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 the 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 found in your hair, skin, nails, ligaments, and muscles. It is found in bone broth, meats that contain muscle, some fish, and egg whites. The body doesn’t necessarily need to consume dietary collagen to increase collagen in the body, though.

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

Egg whites

This powder is simply dried egg whites and 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 a plant-based protein that’s considered the most “complete” in the plant family with those crucial amino acids needed for muscle recovery. Soy protein powders are made from ground soybeans. Soy is known for supporting the immune system, digestion, and brain health because it is high in the amino acids glutamine and arginine.


Made from ground yellow peas, pea protein is another good plant-based protein powder and option for those staying away from milk and soy. It is lacking in two important amino acids, though, so it needs to be eaten 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 supplement – you should still be actively making changes to improve your diet with more whole-foods.

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 little 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.

Still need help? Ask the coaches!

About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Shannon is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Health Coach, Certified Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness Instructor with over 5 years of experience working in Corporate Wellness specializing in overall health, nutrition, and fitness. Throughout her journey to becoming an RDN, she grew her passion for culinary nutrition by teaching and developing hands-on cooking classes for all ages in the community.
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