What’s the Best Protein Powder?

A protein powder can be a convenient way to add a little extra protein to your diet. Does it matter which one you use? Nutrition Diva explains

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #134

What’s the Best Protein Powder?


I’m frequently asked what type of protein powder I recommend and in this episode, I’m going to offer some tips on what to look for when selecting one. 

Are Protein Powders Really Necessary?

But, if you’re a long-time reader and listener—heck, if you’ve read even a handful of my articles—then you probably know that, in general, I’m not a big fan of supplements.  I believe that you’re better off getting your nutrition from actual whole foods instead of processed pills and powders.  And most of us are already getting more than enough protein to meet our basic nutritional needs.

What Are the Advantages of Eating More Protein?

On the other hand, I’ve also written about the advantages of diets that are a little higher in protein—more than the amount needed just to meet basic nutritional needs. Eating more protein can help curb your appetite, which can be helpful for weight management. It also helps support the growth and repair of muscle tissue, which can help you get more out of exercise.

Obviously, you can get more protein simply by adding more protein-rich foods to your diet: foods like eggs, cottage cheese, fish, meat, tofu, or legumes.  Protein powders offer another convenient alternative.  For example, a lot of traditional breakfast foods are high in carbs and not that high in protein—particularly the ones that you can grab in a hurry. Adding a scoop of protein powder to a smoothie or bowl of hot cereal is a really quick and convenient way to get more protein into that first meal of the day.

Which Protein Powders Are Best?

You’ll find protein powders made out of all kinds of things but the most common sources are soy, egg whites, and whey.  Obviously, if you are allergic or otherwise intolerant of soy, eggs, or dairy, you’ll want to avoid protein powders made from those. And vegans won’t want to use powders made from eggs or dairy. In addition to soy, there are vegan protein powders made from peas, hemp, and rice.

For those who consume animal products, whey is an economical source for high quality protein.

If you Google the search phrase “what protein powder is best,” you’ll come across all kinds of stuff talking about glutamine-this and branched-chain-amino-acid-that and biological-value-whatever—mostly directed at competitive body builders and those trying to look like competitive body builders.  For those of us who merely aspire to visible abs or Michelle Obama arms, the differences between various protein sources are not that significant. All of them can help to keep a lid on your appetite and all provide a good array of amino acids—the basic building blocks that your body uses for growth and muscle repair.

How Do Different Protein Powders Compare?

Egg whites:   Egg whites are a source of high-quality, complete protein that’s very efficiently used in the body.  However, protein powders made from egg whites tend to be rather expensive and not the best tasting stuff in the world.

Whey: Whey is a more economical source for high quality protein. Whey, of course, is a by-product of cheese production…and because we eat a lot of cheese, there’s an abundant supply. Liquid whey is dried, purified, and concentrated into a high-quality protein powder. It’s nice to think that all that whey can be put to good use! Although it may not be 100% lactose free, whey protein powder is unlikely to cause problems for those with lactose intolerance. 

How Do Vegan Protein Powders Compare?

Soy protein: Among vegan protein powders, soy will give you the highest quality protein and has the added benefit of isoflavones—compounds that appear to help regulate cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as offering some protection against breast and prostate cancer. But, as I discussed in a previous article on the pros and cons of soy, although including some soy protein in your diet appears to have some benefits, there are also reasons to avoid over-doing it.  I recommend limiting your soy intake to two or three servings per day. If you include a lot of other soy foods in your diet, you might not want to choose soy protein powder as well.

Vegan options other than soy, such as hemp, rice, and pea protein powders, tend to be substantially more expensive and not as concentrated or efficiently absorbed by the body. But they still offer vegans a convenient way to enhance their protein intake.

Keep It Basic

Whichever type of protein makes sense for you, look for a product with a minimum of bells and whistles. Remember the goal is to add protein to your diet; you don’t need a powder that will also do your taxes for you.  You’ll pay a lot more for those fancy formulas with all the added herbs and extracts but there’s no clear evidence that they add benefit.

If you’re looking for a protein powder that you can simply mix up with water, such as after a workout or on the road, you’ll probably need one that has some flavoring. But if you’re going to add it to a smoothie or cereal, I suggest avoiding the added flavors and sweeteners and using fresh or frozen fruit or other actual food to enhance the flavor.

Excess Protein is Stored as Fat

Finally, even though adding more protein to your diet may have some advantages, protein still contains calories and excess calories will lead to weight gain. So, unless you’re trying to gain weight, when you add protein you’ll need to subtract something else. In this case, I think it makes the most sense to subtract some of the starches in your diet to make room for that extra protein. For example, you might want to add a scoop of protein powder to your smoothie, but skip the toast.

I have a lot more information about how much protein you should eat and how to incorporate more protein into your diet in my new book, Secrets for a Healthy Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About. It’s available at Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Amazon, or wherever you buy or download books.  The book makes a great handy reference to my essential approach to eating well and feeling fabulous.

Keep in Touch

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.