What You Need To Know About Protein Powders

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Shake it up!

Protein powders are a popular smoothie and shake addition, adding a boost of this important macronutrient to our daily meal plan. As one of the most popular supplements on the market, protein powders are taken by a variety of individuals whether truly needed or not. Let’s take a closer look at the protein powders stocked on the shelves.

Protein comes from a variety of food sources both in plant and animal families. The most popular types of protein powders today include:


Whey comes from cow’s milk and has all the essential building blocks our body needs for making and using protein. It’s absorbed quickly and is high in Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA), known to help with exercise recovery. Technically, it’s lactose-free, but some individuals still may have trouble digesting this one.


This is the primary protein in cow’s milk. It’s absorbed more slowly than its partner above. Casein is known to help with muscle-building when combined with whey and is best when consumed at night to prevent muscle breakdown overnight (and because it keeps you feeling fuller longer).


Collagen is the main protein your body needs for hair, skin, nails, ligaments, and muscles. Bone broth, meats that contain muscle, some fish, and egg whites all contain collagen. However, the body doesn’t necessarily need to consume dietary collagen to increase collagen in the body.

Short story: This is not a preferred protein source for workout recovery or beauty benefits.

Egg whites

This powder, made from dried egg whites, is a good option for those allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk. Compared to whey protein, egg whites digest a little slower and are slightly inferior in terms of muscle recovery, but this protein is still a good option as far as supplementing your dietary protein.


Soy is the most “complete” plant-based protein because it has the crucial amino acids you need for muscle recovery. For this reason, some plant protein manufacturers make powders from ground soybeans. Soy supports the immune system, digestion, and brain health because it’s high in the amino acids glutamine and arginine.


Pea protein is another good plant-based protein powder, an option for those avoiding milk and soy. It lacks two important amino acids, though, so you should eat it with a variety of other protein sources like rice protein.


Brown rice is one of the better powders for allergy-prone folks. Limited in one essential amino acid, it contains some fiber, unlike animal proteins. You’ll find this in plant-protein blends, too.


Ground hemp seeds are a plant protein with the added benefit of essential omega-3 fatty acids (for a happy heart!). With a slightly nutty flavor, it’s just shy of having all essential amino acids but has the added amino acid arginine which strengthens the cardiovascular system. This is a great option for vegans and vegetarians.

So many choices

So, which one will you choose?

Just like there is no one protein source that is perfect for everyone, not everyone necessarily needs added protein from a supplement. A few reasons you may want to consider using protein powder is if you need help gaining weight or increasing overall daily caloric intake, to supplement a special diet whether it’s for a medical condition, food allergy/intolerance, or personal choice (such as a vegetarian or vegan diet), if you have chewing, swallowing, or digestive issues, or to supplement a nutritionally poor diet.

The keyword here is a supplement – you should still be actively making changes to improve your diet with more whole foods.

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Actionable Steps


Do you truly need protein powder?

Think about why an extra protein boost might help you achieve your health goals – gain muscle mass, gain overall weight, help manage a healthy weight, ease digestion for a troubled tummy, convenience for an on-the-go lifestyle, sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet…

If you struggle to get your protein in the form of whole foods, supplementing with protein powder might be right for you. If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough protein or would like a more individualized nutritional assessment, work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Find one in your area here.


Choose the type of protein that is best for your goals

There are a variety of animal and plant-based proteins to choose from making it confusing to decide. Read up on the most popular protein powders mentioned above. Then, consider some of these top protein powders recommended by Registered Dietitians. Or stick to one of the top plant-protein powders reviewed by Dietitian McKel Kooienga.


Look for minimally processed powders

These products are commonly filled with added sugars, antioxidant blends, fiber boosts, preservatives, artificial flavors, vegetable oils, fillers, unknown chemicals… the list goes on.

Check the ingredient list and look for one that has as few ingredients as possible. Limit any unfamiliar or man-made ingredients like artificial sweeteners. Aim for one low in added sugar or unsweetened.

Dietitian Tip: Always choose unsweetened and unflavored versions that allow you to add your own sweetener and flavors. Stock up on cocoa powder or dark chocolate pieces for a chocolate flavor. Add pumpkin pie spice to your fall spice rack. Use honey, maple syrup, pitted dates, or stevia to lightly sweeten your shake.


Check your protein powder for safety and purity

Many protein powders contain toxins and unknown ingredients as reviewed by the Clean Label Project in their 2018 study. You can use LabDoor to review the label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and projected efficacy.

The closer each scored category is to 100, the better. Just like all supplements, protein powders are not regulated by the FDA, so it’s crucial to do your research before buying any type of supplement.


Make delicious protein-packed recipes!

Protein powders aren’t just for smoothies and shakes. Try adding your protein powder to pancake and muffin batters. Mix it into oatmeal or yogurt. Stir a teaspoon into your coffee or latte. Bulk up your desserts like cookies, cupcakes, or homemade ice cream.


Read more on this topic

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN explains What’s Really In Your Protein Powder. Learn about Protein Powders 101 from Laura Ligos, MBA, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics). Danielle Sikorski, RDN breaks down all the protein powder choices here.

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About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching

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