How to Choose a Protein Supplement
Eating wasn’t always so complicated. For our primate ancestors, food was fuel: Eat what you need to do the things you need to do. No obsessing. No labeling. Just eating.
But somewhere along the way, we made it weird. In a land of plenty — and growing more plentiful every day — we’re afflicted by the paradox of choice, constantly worried about whether we’re doing it right, and that we’re eating too much of some things and not enough of others. The act of feeding ourselves has become an anxiety-inducing numbers game of calorie-counting, macro-tracking and meal prepping…and food has become the enemy.
So often, protein is the macronutrient at the center of the how-much-is-enough debate. There are a lot of opinions about how much you need and where to get it, but wherever you fall on the spectrum, the fact remains: You need amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to enable your beautiful body to do all kinds of important things. And while we have our favorite methods for simplifying the art of healthy eating on the whole, supplementation can be a helpful tool for fitting extra nutrients into your busy life.
If you’re still feeling mystified, don’t worry — you’re not alone. “This topic is so confusing,” admits Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Middleberg Nutrition in NYC. The wellness pro says she gets questions about protein supplements constantly, and no wonder: “There are a ton of different [options] on the market…plus there is a lot of misinformation out there.” So, without further ado, let’s set the record straight.
The Why ~
Protein is about more than just building lean muscles and burning fat (though those are two great reasons to eat it) — it’s the stuff that gives rise to new cells; makes enzymes that trigger essential functions like digestion; neurotransmitters that help your body and brain communicate; form skin, hair and nails and more. Plus, it’s filling, energizing and satisfying, making it key for fending off cravings and mindless snacking (no wonder it’s so often considered a weight loss ally).
Yet even Middleberg, a self-professed protein lover, says there’s an overemphasis on the stuff in the typical American diet. And while there’s no denying protein’s importance, “It is pretty easy to meet your needs,” she asserts. Those needs vary from person to person based on things like gender, activity level and goals, but Middleberg urges clients to shoot for 10–20g of protein per meal. And while she prefers a whole foods approach (hey, so do we!), she says supplementation with protein powders is easy and convenient, making it great for busy people (i.e. you).
The When ~
Those guys at the gym slugging protein in between sets aren’t wrong — Middleberg confirms protein is important to replenishing and repairing muscles after a workout. But as long as your next meal isn’t too far behind your last rep — and as long as it includes a healthy portion of protein, plant-based or not — chugging a post-gym supplement isn’t absolutely necessary. “I typically recommend [protein supplements] as breakfast or as a snack,” Middleberg says, and it makes sense; they’re a convenient way to optimize mealtime with extra nutrients that will keep you satisfied, focused and energized.
The How ~
Smoothies are just the beginning. Middleberg happens to be full of ideas for adding a powdered protein boost to your diet. Try throwing a scoop in with your overnight oats, mixing it into your chia pudding or incorporating it into your favorite pancake or muffin recipe.
The protein powder market is a crowded one; when perusing Amazon or GNC, Middleberg warns against a few red flags: soy protein isolate (because of GMO and phytoestrogen concerns), thickeners like maltodextrin and carrageenan (which may mess with the balance of your intestinal microflora and cause inflammation) and artificial sweeteners and flavors. “It’s important to know that the FDA does not regulate protein powders, so you really don’t know exactly what’s in them,” Middleberg warns, explaining that this is one reason she doesn’t suggest them as your primary protein source. So look for minimal ingredient lists with stuff you can pronounce. Also, you get what you pay for. If this is your first foray into the world of protein supplements, you may find yourself suffering from a bout of sticker shock. The top-notch stuff (read: pure, clean ingredients and less crap) can be a little spendy. But we’re talking about your sacred temple here, darling. You’re worth it.
Now that you’ve got the basics down, read on for our guide to choosing the best protein supplement.
What it is: One of two protein components in milk (casein is the other one)
Good for: Repairing muscles post-workout and promoting lean muscle growth
That’s most likely whey protein in the blender bottles of those aforementioned gym dudes — it’s widely available and great for muscle building. If you eschew dairy, it’s obviously a no-go, but Middleberg gives it a thumbs-up if cow’s milk isn’t a problem for you (just opt for organic and grass-fed brands). “I like this option because it has a higher ratio of essential amino acids compared to other forms, so it is highly absorbable,” she says. Whey protein is available in several forms, including hydrolyzed (broken down into smaller groups of aminos, known as peptides, which makes it easier and quicker to digest) and concentrates (composed of 70 to 85% pure protein; higher in carbs and fat). Skip isolates, which lose a lot of their nutrition in processing. And while there are lots of whey protein choices out there, many of which are affordable, be vigilant when reading the labels — many contain artificial sweeteners and flavorings.
What it is: The primary structural protein in animal connective tissue
Good for: Joint health, potential beauty benefits, addressing signs of aging in the body
Middleberg says this is a protein supplement to watch — its popularity is growing, perhaps in conjunction with increased interest in beauty foods. If it sounds familiar, that’s because collagen is a structural protein you have in your very own body; it’s what makes up connective tissue (which encompasses fat, bone, ligaments, tendons and cartilage). Middleberg notes that it’s key for skin and joint health, and can help maintain joint flexibility as we age.
Try: Vital Proteins
What it is: A plant-based protein usually extracted from yellow peas
Good for: Plant-based eaters, especially those who are soy-avoidant, who want extra heart-healthy benefits and/or those with food allergies
Pea protein can be found on its own or mixed into blends of other plant-based protein sources, like hemp and rice. While pea protein is naturally free of fat, cholesterol and gluten, and contains the full spectrum of essential aminos, it’s deficient in one (cystine). “When you consume [pea, rice, hemp and other plant-based protein supplements], you just need to make more of an effort to rotate between them to ensure you are getting all the necessary amino acids, or pair them with other plant-based sources of protein like seeds and nut butters,” Middleberg says. Noted!
What it is: A plant-based protein from hemp seeds
Good for: Plant-based eaters who want extra omegas with their protein and/or those with food allergies
Hemp has earned its superfood rep thanks to the fact that it’s a complete protein source, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, as well as additional fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. This makes hemp protein an extremely nutrient-dense choice of supplement; it’s also highly digestible and unlikely to cause allergic reactions. However, those healthy fats come at a price; if you’re looking to cut calories, hemp might not be for you. The good stuff can also be pricey, but you’d be wise to shop around — Middleberg says there are lots of good-quality hemp options on the market.
What it is: A plant-based protein from rice
Good for: Plant-based eaters in search of workout recovery carbs, as well as digestion-regulating fiber
Post-grueling-workout is prime time for carb intake, since your body is begging for glycogen and glucose. Taking in some carbohydrates after a sweat session will help your body build muscle, and rice protein is a gluten-free supplement that fits the bill. You’ll also get a dose of B complex vitamins, which act as antioxidants, reduce stress, boost immunity, regulate hormones and lots more (in short, B complex vitamins are your friends). Middleberg advises finding a rice protein supplement made from sprouted grains — the nutrition is more bioavailable.
Try: Sprout Living Epic
What it is: A nutrient-rich blue-green algae
Good for: Plant-based eaters who want extra minerals and antioxidants
Talk about nutrient density. Spirulina is 60-70% protein and contains all nine essential amino acids, plus an impressive load of essential minerals, including iron (move over, red meat) for healthy circulation and magnesium for healthy digestion (among many, many other things). And the chlorophyll in spirulina has cleansing, oxygenating effects. There’s a reason spirulina is on the ingredient list of many Sakara meals — it’s a nutritional powerhouse, whether sprinkled over a salad or into a protein smoothie.