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Most gyms sell some type of protein powder. You can also purchase these powders at almost any health food or dietary supplement store. These products are highly available for good reasons. They provide many different benefits, especially for active individuals.
Muscle needs protein to grow. This makes protein powder beneficial for clients interested in increasing muscle mass. A powder-based protein source also helps muscle recover after a tough workout. During intense exercise, muscle tissue is damaged. Protein provides the nutrients needed for a faster, more efficient recovery.
Protein powder also offers a convenient way to consume this important nutrient. It can be quickly mixed with liquids like water or milk and easily incorporated into one’s diet for increased nutritional benefits.
Not only do powders support muscle growth, repair, and recovery, but their unique variety of essential amino acids, absorption rates, and nutritional profiles enable users to choose one that best fits their individual needs.
There are numerous protein powders from which to choose. That said, they all fit into two basic categories: animal-based and plant-based.
Animal-based protein is considered a complete protein. This is because it contains all the essential amino acids. An essential amino acid is an amino acid that cannot be made by the body. Therefore, they can only be received by consuming a protein source with that amino acid.
Consuming a complete protein means that the body receives all essential amino acids in one food or product. This eliminates the need to piece together a diet full of foods that supply only one or two of the amino acids the body needs.
Another benefit of animal proteins is that they generally have a higher biological value. In simple terms, the body can use animal protein more efficiently for muscle repair and growth. This protein type also has a higher proportion of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are crucial for protein synthesis.
Animal-based protein powder options include:
Whey protein. Whey protein is derived from milk. This type is available in multiple forms. Whey protein isolate contains 90% protein or more because all non-protein components—such as fat and lactose—are removed. Whey concentrate maxes out at 80% protein. This type also contains carbs and fat. (1)
Casein protein. Casein protein is derived from milk too. In fact, it is the top protein found in animal milk. It accounts for 80% of the protein in dairy milk. (Whey protein makes up the other 20%.)
Egg white protein. Egg protein is derived from egg whites. The yolks are removed, and the remaining whites are dehydrated and pasteurized. The result is a protein-rich powder.
A plant-based protein is a protein source derived from a plant. Whereas an animal-based protein is a complete protein, plant-based protein is generally an incomplete protein. Some plant proteins do contain every essential amino acid, but very few. Most only supply a portion.
Plant-based protein powder options include:
Soy protein. Soy protein is one of the plant-based complete proteins. Tofu, tempeh, and soy milk all contain soy protein. Like all the others on this list, it’s also available in powder form.
Pea protein. Most people don’t think of peas as being high in protein, but they are. One cup of raw green peas contains 7.86 grams of this nutrient. This makes pea protein powder a great way to get more protein in the diet via plant sources. (2)
Rice protein. Most rice protein powders are made from brown rice. Brown rice contains more nutrients than white rice. It’s also better for blood sugar control and weight management.
Hemp protein. Hemp is another complete protein source. It’s also rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and support heart health.
It's important to note that everybody is different. So, what works best for one person might not work best for another. That said, here are a few of the best protein powder options based on some specific fitness goals.
Whey protein helps increase muscle mass thanks, at least in part, to its BCAAs. For the most protein possible, choose a whey isolate. (Although, a concentrated whey protein powder can still supply as much as 80% protein.)
Pea protein is also good for supporting muscle mass growth. This protein powder is generally easy to digest. The BCAAs in egg white protein powder make this another great option for building muscle.
Whey protein is one of the best for recovery after a tough workout. One reason is that it is rapidly absorbed. Another is that its BCAAs promote muscle repair.
Casein protein is a good option as well. This type of powder is slow digesting. As such, it supplies the body with a sustained amino acid release during the recovery process. Egg protein is a good animal-based protein for recovery too, due to its BCAAs.
If you’re looking for a plant-based option, pea protein is one to consider. Like egg and whey protein, it’s also rich in BCAAs.
Any of the available protein powders can assist with weight gain. As long as they’re helping you take in more calories than you burn, the number on the scale will start to rise. Adding other ingredients, such as nut butter or yogurt, can increase the calories they supply even more.
The main thing to remember when it comes to weight loss is that a calorie deficit is needed. Consuming too many protein powder shakes can make it easy to exceed one’s caloric requirements, resulting in weight gain. If the goal is to lose weight, using protein shakes or smoothies as a meal replacement may be more effective than consuming them as snacks.
What about protein type? One study compared protein from brown rice, white rice, and soy. It found that brown rice protein was best for weight gain control. Brown rice was also better than the other proteins for synthesizing cholesterol. (3)
People following a vegan or vegetarian diet can increase their protein intake with a plant-based powder. Soy protein is a good option for people who are lactose intolerant. It’s also helpful for those with a dairy allergy.
Pea protein is another option for people with a dairy allergy or sensitivity. It’s also an option for those with allergies or sensitivities to soy or gluten. Egg white protein is good for these reasons as well.
Not all protein powders are the same. That’s why it’s important to read the ingredients list when choosing a protein supplement.
For example, experts indicate that some powders contain Cadmium and the artificial sugar sucrose. Others contain added sugar. Too much added sugar can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more. It also contributes to a greater obesity risk. That’s why the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 9 teaspoons per day for men and 6 teaspoons daily for women. (4, 5)
Also, before selecting a protein powder, make sure it suits not just your goals but also your individual nutritional needs. Pay attention to how many calories it provides. If it also supplies carbs or fat, notice this as well. These will need to be accounted for in your total daily intake.
The great thing about protein powders is that they’re easy to consume. Need a healthy breakfast on the go? Protein powder mixed with yogurt and fresh fruit is an option. Or simply mix it with water, milk, or a milk alternative to make a tasty protein-packed shake.
You can also mix protein powder with yogurt or ice to make a refreshing smoothie. Add fruit or veggies for even more nutrients.
Protein powder can even be added to some recipes to boost their protein levels. Put it in muffins or pancakes to make these food sources more protein-rich. Just keep in mind that the powder may change the texture of the food product. So, you may need to adjust the other ingredients.
To help you make the best decision when it comes to protein powder or any other type of protein supplement, we’ve collected—and answered—some of the most common questions asked by clients and trainers.
When part of a balanced diet, protein powder can be consumed daily. What about using a protein powder on rest days? Absolutely! Remember that the body needs protein for muscle recovery. Giving it this protein in the form of powder can help support this process.
Getting too much protein may be hard on the kidneys. So, people with compromised kidney function want to talk with their healthcare providers before adding protein powder to their diet. Evidence is unclear about whether there’s a connection between protein powder and kidney stones.
Most people tolerate protein powder just fine. However, if this protein source is overused, it can result in some bothersome side effects. This includes stomach cramps, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
If the goal is to build muscle, research suggests that 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is the minimum with 2.2 grams being the max. Consuming at least 0.4 grams per kilogram at each meal helps meet this goal. (6)
At the same time, everyone has different protein needs. These needs can vary depending on age, sex, activity level, and more. A nutritionist or registered dietitian can help determine the best protein intake for you.
Maybe, maybe not. There are pros and cons for both protein supplements and natural protein. Regardless, the goal is to hit your personal protein requirements. If you can do that with natural protein sources, you may not need a powder. But if you find it hard to get the recommended amount of protein, a powder can help fill the gap.
Protein timing is a hot topic. Research indicates that consuming protein at night, before bed, helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This aids in recovery. Others suggest consuming protein directly before or after a workout. (For instance, whey protein is rapidly absorbed, making it a good post-workout option.) Who’s right? (7)
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Trying different approaches can help individuals find the one that works best for them.
If you want to better help personal training clients get their recommended protein intake, giving specific advice about protein supplements is outside the scope of practice. But it’s not outside the scope of practice for a nutritionist or nutrition coach.
Earning a nutritionist certification enables trainers to provide customized menus for clients based on their specific needs. When optimum nutrition is achieved, clients can perform their best in the gym. For those who play sports, a menu based on sound sports nutrition principles allows them to reach peak performance on the court or field. Getting the macro and micronutrients their bodies require also supports muscle growth and recovery.
ISSA offers Nutritionist Certification. This course does a deeper dive into protein powder usage, including recommended tips and guidelines for individual clients based on their needs and fitness goals.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
Whey Protein Isolate. ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/whey-protein-isolate
Fooddata Central Search Results - Peas. FoodData Central. (n.d.). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170419/nutrients
Zhang, H., Bartley, G. E., Mitchell, C. R., Zhang, H., & Yokoyama, W. (2011). Lower weight gain and hepatic lipid content in hamsters fed high fat diets supplemented with white rice protein, brown rice protein, soy protein, and their hydrolysates. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 59(20), 10927–10933. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf202721z
Bowen, A., BS, Denny, V. C., BS, MSc, Bidaisee, S., DVM, MSPH, EdD, & Keku, E., MS, MA, MSPH. (2018). The whey and casein protein powder consumption: The implications for public health. International Public Health Journal, 10(2), 131–136.
How much sugar is too much?. www.heart.org. (2023, May 10). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-much-sugar-is-too-much
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
Trommelen, J., & van Loon, L. (2016). Pre-sleep protein ingestion to improve the skeletal muscle adaptive response to exercise training. Nutrients, 8(12), 763. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8120763