If you’re looking to build muscle, get leaner, or both—then you’ll likely want to grab a protein powder. When it comes to building muscle, there are two main ways to tell your body to build muscle. Exercise and eating protein. Not only does eating protein give your body what it needs to build muscle, but it also tells your body to build muscle. (This is a process called muscle protein synthesis.)
The problem is that when you’re trying to build muscle it is daunting to eat as much protein as the research demonstrates you’ll need (more on that below). Getting all your protein from meats and other sources is extremely filling, it takes a long time to prepare, and it’s expensive. This is the reason why a protein powder can be a game changer. You can have a chicken breast worth of protein in 30 seconds by mixing a scoop of protein powder with water and having a few sips. On top of that, protein powder is cheaper per gram of protein compared to regular food sources.
And if you’re trying to get leaner? It’s even more important to focus on getting lots of protein (study, study). The reason why is because how much protein you eat is linked to your total calorie intake. So as you eat less to burn fat, you’ll naturally eat less protein. This is why so many people feel weaker when trying to get leaner because their muscles are shrinking at the same time their waistlines do (contributing to the yo-yo dieting effect.) Eating more protein might also curb your motivation to snack (study). A protein powder can add a quick, cheap, and low-calorie source of protein to what you’re eating. That way you can burn fat (lower calories) while holding onto your muscle and strength (still getting lots of protein).
Before we launch in—is lots of protein healthy?
Getting lots of protein is incredibly healthy. In the short-term, protein plays a critical role in the regeneration of our organs like our skin, brain, heart, and liver. Proteins make up our antibodies that our immune system uses. It plays a role in our mental focus, performance, and our sleep. It also contributes to our body’s detoxification system. Lastly, it helps our with our muscle which helps with our ability to work and live (UN FAO report).
In the long-term, eating lots of protein helps fight off aging by preventing a loss of bone strength and brain decline. Plus, by eating lots of protein you’ll maintain more muscle. The more muscle you have, the better your metabolism functions which helps to fight off many diseases including type-2 diabetes. Plus with more muscle, you’ll be in a more resilient position in case something bad happens (an accident requiring hospitalization, etc.) (literature review).
Being strong makes the challenges of life more fun
On top of that, being strong through eating enough protein makes life more fun because you’ve increased your ability to handle harder but fun physical things like hiking, snowboarding, mud runs, etc. Plus, that strength also helps in non-fun things like helping a friend to move apartments. The struggles of daily life feel more effortless since those struggles don’t come close to what you’re capable of handling.
Protein, mental focus & mood
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are some amino acids our body can’t make, and those are called essential amino acids. We need to eat them to live. A protein with all 9 of the essential amino acids is called a “complete” protein.
So when it comes to focus and mood, the neurotransmitters in your brains, the things that let your brain control everything in your brain, many of those are made up of amino acids.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and it’s made of tyrosine, an amino acid found in protein. Dopamine does a lot of things in our body, but it’s most famous for it’s connection to our reward-motivation behaviours. Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein. Serotonin also does many things, but it’s most well known for how it helps us sleep and if you’re deficient—depression. If you aren’t eating enough of these two amino acids (tyrosine and tryptophan), there will not be enough to make the neurotransmitters, and that’s been associated with a bad mood and aggression (study, study). Omega-3’s also play a critical role so eating more fish can solve both problems at once. This topic of brain health and protein can become an even bigger deal if you’re eating a plant-based diet, check out this article by Dr. Korn (studied at Harvard Medical School).
So the big picture? Getting an abundance of protein can help you stay focused, deal with stress better, be in a better mood, and fight depression related to any deficiencies.
What happens if you don’t eat enough protein? Well, your body needs a certain amount of protein not just to stay alive but also to run well running the processes mentioned above. So if you don’t eat enough protein, your body will need to take the amino acids out of your muscles if it needs to for the other critical things in your body—making you physically weaker, lethargic, and not feeling well.
“But I heard in the news…”
Now, you might hear from the mainstream press that you don’t need a lot of protein. The first thing is that the mainstream news is trying to over-dramatize things to grab your attention through controversy. Most times the studies they report on have much more modest findings than what they report. The second thing is that the average person doesn’t need a lot of daily protein to live. But the moment you start training, you’re no longer the average person. Not only will you need enough protein to live (like everyone else), you’ll need more protein to repair your muscles from training them (not like everyone else), and you’ll need more protein on top of that to build new muscle with (again, not like everyone else.)
You might have heard in the news that eating a lot of protein, in general, is bad for your liver or kidney function. Dr. Eric Helm reviewed this topic in his academic research review (MASS vol. 2, issue 4). He said that according to the research, it seems to be saying the opposite: that there is no reason to be concerned. In one study, they tracked people for 2 years on a very high protein diet, and there were no changes in kidney or liver markers. What if you heard that eating a lot of protein causes cancer? Well, if you’d like to go through the debunking of the latest fake news on eating a hearty amount of protein, check out Examine.com’s research breakdown.
So, lots of protein is okay, but are there side effects from taking protein powder?
As with any supplement, before we look at how effective it is, we must ask: is it safe?
There was a popular article on ConsumerReports.com in 2016 that caused a worry. CR quoted from a “study” from a not-for-profit group called The Clean Label Project. I put the study in quotations because the “study” has been heavily criticized because the data wasn’t published publicly, it wasn’t published in a reputable journal, and it wasn’t peer-reviewed. Anyways, they said they found detectable levels of lead in 70% of the protein powders they tested, 74% had cadmium, and 55% had BPA in it. The biggest offenders were plant-based protein powders. Even though we can’t evaluate and therefore trust the data, we wouldn’t blame anyone if they became a bit more skeptical towards eating plant-based powders (since they can leech more toxic, heavy metals out of the earth), and certain flavourings like chocolate or vanilla.
But the reality is that many of the protein powders had zero troubles at all. So it’s not really a question about protein powders in general, but really who’s doing the processing, how is it processed, etc. One way to protect yourself is to opt for a larger and higher-end brand to trust because what you’re eating would be 3rd party tested to ensure quality standards, etc.
Who should be taking protein powder?
If you are lifting weights, planning to, or you’re doing any sort of vigorous physical activity, you should consider protein powder as a cheaper, easier, and more convenient way of hitting your higher-protein goals. But keep in mind that you’re a completely unique individual. Always take this stuff up with your medical professional first.
Even total beginners could use a protein powder since it would be a quick and easy way to help them get enough protein without totally overhauling their diet.
Skinny guys & gals
Skinny guys could use protein powder to help them hit their daily protein goals while they’re currently feeling stuffed. Nothing is worse than needing another 30g of protein to finish your daily goal and thinking you need to eat another chicken breast. But with protein powder, you can mix it with water, shake, and be done in 30 seconds. Liquid calories, because there’s no chewing, doesn’t affect our appetite the same way, so it’s a great way to hit your goals without feeling nauseous.
For women, the research seems to show that they’ll need the same amount of protein as men (so they can use the same ratio of protein per bodyweight). Because women, in general, are smaller and lighter, their total protein goals will naturally be lower (MASS review).
Athletes and lifters
And most athletes, weightlifters, crossfitters, etc. will need a lot of protein due to having more muscle mass that needs repairing and having harder training schedules. So a protein powder could make hitting their high-protein goals easier, they can do some less critical but still helpful tricks like protein timing by having protein along with their workouts might reduce muscle damage and improve recovery (literature review).
Generally, it might not be the best idea to give any supplements to kids unless your own medical professional is recommending them. The Washington Post has this great little read that there isn’t really any payoff for kids to be taking protein as they grow, and taking a protein powder might affect how they’re eating other whole foods with essential vitamins and minerals. If you want your kids to get more protein, there are lots of lean sources like greek yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, meat, etc.
But what if your kid is a teenager and he’s competitively playing sports? I wrote an evidence-based article on a supplement called creatine on Bony to Beastly, and there was a section on teenagers and the supplement creatine. The Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN), is a highly respected academic journal, and they published a public position on creatine. They said that creatine can be safely recommended if the teen athlete has already gone through puberty, they’re competitively training, they’re eating properly, they don’t overdo the dosage recommended, and most importantly that they have the go-ahead and are supervised by a mom, dad, trainer, coach, doctor, etc. (position and review).
While the JISSN didn’t talk about young athletes in their official position on protein and exercise (position and review), my opinion is that their advice on creatine for teen athletes could be reasonably applied to protein powder, especially whey as it’s been heavily studied, and is more of a functional food supplement.
Are you breastfeeding or pregnant?
It’s probably best to skip all supplements unless your medical professional recommends them to you. There’s just too much research that still needs to be done.
Are you elderly or getting older?
Older folks should definitely be taking protein powder, as older people are having a harder time hitting average protein goals (study) and their ability to process protein efficiently begins to drop. Getting enough protein and doing some sort of resistance training is one of the best defensive moves you make against sarcopenia, the natural process of losing muscle once you’re over the age of 65 (this can start as soon as 30 if you don’t move much but can be delayed through lifting weights.)
Are you eating a plant-based diet? Vegetarians and vegans
With the debate about health, morality, and whatever else put to the side—it’s not much of a controversial statement to say it’s harder to get enough protein in a plant-based diet. But with some planning and getting a solid plant-based protein powder (more on that below), then those eating a plant-based diet can fix that up.
What types of protein can I try
The most popular types of protein are:
- Milk-based proteins
- Whey concentrate
- Whey isolate
- Hydrolyzed whey
- Egg proteins
- Beef/meat proteins
- Soy concentrate and isolate
- Pea protein
- Rice, hemp, pumpkin seed, fava bean, etc.
On top of that, there are blends. It’s pretty normal to see a popular supplement combine whey isolate and concentrate, along with some casein, milk proteins, and egg albumin (dried egg whites).
Overview of milk-based proteins
Using to milk to make protein powders basically comes down to whey and casein.
When making cheese, you get curds and whey. Whey is then processed and dried to end up with whey protein. Whey mixes really easily, it’s digested quickly and tastes pretty cheesy.
Aside from being great for delivering protein, whey also comes with some health benefits. Whey contains lactalbumin which helps to improve brain performance in stress and helps with sleep and wound healing. (study). There’s also lactoferrin which has antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant traits (study). Then there’s cysteine, which could help fight cancer. (study) (Much of this health information was sourced from the excellent JISSN.)
Whey Concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate
There’s whey concentrate where the processing removes the water, lactose, ash, and some minerals. But it has the most amount of extra (good) nutrients left (study).
Then there’s whey isolate which is the purest type of protein. Even more lactose is removed and the fats are gone. It has the highest amount of protein per gram. Researchers say that there is so little lactose that even lactose-intolerant people can take whey isolate. (Might still take some testing to find the right brand. I’d still take a lactaid pill if you’re lactose-intolerant while experimenting.)
Then there’s whey hydrolysate which could be sourced from either a concentrate or isolate, and then it’s further processed to be pre-digested and broken down. This makes it faster to be absorbed and makes it less allergenic (it’s often in baby formula.) It also makes it taste pretty horribly bitter on its own.
Casein is the part that makes up most of the protein in milk and it gives milk it’s white colour (study). As a powderized supplement, it’s slow to digest compared to whey which is it’s main selling point. Bu it doesn’t mix easily as it’s kind of sandy or gel-ey, and not exactly the best texture for drinking. However, that gel-effect can also be a positive since it can be used for baking or cooking such as making desserts puddings. Casein is also quite a healthy protein powder that still has many of the biologically active peptides from milk.
Eggs, in general, are pretty amazing for building muscle and health because they not only contain protein but many other “functional” nutrients like riboflavin, selenium, vitamin K, choline, lutein, and zeaxanthin (study).
But when it comes to egg protein powders, they don’t taste all too good. It’s made up of the egg whites (albumin) and then powdered. Sometimes you can find it included in a protein blend where it’s fine. Our take would be to eat some eggs when you can but don’t go out of your way looking for a egg-dominant protein powder.
In terms of eating protein, eating meat is pretty great for building muscle and staying lean. Plus, there’s naturally carnitine and creatine in them.
But when it comes to powders, they don’t taste very good on their own, they don’t mix well, and they’re expensive. The main benefits would be the complete amino profile, being a great source of iron, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin b12, and folic acid, and some bonuses like having carnitine and creatine. While the creatine is a good argument, you might also want to be taking a creatine supplement anyways (check out this guide on Bony to Beastly.)
In coaching, I haven’t heard of many of our members using beef protein powders. However, it tends to come up more in our female clients. Perhaps it’s the iron, vitamin b12, and folic acid?
Anyways, some popular brands would include the Recon1 MRE Lite which includes beef isolate, salmon, chicken, egg whites, pea, and rice protein. Honestly, The Recon1 products don’t taste half bad so it could be worth trying. The main benefit of these meat proteins would be if someone wanted some of the benefits of an animal protein without needing to have dairy or lactose.
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, you’ll want to include protein powder. Protein is harder to come by in a plant-based diet, especially as a lean source (with minimal fats or carbs).
You’ll need to be a bit more careful and intentional with your choice, but you can still find a great protein powder. This is because there are a lot of options; however, some are better than others. None of the plant-based sources of protein contain all 9 essential amino acids, so they’re “incomplete” on their own. So getting a blend is the best way to cover your bases with a powder that has all the essential amino acids.
Plus, there’s a quality score rating of protein (more on this below). This score is used to determine how well your body can actually extract and use the protein. If it’s too hard to digest, a good amount of the protein will just pass through your body. Plant-based proteins are harder to digest and so they don’t score as well as animal protein in research, so you’ll need to take more to get the same benefits as animal-based regarding efficiency. Later on, we’ll talk about how much protein you’ll need, keep in mind that you’ll need to match your plant-based protein to whey since that is often what is being studied. (The future of plant-based proteins is bright. There’s the possibility that by including the right enzymes plant-based proteins could someday score just as well as animal-based proteins: study.)
Lastly, there’s a higher risk of getting more toxic metals like lead and cadmium, so be sure to find a brand that you trust to help minimize these risks through processing and testing.
So, the most common plant-based proteins we see are soy, pea, rice, hemp, and pumpkin seed. From what research we have so far, soy isolate is the best scoring, but it’s only 10% better than pea protein. Pea protein doesn’t have any the concerns around estrogen (whether warranted or not). And if you’re eating a plant-based diet, you might already be eating lots of soy (tempeh, tofu, textured vegetable protein, etc.), and it’d be wiser to use a protein powder that would give you some variety.
Pumpkin seed is one of the more “complete” foods in terms of amino acids. So getting a blend that could include pea, pumpkin seed, and others could be the best option.
Protein quality or protein score:
We need amino acids to live and build muscle. Most researchers consider that there are 9 essential amino acids, meaning that our body can’t make them. A “better” or more “complete” protein powder includes more of these amino acids. Then there’s the question of how digestible is the protein. Can your body actually extract and use the protein? There’s an excellent review of the literature in 2016 by Dr. Phillips, and this is how some of the common supplements score (literature review).
So, how does protein quality affect the real world? In one study from 2013, they had a group lift weights for 9 months with 96 workouts. The only difference was one group was using whey, one was using soy protein, and one was using a carb supplement. The people taking whey had 83% better gains than those taking soy. Obviously, those taking the carb supplement did worse since they weren’t getting the additional protein (study). But this is why protein quality matters. For example, let’s say you want to try a plant-based protein. If we know that it takes more plant-based protein to match animal protein, then that’s great, because then we can make that adjustment to have more and carry on.
How to use protein powder
Mix with water or milk
The easiest way to use a protein powder is to put a scoop of powder into a shaker cup, with water or milk, and give it a good shake. You can have a whole meal amount of protein finished within a few seconds. You can even bring this on the go with you. Just bring your shaker cup filled with the protein powder, and bring a separate water bottle. When you’re ready to drink it, then you can mix them.
If you have an unflavoured or neutrally-flavoured protein powder (like vanilla) you can try mixing it into a smoothie. There are lots of great smoothie recipes that can mask the protein powder really well. In my personal experience, I’ve found that nut butters (almond, peanut butter, etc.) seems to be the magical ingredient that hides the flavour of whey. I’ve served smoothies to my parents with whey in it, and they said they couldn’t taste it. Pro tip: make the smoothie first, then add the protein powder in at the very end for a quick mix, so the powder doesn’t make the smoothie extra fluffy.
Use in protein bars or mix into food
You can mix the powder into recipes to make raw protein powder bars, or you can mix it into your food. I’ve seen many recipes where people mix their protein into their oatmeal, pancakes, and cookies. I’ve made protein bars, and they can taste pretty good. But I personally don’t understand why you’d want to make some of your favourite foods taste a little less good. I’d rather eat real pancakes without protein powder in them and then have a smoothie on the side.
If your goal is fat-loss, chewing your protein may help you feel fuller
One study looked at how chewing versus blended food affected the feelings of fullness. One group got a steamed chicken breast and a glass of water. The other got a blended chicken breast in water and a smaller glass of water. (And they couldn’t even drink it, they had to eat it with a spoon. Pretty gross, to be honest.) Those who chewed their chicken breast were much fuller and more satisfied compared to those who ate the liquified chicken breast.
So what does this mean for you? If you want to feel fuller from your protein powder, start making protein bars and add it to food. If you’re a skinny guy who’s already stuffed, just keep mixing it with water.
How much protein powder should I take?
If you’re lifting weights, research is showing that the ideal is between 1.3 to 1.8 gram per kilogram a day, or 0.6–0.8 g per body weight pound (study). So if you were 77kg / 170 pounds, you would eat between 102g–136g every day.
But there’s something else you should keep in mind.
You probably aren’t eating as much as you think you are
In a 2015 study, researchers asked 47 elite athletes how much protein they ate the day before. Then they would measure their urine for a marker of how much protein they actually ate. The athlete’s had a pretty good memory but were still often saying they were eating more than 25% more protein than they actually were.
If you’re struggling to build muscle, and you’re hitting your protein goals, it’s possible you’re not consistent enough on a day-to-day basis (so your weekly protein goals aren’t being met). Or you’re just human, like those elite athletes in the study, and you could be overestimating how much protein you’re eating.
Given that there are no downsides to eating more protein except a higher cost, if you aren’t seeing the results you want, you could try eating 25% more protein.
The optimal amount of protein bumped up by 25%
So for that same 170-pound guy, he might decide to try 128g–170g per day.
If you’re eating around 30 grams of protein for breakfast and snacks combined, lunch, and dinner, that might still leave you with 38–80g of protein left that you could make up with a protein powder. The easiest way is to have this as your workout shake. 2-3 scoops should do the trick.
There’s a caveat for those eating plant-based proteins. There’s something called the ‘Protein Quality Score,’ and it’s how efficient your body is at getting the protein out of the food. Here’s the protein quality score from the 2016 review by Dr. Phillips.
That means if you’re eating plant-based protein, you may want to go for a pea/pumpkin seed blend instead of rice, and eat 33% more. So if you were trying to get to 150g of protein per day, and you wanted to do 60g from a protein powder, you might want to try doing 90g if you’re eating a plant-based powder.
What if you’re heavier from storing more fat?
If you’ve got a bit more fat on you, your fat doesn’t need the extra protein. This is where the formula breaks a bit. A simple way is to use a weight in the healthy BMI for your height. So let’s say you’re 6’3 and 220. You might aim to get down to 180 pounds. So you could use that weight as your calculation. So something like 180 x 0.6–0.8 g = 108g–144g of protein daily (keep in mind that point above that we do tend to underestimate our protein intake.)
One other thing to keep in mind is that if you’ve got a bit more fat you want to lose, eating more protein is not bad. In fact, it may even help you naturally eat less calories by taking up more space in your stomach (making you fuller), and it might affect your cravings. If you eat lots of protein, snacking might become less appetizing, but more research needs to be done (study). The only downside to eating more protein is that it’s more expensive compared to eating carbs/fats.
When is it best to take protein powder
When you eat a large enough portion of protein all at once, you can trigger muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and build muscle. So your body will be actively trying to build muscle. This effect can be multiplied every few hours, so it’s best to space out your protein intake if possible.
It’s best to spread protein out over the day
But how much protein do you need each meal to tell your body to build muscle? A 2018 study by Dr. Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon said that after reviewing the evidence, it seems like 0.4 g/kg/meal (0.18g/lb/meal) at a minimum would be best for maximally building muscle as it’d be enough to trigger muscle protein synthesis 4 times throughout the day. So, if you were 170 pounds, you’d aim for at least 30g per meal to trigger MPS 4 times (essentially eating a meal every 3-5 hours)
How much could spreading your protein out over the day rather than just eating a bigger dinner?
In this study they compared eating protein spaced out throughout the day and mainly eating protein during dinner. So the first group would have 30g for breakfast, 30g for lunch and 30g for dinner. The second group had 10g for breakfast, 15g for lunch, and 65g for dinner. The group that split up protein throughout the day had 25% better muscle protein synthesis! Pretty crazy. The study authors says having even more protein could be better, thinking 40g at breakfast, lunch, and dinner could be most ideal.
Should you be timing your protein around your workout?
The most important research paper is a 2013 meta-analysis of all the relevant studies (43 studies!) on protein by Dr. Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and James Kreiger (literature review).
Basically, the research on “timing” your protein intake, such as around your workout, doesn’t seem to meaningfully help to build muscle or strength. The main thing that matters is the total daily intake. Not the timing.
But on the other hand, there are studies like this one, and as Dr. Helm’s points out in this protein science article, there could be more of a benefit for “well-trained” lifters to be having protein powder while training. Even one of the most respected journals in this industry, the JISSN, published a public position that said an upwards of 70g of protein powder with a workout can help stop muscle break-down (position).
Either way, having protein in a workout shake is still a good idea even if we’re unsure about what the benefits might be. The reason why is that it’s a super easy way to add protein to your day and a workout is a fantastic habit cue to remind you to have some protein powder. So If you wanted to bump your protein intake up 60g, you’d get a workout shaker and add a couple scoops of your favourite protein powder, and sip on it as you workout. You might get some additional benefits (or maybe not, the research isn’t clear yet), and you’ll hit your protein goals easier and more consistently.
Example of how someone could spread out their protein
So we’ve already looked at the example of the 170-pound guy. He’s trying to get between 128–170g a day (to ensure he absolutely gets enough). He wants to work out every other day 3x a week. He eats 4 times a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack.)
What he could do is:
- Monday: Workout—eat 30g per meal, have a scoop and a half of whey with the workout (165g)
- Tuesday: Rest—eat 30g per meal (120g)
- Wednesday: Workout—eat 30g per meal, have a scoop and a half of whey with the workout (165g)
- Thursday: Rest—eat 30g per meal (120g)
- Friday: Workout—eat 30g per meal, have a scoop and a half of whey with the workout (165g)
- Saturday: Rest (120g)
- Sunday: Rest (120g)
Over the week, that totals 139g daily, in the range of the boosted recommendation.
What if this sounds too structured and unattainable
Just remember that total protein intake is the foundation, not timing. In the case of the example, he should work first on getting up to 120g a day. So if he skips breakfast, and just eats lunch (25g), dinner (40g) and a snack (15g), he could try and add a smoothie to his morning with protein powder (40g). Try and fix the weak links first.
What about timing protein powder when intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an excellent way to burn fat, and in general, it’s pretty great as a lifestyle. It’s not optimal for building new muscle though since you’re cutting out one opportunity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. So if you’re trying to get bigger, especially if you’re a skinny guy trying to bulk up, you should be eating more often to help you get calories in. (Check out this intermittent fasting and bulking article on Bony to Beastly for more info.)
But if you’re overweight, you may want to use intermittent fasting to help control your calories while still eating enjoyably sized meals. Then your day with protein spread out might look like: 12pm lunch (50g), 5pm dinner (40g) 7:50pm second dinner (30g).
You could even try having a lean protein powder as breakfast. A scoop of protein powder would technically break the fast, but since the main benefit of intermittent fasting is limiting calories, the lean protein powder would be very low calorie, you’d stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and it may make your hunger cravings more manageable (the earlier study we mentioned that showed eating more protein might reduce cravings.)
What about before bed?
There’s a popular idea that if you drink a casein shake or eat something protein-heavy right before bed, like cottage cheese, your body can build more muscle while you sleep. In the vol. 2, issue #7 of the MASS research review, Dr. Helm’s looked at the research around getting protein right before bed.
The short answer is that if you get the same amount of daily protein, then whether you get a bunch of protein right before bed doesn’t seem to matter. So long as you get all of the protein you wanted of protein spread out over the day, you don’t need to take protein right before bed (study). So you don’t need to fret about it. Dr. Helm’s did add that more research could be done in this area to discover some finer details, but even in that case, it’s the “cherry on top” and would not be crucial for great gains. Personally, I remember hearing about this years ago and trying it. Casein tastes pretty horrible and downing a big protein shake just before bed made me wake up in the middle of the night to use the washroom. Not exactly helping me to improve the quality of my sleep!
What brands can I trust?
Labdoor is an independent lab that tests and reviews supplements. They check for things like label accuracy and purity. They’re not funded by the supplement companies, but instead by consumers like you and me. They publish their rankings for free.
Some top scoring brands for protein powder were:
- Musclefeast Grass-fed Whey Isolate: 91.3
- Myprotein Impact Whey Isolate: 91.2
- Integrated Supplements Whey Isolate: 89.7
- NOW Foods Whey Isolate: 86.6
- Dymatize ISO-100: 83.8
- Allmax Isonatural Whey Protein Isolate Chocolate (I use this brand and type but in the unflavoured version): 80.1
Recommendations of protein types:
These are just our personal opinions based on everything we know about protein quality, the tests from Labdoor, and our own personal experience. Your mileage will vary.
If your number one concern is cost since you’re trying to stick to your budget, our top 5 picks would be something like a blend with most of the protein being made up of whey concentrates. Whey concentrates will get you similar results as isolates in terms of building muscle, they’ll include more health benefits from milk that weren’t processed out, and they’re much cheaper. However, there are some tradeoffs. Compared to isolates, concentrates might not taste as good, and you might not digest them as well because they’re not as processed and still have some lactose (but many blends with whey concentrates in them also add in digestive enzymes to help you feel your best.)
My personal opinion is that whey isolates is the best-tasting type of protein. It mixes well, and the cheesy whey taste can be totally covered by making a smoothie or by choosing a good brand with solid flavours.
When it comes to flavour, often the biggest brands have the best flavours. But you’ll never know the intensity of flavour a brand will use when trying them out for the first time. My favourite way of solving this problem is always having two big tubs of whey. One is unflavoured, and one is flavoured. When I’m making smoothies, I can use the unflavoured whey. And when I’m making a workout drink, I can control the intensity of the flavour to my own preference by mixing the unflavoured whey with the flavoured (usually something like 1 scoop of unflavoured and one scoop of flavoured.)
In terms of the best brands, I tend to like the Allmax Isonatural flavourings since they taste more wholesome and less chemical-ey.
Best dairy-free / no lactose protein powder
If you eat meat but don’t like dairy for whatever reason, you could try some of the beef proteins. The breakdown of a beef protein powder is most similar to our own muscles (review), so there are a lot of benefits. The downside is that beef protein could smell a bit beefy and it’s harder to mix. But after some reading, I decided to try Recon1 and it didn’t taste half bad. It’s not as good as whey, but if you’re looking for a non-dairy but animal-based protein, you could try one of these:
If it’s the lactose that is the bigger issue, you could consider getting a whey isolate which has less lactose to begin with and then taking lactase to break the lactose down. Lactase is what is added to “lactose-free” milk, as it helps to break down lactose into a sugar. Lactaid tablets are really cheap, and you only need to take it a few minutes beforehand. That could be a simple way to get the cheapest, most-efficient, and best-tasting protein powder without all the bloating and digestive troubles.
Alternatively, you could try one of the plant-based proteins we talk about below.
Best protein powder that is easy to digest and doesn’t cause bloating
If your stomach is having a hard time digesting protein powder, there’s a few things you could try:
- Confirm it’s the protein powder and not just something else you recently changed. Often when people start taking protein powder, they’re trying to get bigger or get leaner. That means they might stop eating certain foods and start eating other ones. If you’re getting bloating, try and go back to eating what you were eating before, then slowly begin adding one new thing at a time.
- Try a natural protein powder with no extra ingredients. You might not be agreeing with the additives, flavours, etc.
- Try another protein powder brand. Each company will have their own source of protein and their own processing methods.
- Try another protein type. I found out over months of trying that I wasn’t doing the best on whey protein concentrates even though I handle milk and other dairy perfectly. I felt fine but not amazing. Once I switched to isolates, I really started to enjoy taking protein powder and have continued to use isolates.
- Find a brand that adds digestive enzymes. Some brands might add proteases (breaks down protein), amylases (breaks down carbs), and lipases (breaks down fats). If you’re a little older, it will get harder to digest food, so you could look into a brand that does this.
- Be aware that plant-based sources are the hardest to digest. If you’re a vegan and cannot use another type of protein, you may want to try looking into digestive enzymes. There seems to be an exciting future in the improvement of the quality score of plant-based powders (ability to be digested) with the use of enzymes.
So some ideas would be to find a high-quality brand that adds enzymes and uses high-quality sources of protein.
Best organic/non-GMO/clean protein powder
These tend to be smaller brands and will likely vary with what you can get in your own country. At that point, you’ll need to research the company making the protein powder and then making a judgement for if they’re trustworthy in your eyes. If a company is publishing third-party test results, that’s a good sign that they’re committed to purity and that what is on the label is in the container.
On Labdoor (USA), an independent testing lab that scores popular supplements, Do Vitamins and their Organic Wonder Whey was rated as one of the top protein powders they tested.
Best natural protein without fillers, additives, sweeteners, or artificial ingredients
This is a pretty similar answer to the organic/non-GMO/clean powder. You might need to find a more local brand that shares this vision with you.
My personal favourite is Allmax Isonatural Unflavoured protein. This is my daily go-to protein powder. There are no flavours, sweeteners, or dyes added. The only ingredient is the whey isolate and lecithin for mixing (made from sunflowers—some people even take this as a health supplement.)
Best plant-based protein
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, you’ve already got your choices easily narrowed down. You’ll probably want to grab a blend from pea and pumpkin seed to cover all 9 of the essential amino acids. Plus, pea protein has over double the protein quality score that rice has (literature review). So your main task will be to find a brand that you trust to deliver a pure product, and that makes a solid tasting flavour and decent in terms of mixability.
MyProtein is a favourite (top-selling in the UK), and they consistently score well on Labdoor (we cover the best scoring brands later). They have a vegan protein made out of pea isolate and fava bean isolate. You may want to check it out.
Where to buy protein powder
We’re in Canada, and we can find protein powder in most big-box stores (Costco, Wal-mart, Loblaws, etc.) and even grocery stores (Metro, Real Canadian Superstore, etc.). However, a GNC or Popeye’s Supplement store is usually fairly close by which would give you more options and better bang for your buck.
If you plan ahead, the cheapest price will usually be found online. Here are some of the top places to buy from. (Granted we don’t live in the USA or the UK, so some of these places were found by browsing reddit posts, so use your own judgement and discretion.)
United States of America
- Lots of protein is healthy as it helps to keep your body running well including your immune system, brain health, mood, and strength.
- Protein powder can help you eat enough protein by making it cheaper, easier, and more accessible
- Almost everyone could benefit from getting a bit more protein, and a powder is an easy way of doing that.
- If you’re exercising, you’ll almost definitely want a protein powder
- Skip the protein powder if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
- or you’re a small child (hey, who gave you internet access…)
- Skip the protein powder if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
- Whey is the most-tested and best performing protein powder
- Vegans should consider upping their plant-based protein powders on account of the lower protein quality score
- Protein powder works great in water, milk, smoothies, or even in food as protein bars.
- Research shows that 1.3 to 1.8 gram per kilogram a day (or 0.6–0.8 g per body weight pound) is ideal.
- Keep in mind that we’re likely overestimating how much protein we eat, so try bumping up the recommendations by 25%
- Spread your protein across meals throughout the day to maximize new muscle development
- Try having a protein powder in a workout shaker and sip on it as you workout for some (maybe) small gains
What do you think about protein powders? And if you’ve tried some, what are your favourites? Let us know below, I’ll respond to every comment.