Once considered a supplement exclusively for extreme athletes and bodybuilders, protein powder has gained widespread popularity among those looking to gain muscle, lose weight or even improve over-all health.
In fact, the potential benefits of protein powder extend far beyond the gym, as research shows that it may help with everything from improving body composition to enhancing our immune system.
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein powder is a common supplement that provides a concentrated amount of dietary protein from either animal or plant-based sources.
Most people take protein powder looking to gain muscle and maximize fat loss. However, protein powders can also be a useful way to increase protein intake for those who may struggle to meet their body’s needs, such as older adults or vegans and vegetarians.
In addition to supplying extra protein to your daily diet, protein powder benefits many other aspects of health as well.
In fact, several types are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and have been linked to a wide range of health benefits such as lower cholesterol levels, better blood sugar control and improved muscle to fat ratio.
In addition, protein powder is available in a wide array of different flavors and can be incredibly convenient and versatile.
Common Forms of Protein Powder
There are several different forms of protein powder, each of which vary based on their nutrient profile and the way that they are processed. The three common forms include:
This type of protein powder is made by extracting protein from whole food sources, resulting in a final product that contains 60 to 80 percent of calories from protein with the remaining calories from fat and carbohydrates.
Protein isolates are further filtered to remove much of the fat and carbohydrates, resulting in a more highly concentrated form of protein powder. In general, protein isolates typically contain between 90 to 95 percent protein.
This form of protein powder undergoes a process that breaks the bond between amino acids, creating a type of protein that is more easily absorbable by your body.
Common Types of Protein Powder
Within these different forms’ protein powders can be derived from a variety of different animal or plant-based sources.
Here are 6 of the most common types of protein powders on the market today
1. Whey Protein
Whey is a type of protein found in milk. More specifically, it is the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheese-making process, resulting in a final product that is high in protein.
However, it may also contain lactose, a type of sugar found in milk that can be difficult for certain people to digest.
Therefore, whey protein isolate is the best whey protein option if you are lactose intolerant, as the lactose content is significantly decreased during processing.
Whey is a quickly digested protein rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine, one of these BCAAs, plays a major role in promoting muscle growth and recovery following resistance and endurance exercise (1, 2).
When amino acids are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, they are available for muscle protein synthesis (MPS), or the creation of new muscle.
Studies have shown that whey protein can help build and maintain lean muscle tissue, assist athletes with recovery from heavy exercise and increase muscle strength in response to strength training. (3, 4, 5, 6,)
- Supports Muscle Growth: Whey protein is quickly digested, making it an ideal choice for a post-workout smoothie. In fact, multiple studies show that whey protein can help speed up muscle recovery and enhance muscle growth. (10)
- High in BCAA: Whey protein is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), which help promote muscle recovery and support muscle synthesis after exercise. (11)
- Controls Appetite: Some research also shows that whey protein could decrease appetite and may help reduce levels of certain hunger hormones to a greater extent than other protein powders, including casein or soy. (12)
- Improves Body Composition: For those looking to lose weight and kick up fat burning, whey protein may be the way to go. Studies show that supplementing with whey could help decrease fat mass and waist circumference in people who are overweight or obese. (13, 14)
Whey protein may be the right choice for you if you’re looking to increase muscle mass and improve muscle recovery after an intense workout. It’s also sometimes considered the top protein powder for weight loss because it can help curb cravings and improve body composition.
2. Casein Protein
Casein is a type of protein found in milk. Unlike whey protein, however, it’s digested much more slowly within the body, helping to decrease muscle breakdown.
Casein forms a gel when it interacts with stomach acid, slowing down stomach emptying and delaying the absorption of amino acids into the bloodstream.
This results in a more gradual exposure of the muscles to amino acids, reducing the rate of muscle protein breakdown. (15).
Based on the results of most studies, casein appears to be more effective than soy and wheat protein — but not as effective as whey protein — at increasing muscle protein synthesis and strength. (16, 17, 18)
However, one study suggests that when calories are restricted, casein may have an edge over whey in improving body composition during resistance training.
The study followed overweight men who consumed a diet providing 80 percent of their calorie needs. Some took casein protein and others were given whey protein.
Those who took casein protein had twice the reduction in fat mass, gain of lean mass and increase in chest strength as the whey protein group. (19)
- Slows Muscle Breakdown: Casein has anti-catabolic properties, meaning that it slows the breakdown of muscle tissues during resistance training and supplies the muscles with a steady stream of amino acids to promote muscle growth. (20)
- Enhances Strength: Some research indicates that casein protein may be even more effective than other types of protein like whey at stimulating muscle growth and increasing strength. (21, 22)
- Improves Body Composition: One study comparing the effects of whey protein and casein found that supplementing with casein doubled the amount of fat loss, lean body mass gains and chest strength compared to whey protein. (23)
- Boosts Metabolism: Casein tops the charts as potentially the best protein powder for women looking to lose weight because it’s been shown to ramp up energy expenditure and keep your metabolism running. (24)
Casein can help increase fat loss and build muscle for those looking to tone up. It can also increase metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories throughout the day to help with weight loss.
3. Egg Protein
Eggs are well-known for being an excellent source of high-quality protein.
Of all whole foods, eggs have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS).
This score is a measure of a protein’s quality and how easily it’s digested by the body. (25)
Like all animal products, eggs are a complete protein source. That means they provide adequate amounts of the 9 essential amino acids your body can’t make itself.
What’s more, egg protein is second only to whey protein as the highest source of leucine, the BCAA that plays the biggest role in muscle health. (28)
Additionally, egg protein could be a good choice for people with allergies to milk protein who prefer a supplement that’s based on animal protein.
- Supports Muscle Growth: Egg protein is quickly and easily digested, making it an ideal post-workout shake. In fact, multiple studies show that egg protein can help speed up muscle recovery and enhance muscle growth. (29, 30)
- High in BCAA: Whey protein is rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), which help promote muscle recovery and support muscle synthesis post-workout. (31)
- Controls Appetite: Some research also shows that egg protein could decrease appetite and may help reduce levels of certain hunger hormones to a greater extent due to its satiating value. (32)
- Improves Body Composition: Studies show that supplementing with egg protein could help decrease fat mass while helping retain lean mass when dieting. (33, 34)
Egg protein may be a good choice for you if you’re looking to increase lean mass while decreasing fat mass. Egg protein is also considered a good protein powder for weight loss because it can help curb appetite and improve body composition.
4. Pea Protein
Pea protein powder is relatively new and especially popular among vegetarians, vegans and people with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or egg proteins.
It’s made from the yellow split pea, a high-fiber legume that contains high amounts of all the essential amino acids except for methionine.
Pea protein is also particularly rich in branched-chain amino acids.
In a controlled study of 161 men who performed resistance training for 12 weeks, the group who consumed 50 grams of pea protein daily experienced similar increases in muscle thickness to the group who took 50 grams of whey protein per day. (35)
In addition, a study found that humans and rats with high blood pressure experienced a decrease in blood pressure when they took pea protein supplements. (36)
Though pea protein powder shows promise, more high-quality research is needed to confirm the results of these studies.
- Boosts Muscle Growth: One study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that pea protein was equally effective as whey protein at increasing muscle thickness when combined with resistance training. (37)
- Reduces Hunger: Some research shows that pea protein can help increase the levels of leptin, a satiety hormone that keeps you feeling full and decreases hunger. (38)
- Lowers Blood Pressure: In addition to kicking up your protein intake, pea protein may also help keep your heart in tip-top shape by keeping blood pressure in check. A 2011 study showed that supplementation with pea protein was able to significantly lower blood pressure levels after just three weeks. (39)
Pea protein works well for those looking to increase muscle growth while also curbing cravings and decreasing appetite, making it a contender for the best protein powder for weight loss. When paired with a healthy, well-rounded diet, it may also benefit other aspects of health, such as heart health.
5. Hemp Protein
Hemp protein powder is another plant-based supplement that is gaining popularity.
Although hemp is related to marijuana, it only has trace amounts of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Hemp is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and several essential amino acids. However, it is not considered a complete protein because it has very low levels of the amino acids lysine and leucine.
Although there is very little research on hemp protein at this time, it appears to be a well-digested plant protein source. (40)
- Easily Digestible: Hemp protein powder is an easily digestible form of protein, meaning your body is able to metabolize and utilize more protein to get you closer to your goals. (41)
- Contains Heart-Healthy Fats: Unlike other protein powders, hemp protein powder stands out because it contains a hearty dose of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of heart-healthy fat that’s been linked to decreased inflammation, improved heart health and better brain function. (42)
- Plant-Based: Hemp protein powder is often considered one of the best vegan protein powder options because it’s totally plant-based and can be enjoyed on nearly any diet.
- Rich in Fiber: Hemp protein powder is loaded with beneficial fiber. Besides supporting regularity, fiber also helps lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar and enhance weight loss. (43)
Hemp protein powder is perfect for those looking to boost protein intake to gain muscle mass and strength while also reaping the nutritional benefits of the hemp seed, including its high fiber and omega-3 fatty acid content.
6. Mixed Plant Proteins
Some protein powders contain a blend of plant sources to provide complete protein with all the essential amino acids.
Mixed plant protein powders typically contain a combination of two or more of the following proteins:
- Brown rice
- Chia seeds
Plant proteins tend to be digested more slowly than animal proteins, due in part to their high fiber content. Although this may not be a problem for many people, it can limit the amount of amino acids available for immediate use after exercise.
One recent, small study provided resistance-trained young men with 60 grams of either whey protein, a pea-rice protein blend or a pea-rice protein blend with supplemental enzymes to speed up the rate of digestion. (44)
Adding digestive enzymes to the mixed-vegetable protein supplement led to a faster appearance of amino acids in the blood that was comparable to whey protein.
- Aids in Weight Loss: Adding a scoop of mixed plant protein powder into your smoothie can do double duty by increasing your protein intake and kickstarting weight loss as well.
- Promotes Muscle Building: One study in the Nutrition Journal showed that mixed plant protein powder was as effective as whey protein powder at improving body composition and exercise performance. (45)
- Regulates Blood Sugar: Thanks to the high fiber content mixed plant protein powder has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels in some animal models. (46)
- Lowers Cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol can build up in the bloodstream, causing arteries to narrow and thicken, therefore upping the risk of heart disease. Some studies have found that mixed plant protein could help reduce cholesterol levels. However, more studies are needed to confirm. (47)
If you’re looking to lose weight and improve your body composition, mixed plant protein powder is a good plant-based alternative to whey protein. It also comes with several added health benefits for those who may want to simultaneously improve heart health and lower blood sugar as well.
Protein Powder Quality
Not all protein powders are created equally. And not only are many pumped full of fillers and added ingredients, but they often contain misleading labels, making it impossible to tell what you’re really getting in each serving.
In fact, recent testing has found that many popular brands of protein powders actually contain less than half of the amount of protein listed on the label.
These tests have found that many companies use a practice called “amino spiking” meaning that they use cheap filler amino acids to up the total protein content on the label.
So how can you skip the scams and make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck?
Pay very close attention to the ingredients listed on the label and skip the supplements that add extra amino acids or fillers like maltodextrin or artificial sweeteners.
Instead, opt for naturally sweetened protein powders with minimal ingredients and be sure to always purchase from reputable retailers.
Protein Powder Precautions
Adding protein powder into your routine can enhance your results at the gym and make it easier to meet your protein needs throughout the day.
Certain protein powder supplements may also come with other benefits, such as better heart health, improved immunity and a decreased appetite.
However, protein powder should not be used as a replacement for protein from whole food sources.
Protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs and legumes not only supply a good amount of protein in each serving, but they also pack in tons of other important vitamins and minerals that your body needs to thrive.
Finally, remember to always buy from a reputable retailer and look for products with minimal ingredients and fillers to make sure you’re getting the best protein powder possible.