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Top Protein Powder Picks

by Yes Health

If you've recently strolled down the supplement aisle in your local health food store, chances are you've been overwhelmed by the choices of protein powders. We're here to help answer your questions and decipher the differences so you can choose the one that's right for you.

This article outlines the differences between whey, casein, hemp, pea, bone broth, and the many other kinds of powders you see on the shelves when to use them and how much protein your body needs to function optimally.

First, a sneak-peak of a few of our coach's favorite brands (more to come):

  • Mt. Capra goat whey protein 
  • Garden of life sports protein
  • OWYN
  • Aloha protein drink
  • KOS
  • Vega sport
  • Vital protein collagen peptides (for joints, hair, & nails) 
  • Ancient nutrition

Protein Powder Facts:

For plant-based protein, pea protein powder is a complete protein.

While collagen protein is ideal for lackluster skin, nails, and joint support, it's not a complete protein for muscle synthesis.

Bone broth protein does provide complete protein and is an ideal swap for collagen.

Whey and casein are great complete proteins if you're not dairy-sensitive. 

Shoot for 25-30 grams of protein per meal for optimal muscle synthesis, which is often 2 scoops of protein powder.

What is protein, exactly?

Think of protein as the building blocks for your body’s cells. Protein is made from amino acids essential to maintaining healthy organs (including skin), muscles, and tendons. Protein is used to make hormones, neurotransmitters, and enzymes and can help you lose body fat and heal faster from injuries. It has also been proven to lower blood pressure.

How much protein do I need every day?

It depends on your age, gender and lifestyle–how active you are, your stress level, how much you exercise. It also depends on whether you want to lose weight (i.e., a high protein diet has been shown to support weight loss), if you have high blood sugar or a metabolic disorder, like diabetes. A typical American might get 15% of their daily calories from protein. While for some, this might be enough, many nutritionists believe it’s too low. 

Rule of thumb: 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For example, a 150-pound person needs 120-150 grams of protein per day. 

Your total protein should be distributed amongst your meals and snacks. If some meals/snacks aren't as dense in protein as others, consider planning your more protein-dense meals and snacks to 30-60 minute after a workout.

It's also important to note that this is a general recommendation, but many individual factors come into play. Certain people simply need more protein than others. If you are extremely active, recovering from surgery, or trying to gain weight, for example.

Upping your protein intake is often easier said than done. While nothing replaces whole foods sources (i.e., grass-fed meats, occasional whole fat dairy, and some grains and beans), a high-quality protein powder can help, especially if you're struggling to get enough food-based protein. But given the overwhelming number of protein powder choices, which one should you choose?

What is a concentrate vs. isolate vs. hydrolysate?

Before we dive into the differences between whey, pea, soy, and hemp, let’s define some basic protein powder lingo:

  • Concentrate – Protein concentrates are made by extracting protein from whole foods through a process of heat and acid. They typically contain between 60-80% protein, and the rest comes from carbs and fat.
  • Isolate – Protein isolates are more “pure” (usually around 90% or more protein) because they remove most of the fat and carb content. Isolates are a good protein shake option to use just before or after a workout.
  • Hydrolysates – This type of protein powder is further processed using heat and acid to break down the amino acids to be more easily digested and absorbed. These tend to raise insulin levels more than other types of powders.

What are the most common types of protein powder?

WHEY – Whey protein powder comes from milk, specifically, the liquid that separates from the curds during the cheese-making process. While it does contain small amounts of lactose, some people who are only mildly lactose intolerant will be fine, particularly with whey protein isolates, which will have almost no lactose content. Whey is a very easily digested protein and is rich in BCAAs (branched chain amino acids). It seems to be the best protein powder option for decreasing appetite and has been shown to support muscle growth and endurance, and decrease inflammation. If possible, opt for a grass-fed brand with the fewest ingredients possible (the less chemicals and additives, the better; we like Naked Whey and Tera’s Whey). If you are highly lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, proceed with caution.

CASEIN – Casein is another milk protein that is digested at a much slower rate than whey. This results in a slower and steadier influx of amino acids into the bloodstream. Studies have shown that casein is less effective than whey at increasing muscle growth. but more effective than soy. However, casein could be a better choice as part of a calorie restricted diet (when weight loss is the goal), and some do better with casein in the evening due to its' slower absorption time.

PEA – Pea protein is an excellent option for people with food sensitivities or allergies, or those who don’t eat dairy. It’s usually made from yellow split peas, which are fairly high in fiber and protein. Pea protein has been shown to increase feelings of fullness almost as well as a dairy-based protein powders, supports muscle growth and may help lower blood pressure, although further studies are needed.

HEMP – Hemp has become a popular plant-based protein powder for vegans and vegetarians. It’s not a complete protein (i.e., it’s missing the essential amino acids leucine and lysine), but is packed full of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Make this a second choice to a powder that contains all essential amino acids, like whey or casein. 

SOY – Soy is the most heavily processed of all the protein powders, and many people have soy sensitivities or allergies (either hidden or known), so it is best avoided. Soy protein was produced originally for use as paper coatings and pigment binders rather than as food. Soy can now  be found in various food products, like salad dressings, frozen foods and baby formulas. While further research is needed, soy protein powders and other processed soy-based products are high in phytoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body and could lead to estrogen dominance when consumed in excess.

BROWN RICE – Brown rice protein–and even better, sprouted brown rice protein–is another popular option, although it’s not considered a complete protein.

BONE BROTH – Go with a grass-fed or pasture-raised bone broth protein powder. This option is great for those following a low FODMAP diet, paleo diet, or anyone who needs to avoid soy, grains, nuts, dairy, or gluten. If you have histamine intolerance or are vegetarian, bone broth protein might not be for you.

If you have an auto-immune condition or are sensitive to gluten, brown rice protein might contribute to GI problems over time. Similarly whey, casein, and soy proteins might also be best avoided by those with digestive problems or autoimmune conditions.

Which is the best protein powder for me?

If only there was one simple answer! We've tried to break it down, as the answer depends on your lifestyle, dietary preferences, current weight, activity level, and goals. 

If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or have a dairy sensitivity, opt for pea protein first, followed by hemp and/or brown rice. If your goal is to gain muscle, make grass-fed whey isolate your first choice, and whey concentrate your second. For weight loss, choose either a casein or whey protein powder, as these have been shown above all others to reduce appetite and support fat loss.

Whatever you choose, look for protein powders with a few easy-to-recognize ingredients. Avoid corn maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, vegetable oils, added sugars, artificial sweeteners (i.e.sucralose and aspartame), and artificial colors and flavors. Natural sweeteners (i.e. stevia and monk fruit) are better alternatives. 

A few points to keep in mind when whipping up your next protein shake:

  • Add fresh or frozen fruit or vegetables for added nutrients and fiber
  • Use an unsweetened source of calcium and vitamin D, such as almond milk. Cow’s milk has 13g of lactose sugar per cup–the same number of carbs in a small slice of bread.
  • Consider one or more of these bonus ingredients that pack a nutritional punch–raw cacao powder, ground flaxseed or chia seeds.
  • For breakfast or a post-workout snack, blend protein powder with almond milk, ½ cup of berries or ½ a frozen banana, a handful of greens, and 1-2 Tbsp chia seeds or ground flaxseeds.

Some plant-based protein powders may be contaminated with lead or mercury–even those that are organic. We like the Clean Project for a resource on making healthier choices. A recent study screened 134 products from 52 brands for more than 130 toxins, including heavy metals, BPA, pesticides and other contaminants.

Now for our coach's fave brands! Keep in mind the nutrition facts might vary depending on which flavor you choose.

Best animal-based protein powders

  1. Mt. Capra Goat Whey Powder (easier to digest than cow's milk). 5g carbs, 24g protein, 1g fat
  2. Tera’s Whey vanilla flavor: 4g carbs, 21g protein, 1.5g fat 
  3. BioChem Natural 100% Whey Protein: 0g carbs, 20g protein, 0g fat  
  4. Jay Robb Grass-Fed Whey Protein chocolate flavor: 1g net carbs, 25g pro, 0.5g fat
  5. Levels 100% Grass Fed Whey Protein vanilla flavor: 3g carbs, 24g pro, 2g fat 
  6. Bodylogix Natural Grass-Fed Whey Protein: 2g net carbs, 24g pro, 2.5g fat 
  7. Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth: 2g carbs, 20g pro, 1g fat

Best plant-based protein powders 

  1. Garden of Life Sports Powder: 6g carbs, 24g pro, 0.5g fat 
  2. OWYN: 7g carb, 20g pro, 3g fat
  3. Aloha Protein Drink: 11g carb, 20g pro, 5g fat
  4. Vega Sport: 5g carb, 30g pro, 3g fat
  5. KOS: 9g carb, 20g pro, 6g fat
  6. Nutiva Hemp Protein Powder: 1g net carb, 15g pro, 3g fat 
  7. Orgain Protein Powder: 10g net carbs, 21g pro, 5g fat
  8. NOW Pea Protein Powder: 7g net carbs, 24g pro, 2.5g fat
  9. Nutribiotic Organic Sprouted Rice Protein Powder: 2g net carbs, 12g pro, 0g fat

Do you have any favorites we haven't mentioned? Please share with your coaches and fellow Yes Health members in-app! 

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