time to consume a protein powder supplement is after a workout. It has been shown that consuming protein within an hour post-workout can lead to increases in muscle mass, and it aids with muscle recovery. Other people may say that having protein before a workout is also just as beneficial, but the most important thing to consider here is not doing fasted exercise. Really, protein timing is going to be individualized to when you are working out.
- If you like to work out in the morning, then a whey protein shake before you workout would be the better option compared to having it after working out because it will provide nutrients to your body during the workout. Then you can eat breakfast with protein and carbohydrates after the workout to re-fuel your body.
- If you like to work out in the afternoon, then a post-workout shake may be better. Ideally, you would be able to eat a snack before your workout that has at least 10 grams of protein and some carbohydrates in it. The post-workout shake would help you re-fuel and recover from the workout.
Consuming protein around your workout is recommended for both weight training and for aerobic exercise.
Exercise of any form causes some damage to the muscles, and your muscles need protein to recover and rebuild, so protein powders can be beneficial for all exercise. SHIFTED Recovery is designed with muscle recovery and muscle building in mind. It has a unique blend of whey protein isolate, essential amino acids, and tart cherry powder to optimize recovery.
DAILY PROTEIN INTAKE MATTERS
Increasing your protein intake over the day and timing your protein intake around exercise has incredible benefits.
Protein will support the growth of your muscles, which is the most metabolically active tissue in your body.
Muscle mass is very important to maintain, especially as we age. Eating enough protein throughout the day will help you lead a healthy and functional life. If you are exercising, your protein requirements will increase, so a protein powder can be very beneficial.
Protein is satiating, and will help you feel fuller longer.
So if you are looking to lose weight or lose fat, increasing protein will help make meals and snacks feel larger and will keep you full for longer. It can also help with body composition changes since it supports muscle growth.
Protein supplements are an easy and feasible way to consume protein, particularly after exercise.
As mentioned earlier, after exercise, your body need carbohydrates and protein to recover and to help adapt to the exercise session. Having a protein shake with milk or combining a protein shake with a granola bar are some great ways to meet those needs without the hassle of having to eat a meal.
Right now, the daily recommended amount of protein is 0.4 grams per pound of body weight per day, which may be lower than what is needed for exercising individuals or individuals looking to lose weight. A better recommendation for total daily protein intake is 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day (1).
So, if you weigh 180 pounds, you will want to try to eat between 144 and 180 grams of protein per day:
- 0.8 x 180 = 144 grams of protein per day
- 1 x 180 = 180 grams of protein per day
As you can see, this may be a lot more protein than you are used to eating. Protein powders can be very helpful in reaching this goal and can help maximize your exercise gains.
Need a delicious way to hit your protein needs? Click here to buy SHIFTED 100% Whey Protein Isolate. SHIFTED Whey Protein Isolate is the highest quality, complete protein containing 12 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs) and 5.5 grams of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Click here to buy SHIFTED Recovery, an innovative, state of the art protein/EAA drink based on the latest in muscle recovery science.
About the Author:
Hannah Cabré is a registered dietitian and received her doctorate from UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
Her research interests focus on the effects of exercise and nutrient timing on body composition, cardiorespiratory fitness, and metabolic health, specifically in women.
She is passionate about optimizing women’s health across the lifespan through feasible nutrition and exercise interventions.
Her current work assesses the influence of hormonal contraception on strength and recovery outcomes across the menstrual cycle.
- Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jan 3;14(1):33. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28919842/
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Jan 5;15(1):10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29497353/
- Zaromskyte G, Prokopidis K, Ioannidis T, Tipton KD, Witard OC. Evaluating the Leucine Trigger Hypothesis to Explain the Post-prandial Regulation of Muscle Protein Synthesis in Young and Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Front Nutr. 2021 Jul 8;8:685165. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34307436/
- Arent SM, Cintineo HP, McFadden BA, Chandler AJ, Arent MA. Nutrient Timing: A Garage Door of Opportunity? Nutrients. 2020 Jun 30;12(7):1948. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32629950/