Protein powder has been around the block when it comes to health trends, and it’s often associated only with men who want to bulk up. But what’s the best protein powder if you want to incorporate it into your daily routine, to boost your muscle tone and support your overall health? We’re breaking it down here.
Who needs protein powder?
We’ll start with our overarching recommendation when it comes to any change to your meal planning and lifestyle: Check with your doctor first to make sure that protein powder is the best supplement for you and your health goals. While supplements can boost protein for people with increased needs (athletes, pregnant women), most people can fulfill their daily protein needs by eating whole foods. Most people don’t need a protein powder daily.
If you’re an athlete, protein powder can be used to build muscle and stamina, or for those looking to support their strengthening goals. Certain types of protein have been shown to increase muscle mass and improve strength.
If you’re considering protein powder as a weight-loss tool, we strongly recommend checking in with your doctor before embarking on a plan, especially one that subs a protein shake for a whole-foods-based meal.
RELATED: How to shop for supplements.
What’s the best type of protein powder?
If you’ve shopped for protein powder, you know that a quick Google search or trip to the store can be overwhelming—the sheer number of options might stop you in your tracks. To help, bookmark this page to reference next time you go looking for the best protein powder, because we’re breaking down the most popular types.
A popular, easy-to-find form of protein is whey protein. It’s a highly digestible milk-derived protein that contains all nine of the essential amino acids your body can’t make on its own. That makes it what we call a “complete” source of protein.
Why protein is also a well-studied form of protein. Research has shown that whey protein supplements combined with resistance training led to a significant increase in muscle mass and improvement in strength.
Plus, whey protein has been shown to speed muscle recovery and reduce exercise-induced muscle damage in physically active people, making it an excellent choice for athletes.
Cons: Since it’s milk-based, it’s not suitable for those with sensitivities to dairy or for people choosing a vegan diet.
Recommended whey protein powder: Natural Force Grass Fed Organic Whey Protein Powder
RELATED: What’s the best milk for me? What you need to know about non-dairy vs. cow’s milk.
A more recently popular competitor in the protein market is collagen. Yep, that supplement that Instagram influencers are slinging has more than aesthetic benefits.
Collagen does have some wrinkle-reduction benefits, but it can also help reduce joint pain, and increase muscle strength.
Commonly, collagen supplements are extracted from the skin and / or bones of cows or pigs, or from the skin and scales of fish. The best of these powders are hydrolyzed, which means they’re broken down into smaller pieces that are easier for your body to absorb.
Collagen powder also is easily dissolvable in hot or cold liquids, which makes it convenient for daily use and travel.
Cons: Since collagen powders are animal-derived, they’re not suitable for people choosing a vegan diet.
Recommended collagen powder: Great Lakes Collagen Peptides Powder Supplement
If you can’t tolerate animal-based proteins, or eat vegan, pea protein might be for you. It’s sourced from dried and ground yellow peas, and is considered hypoallergenic, aka safe for people with food sensitivities or allergies.
Pea protein powder is highly concentrated, making it a good source of essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine (even though peas themselves aren’t usually considered protein-rich). One study even found that pea protein could support increased bicep muscle thickness better than whey protein.
Cons: It doesn’t have a complete profile of the amino acids you need, so check with your doctor to make sure pea protein is the right pick for you. It can be combined with rice protein to get the complete amino acids picture you need too, so consider a plant-based multi-protein powder.
Recommended pea protein powder: Terrasoul Superfoods Organic Pea Protein; Terrasoul Superfoods Organic Sprouted Brown Rice Protein Powder
Another plant-based source of protein, hemp protein is derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant (though, like CBD, hemp is not psychoactive and does not contain any THC).
It’s a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a favorable ratio of 3:1. When we eat an imbalanced omega ratio (too much omega-6s, abundant in vegetable oils and processed foods), it can lead to inflammation, which has been linked to numerous health issues including heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cons: Hemp protein doesn’t pack as much protein punch when weighed against other other vegan friendly formulas (i.e. pea protein). It can also be pricier than other options.
Recommended hemp protein powder: Nutiva Organic Cold-Pressed Raw Hemp Seed Protein Powder
How to choose the best protein powder
Much like other supplements, protein powder is not something we’d recommend picking up just anywhere. Here’s how to shop for a protein powder, no matter where you’re searching.
Look at the inactive ingredient list
The inactive ingredients in a protein powder are just as important as the active protein. Fewer ingredients are usually better, and you want to avoid high amounts of preservatives, artificial colorings, and other chemical additives. It’s simplest to choose protein powders with just one ingredient (i.e. collagen peptides or whey isolate).
We also like to avoid high sugar content and prefer certified gluten free products.
Look at the sourcing
We prefer certified organic and / or grass-fed animal protein options when it comes to protein powders. This ensures that a third party has vetted the product and verified that it contains what the company says it does. Plus, certified organic ingredients help avoid the possibly harmful chemicals from non-organic sources, and reduce your toxic load.
Look for other certifications
Certifications are NOT the be all to end all (they can be pricey for small companies to procure), but they can help when choosing the best protein powder. Certified B Corp, Certified Gluten Free, USDA Organic, Non GMO Verified, and third-party testing for heavy metals are easy to look for on packaging or in the description of the product.
But don’t just look for the words—it’s best to see the certified symbol of these certifications, to ensure that these companies have gone through the vetting process.
If you have questions about an ingredient or a product’s validity, reach out to the brand. They should be able to provide you with more information—and if they can’t or won’t, that’s a red flag, and you should skip the product.
Still not sure if protein powder is right for you? It’s time to take it to your doctor. You can easily get the protein you need from eating whole foods, but if you have additional health concerns that might inhibit you from absorbing the protein you need, your doctor can help create a personalized plan for you.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.