What is protein and why is it so important? We often get this question at our physical therapy clinics.
Protein is one of the three primary macronutrients that our body utilizes to create energy. Its siblings are carbohydrates and fats. Together, protein, carbohydrates, and fats make up the holy trinity of nutrition. Protein gets so much of the spotlight, particularly in the fitness world, because it is the most essential building block for adding muscle to your body.
Protein is the product of thousands of smaller structures called amino acids. Amino acids are organic compounds made up of mostly hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. These amino acids are compounded together in groups and make up protein.
When amino acids and proteins from external sources (animals, plants, powders, bars, etc.) are absorbed by the body, they can be used for energy, to assist in laying down new muscle mass, and repairing damaged tissue. This is why so many fitness personalities and athletes get sponsored and stand behind protein brands. It is a very important tool in their physical development.
So how do you figure out what protein powder to buy? The major factors we look for when examining protein powders are:
Type Quality Taste Price
There is a whole array of protein powder types out there and a new one seems to pop up every day. There are plenty of plant-based proteins out there (pea, hemp, soy, etc.), and they are great options for those that choose to not consume animal products. But, in this article, we will focus on the “big dogs” of the industry: whey and casein.
Whey protein can be separated into 2 categories: concentrate and isolate.
Whey concentrate is the most common form of whey protein and is in the majority of products we see on the shelves. Whey concentrate is a byproduct of processing dairy into cheese, along with casein (we will talk about that later).
Whey concentrate is described as the most biologically-efficient protein for the human body to absorb. After it is separated from the cheese, it is processed down and filtered into a powder. Concentrate tends to be easier to mix with liquids and have smoother texture/ taste in protein shakes when compared to isolate.
However, there are some downsides to using whey concentrate. This type of protein powder usually contains more fat and sugar than whey isolate, and if you are lactose intolerance you can have some stomach irritation with consumption.
Whey Isolatestarts out as whey concentrate but is then filtered and processed even further. It is what is left over after almost all the carbs and fats have been removed from the protein molecules. During this process they also eliminate the lactose from the powder, making it consumable for those with lactose intolerances. The additional processing results in a purer protein source: 90% protein compared to the 80% protein in whey concentrate.
The downsides for isolate are: it is more expensive than concentrate and, unless more additives are in the powder, it will be slightly harder to mix and have a less desirable consistency compared to the concentrate.
Casein protein is the commonly forgotten stepbrother of whey protein. It is the other byproduct of producing cheese (other than water). Casein is treated the same as whey in that it is processed and filtered down to a point where it is approximately 80% protein.
The biggest difference between casein protein and its siblings is the rate at which it is absorbed by the body. Compared to whey, casein protein takes much longer to be digested by the body. Casein is still well utilized by the body, but the structure of the proteins take more work to break down, thus a slower digestive period.
To identify the quality of your protein, let’s look at how we find the ratio of protein to filler in the protein powder you find on the shelves at your local supplement shop or grocery store. A simple equation is:
(grams of protein per serving/ total grams of contents per serving) X 100
= percentage of protein in a serving
The equation will give you the percentage of protein in each scoop. The higher the percentage, the higher the quality is and the fewer fillers are present in this supplement.
Protein A: 47.2g serving size, 22g protein per serving = 47%
Protein B: 31g serving size, 24g protein per serving = 77%
At first glance, these proteins look almost identical in their value, but when diving into it much deeper, we find that Protein B has 30% more protein and less filler that Protein A! That is a significant amount. I will admit that Protein A probably tastes a lot better, but you’re spending your money on stuff that makes up that taste rather than the protein that is helping you achieve your goals.
Rule of thumb:Look for proteins > 50% protein/serving. This will give you the best bang for your buck and usually translates into more servings per container.
There is not much information or insight to share here. Find what you like and what you will be able to consume consistently. If you are completely new to protein powder, try buying the smallest containers possible, or going in and buying sample variety packs. This will let you find what you enjoy and not leave you stuck with a giant tub of powder you don’t like.
When we go out shopping we always have to look at the price and determine the best value for our money. Protein is no different. Instead of focusing on the overall cost or the size of the container, we need to look at the cost per servings. Two tubs of protein may look almost identical in their size, shape, and weight but have drastically different value when you break it down.
Protein A: $19.99, 2 lbs. total weight, 24g of protein per serving, 20 servings
Protein B: $22.99, 2 lbs. total weight, 24g of protein per serving, 28 servings
At first glance, the two options look the same and have the same weight and protein contents. Of course, we are going to buy the cheaper of the two, right? Not quite. If you do the math (price/servings) you find that Protein B will save you $0.18 per serving. If you are taking two scoops of protein every day, this means that you will save approx. $130 every year, aka a new pair of running shoes.
Bottom line: when shopping for a new supplement or fitness aid, it is important to be informed, read the labels, and buy the best option for your money.
If you have further questions about nutrition and supplementation for your fitness goals, talk with your FAST trainer or Foothills Sports Medicine physical therapist. You can even request an appointment online at one of our physical therapy clinics. We are dedicated to helping you live a long, happy, and healthy life.
There’s not much that causes supplement shoppers’ overwhelm quite like protein powders. With countless protein types, loud labels, endless claims, nutrient additions, and dirty ingredient omissions, it’s a dizzying mix of things to consider. According to Grand View Research, in 2021 the global protein supplement market was 20.47 billion. Protein powders held 60 percent of the revenue share, and it is likely to continue to grow.
That’s why we’re taking the complex world of protein powders and breaking it down to the ten best protein options for your goals and nutritional needs. But first, let’s start with a few basics.
What Does Protein Powder Do for the Body
Protein is a powerhouse for the active, male body. Not only is it necessary for building tissues (1) (think muscle, bone, and connective tissues like cartilage and skin and hair), it’s also needed to produce peptide hormones (growth hormone, leptin, insulin, glucagon), and it supports the immune system (2).
It’s also the most filling macronutrient, which helps keep hunger at bay throughout the day. And because it’s so transportable, it’s a quick and easy meal on the go with nothing more than a quick shake of a cup.
What Should You Look for In a Protein Powder?
This may sound obvious but look for a protein powder that is made of mostly protein, not filler ingredients. Look at the serving size, which will list a gram number (usually around 25 to 30 grams of powder in a serving), and see how many grams of that are made up of protein (typically 20 to 25 grams).
“Your protein powder should be about 70 to 85 percent protein,” explains Brian St. Pierre, Director of Nutrition at Precision Nutrition, one of the world’s largest private coaching and education companies. “Plant-based protein powders are usually at the lower end of this range, perhaps a tad below, since they are inherently less protein-dense. Animal-based protein powders should be at the higher end of this range. This ensures you are getting mostly protein, rather than fillers.”
St. Pierre says it’s helpful to seek out protein powders that contain protease enzymes (enzymes that break down protein) but as far as added vitamins and nutrients, “If you need other supplements, it is generally best to get them separately, so the right dosages can be consumed.”
Always seek out reputable, well-established brands and look for third-party testing verification to ensure the protein you’re purchasing isn’t laden with cheap fillers. Third-party approvals such as NSF International, Informed-Choice, and ConsumerLab are good ones to seek out.
Related: The 15 Healthiest Protein Bars, According to an R.D.
What Should You Avoid?
Steer clear of products with undisclosed “proprietary blends,” products with a low percentage of protein and aren’t third-party tested in some way.
There is one exception for plant-based shoppers: Some companies combine plant-based proteins like rice and pea or hemp and pea to ensure a complete and high-quality amino acid profile.
What Is the Best Protein Powder for Men to Build Muscle?
Historically, whey protein was touted as the best protein for building muscle, but it’s not quite that simple. “Some research (3) shows casein to be equally or more effective,” explains St. Pierre. “Other research shows plant proteins like soy to be equally or almost as effective. However, most of these studies look at short-term markers like muscle-protein synthesis, not actual outcomes like pounds of muscle gained.”
For muscle building, it’s important to get enough protein, well spread out across meals. A systematic review of studies published in 2021 found that animal protein tends to have a more favorable effect on lean mass compared to plant protein, and the benefit appears more pronounced in younger adults. But, the good news for opening up options based on your diet style and any potential allergies is that protein source is not likely to have an impact on muscle strength.
Whey, casein, egg, and blends like pea and rice (or pea/hemp, pea/pumpkin) for plant-based eaters “are excellent choices,” says St.Pierre, “as the mix fills in the amino acid gaps of each individual source.” Soy is another solid option, though he recommends limiting intake to 1 to 2 scoops at most, especially if you’re eating other soy-based foods.
“It’s important to note that plant protein is generally not as well absorbed as animal protein. So while it can build muscle effectively, you do tend to have to consume just a bit more of it, about 10% more,” says St. Pierre.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t address the shiny object in the room: collagen. Despite its popularity and benefits for joints, skin, and hair, it’s not a complete protein, so on its own, it wouldn’t have the same muscle-benefitting tributes. Instead, look for protein powders that contain added collagen but are not the sole protein source.
Related: 10 Protein Myths Busted by Real Science
How Much Protein Should You Consume In a Day?
According to various goals and lifestyles, Brian St. Pierre offers guidance in protein requirements per day. This includes your daily servings of protein powder as well as what you’d obtain from food. The numbers below are for an animal-based or ominivore diet. Add 10 percent to the numbers below only if your diet is fully plant-based or vegan.
Muscle growth: 1.6-2.2 g/kg (or about 0.75-1.0 g/lb) per body weight/day
Sedentary lifestyle: 0.8 g/kg (0.35 g/lb) per body weight/day
Ages 65 & over: 1.2-2.0 g/kg (0.55-0.9 g/lb) per body weight/day
For performance & recovery: 1.2-2.2 g/kg (0.55-1.0 g/lb) per body weight/day
Healthy & active looking to lean while maintaining muscle: 1.6-3.3 g/kg (or 0.75-1.5 g/lb) per body weight/day
Plant-based eaters: Add ten percent to any of the above
Can You Consume Too Much Protein Powder?
While adverse effects of too much are unlikely, 1 to 2 scoops (20 to 40 grams of protein) are generally well processed by the body, while 3 to 4 scoops start to approach the upper limit of supplement protein in a single day.
“For most, 80 grams per day (about 3-4 scoops) is an upper limit of supplemental protein intake,” explains St. Pierre. He adds, “Getting more than 80 grams from protein powder is excessive for most people, as it displaces whole-food sources that are more filling and provide vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients”.
The only way to build more muscle is to eat proper protein—that’s Sports Nutrition 101. At the most basic level, you need a tub with a single, straight protein source—be it whey, casein, soy, or a plant-blend. But, there are also ingredients commonly added to powders like BCAAs and omega-3s.
So, what’s most beneficial to have in your post-workout protein formula? These ingredients.
The barometer for which protein is best revolves around its amino acid concentration. Research shows that proteins with all nine essential amino acids—particularly the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine—maximize muscle protein synthesis (the process of repairing damaged muscle to build back bigger and stronger) best, explains Nancy Rodriguez, Ph.D, RD, director of the University of Connecticut’s Sports Nutrition program.
All three of our experts agree, dietary preferences and restrictions aside, whey takes gold. “Whey has a high concentration of the amino acid leucine, is quickly digested, and is a complete source of protein, making it ideal,” says Jacob Wilson, Ph.D, CSCS*D, CEO of the research and performance facility, Applied Science and Performance Institute.
The downside? Some people aren’t able to digest whey, as it is a type of milk protein, leaving them to turn to plant-based proteins.
Also a milk protein, casein takes second place in the contest for ideal essential amino acid profile. But whereas whey’s strength comes from its fast-release properties, casein is a slow-release protein, so it provides sustained amino acids in the bloodstream over time to rebuild muscles that were micro-traumatized during exercise, says Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D, RD, professor of exercise physiology and nutrition at the University of Mount Union in Ohio and co-host of the Iron Radio podcast. Since it doesn’t deliver the amino acids to your muscle straight away, it’s best used as a blend with whey. Even better: a blend of casein, whey, and soy protein, which a 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found enhances muscle recovery and growth more than just whey alone.
“Whey protein rapidly increases blood amino acid pools, which may be optimal for muscle growth,” Wilson says. “However, we know that casein proteins sustain a rise in blood amino acids longer than whey.” Soy is right in between with a medium rate of absorption, so the blend of all three prolongs the delivery of nutrients after a workout.
3. Soy protein
Soy protein is that ideal fast release just like whey, but it’s a plant-based protein so it’s vegetarian- and lactose intolerant-friendly. “To my knowledge, soy protein is the only plant-based protein that provides all of the essential amino acids,” Rodriguez says. In fact, Canadian researchers found that soy on its own is comparable to whey and superior to slow-release casein when it comes to optimizing muscle protein synthesis post-strength training. And while you’ve probably heard the rumor that soy can make guys grow boobs (not true, by the way), the bigger problem is that soy is often genetically modified, so opt for organic powders.
5. Plant-based blends
Whether plant-based proteins can hold their own against animal sources has become as heated a debate as our upcoming election. There are studies that show plant-based proteins deliver a lower muscle protein synthesis response than animal-based proteins, but others show little difference. Most experts are in agreement that because most plant proteins lack one or more key amino acids and are thus “incomplete,” downing a single source means you’re not optimizing muscle protein synthesis.
But there is strength in numbers. “I would not rely solely on plant proteins unless I could combine a grain and a legume protein—or spike the plant protein with the missing amino acid(s)—to make it complete,” says Lowery.
And in fact, a study (done in adult rats) in Nutrition & Metabolism found that if the amino acid leucine is added to plant-based protein, the rates of muscle protein synthesis are not significantly different from animal-based proteins. (However, this is only true for higher doses—30% of daily calories—compared to lower doses at 10% of daily calories.)
“Blended plant-based proteins are much more beneficial than single source because drawing from different types will make a more complete protein source, and therefore maximize muscle protein synthesis better,” Wilson agrees.
Look for a formula that has at least one source from the methione-rich camp (hemp, chia, soy), and the lysine and leucine-rich camp (wheat, quinoa, oat, brown rice).
6. Brown rice protein
One study in particular, published in Nutrition Journal, found that guys who consumed 48 grams of rice protein after resistance training saw the exact same gains after eight weeks as those who downed the same amount of whey protein isolate. One study isn’t enough to prove comparability definitively, and research generally shows plant-based proteins are only formidable competitors in high quantities. But if you want to use straight brown rice protein, your safest bet is to also consume foods with the two missing essential amino acids: lysine and leucine (so nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, lentils, meats, shellfish, and cheese).
7. Pea protein
Pea protein, which comes from the yellow split pea, is one of the most popular (and surprising) vegetarian protein sources. It’s hypoallergenic and typically has few additives or artificial ingredients in the powder. Plus, it’s high in the muscle-building amino acids arginine, lysine, and phenylalanine. However, it’s still considered an incomplete protein, so you should either get it through a protein blend or pair it with contrasting foods, like wheat, quinoa, oat, and other grains.
8. Hemp protein
Hemp is rich in essential fatty acids, making it a superfood for building muscle. Plus it’s vegan and hypoallergenic, so most people digest the little seed very well. However, like most other plant-based proteins, hemp is incomplete, lacking methione in particular. Make it complete by downing a plant-based blend with hemp in it, or pair it with a protein source rich in the missing essntial amino acids lysine and leucine, like nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, or lentils (not to mention meats, shellfish, and cheese for non-vegans).
Next to protein itself, creatine is the runner up for muscle-building supplements. Creatine helps produce extra energy that your muscle tissue then uses to work harder, for longer. While it doesn’t help every body, research shows that if your system is one that reacts well to the formula, creatine can significantly enhance lean body mass, increase strength, and increase muscle size. “Creatine is going to speed recovery, replenish lost creatine stores, hydrate muscle cells, and there is even research that shows it is beneficial for neurological health,” Wilson adds. One thing to watch: “Added peptides like creatine can misleadingly jack up the total protein dose on the label,” Lowery, agrees. points out. So if you buy a formula with creatine, opt for a higher-than-normal protein count.
10. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Your system needs all nine essential amino acids for optimal muscle protein synthesis, but three in particular—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are extra-important because their chemical makeup has a unique branched structure that gives them muscle-building abilities above the other six. Leucine in particular is crucial as it acts as a metabolic trigger to activate muscle protein synthesis, Rodriguez explains. In fact, a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that 3 to 4 grams of leucine in particular is necessary for maximum protein synthesis.
Complete proteins, like whey, casein, and soy, probably don’t need additional BCAAs, Lowery points out. But opting for a formula with leucine or BCAAs added to a plant protein can help make up for their inherent lack, he adds. Wilson suggests looking for a formula with 3g of leucine and 5 to 10g of total BCAAs for maximal recovery.
11. Omega-3 and 6 Fatty Acids
By now, most of us know fish oil is pretty damn good for our health. But in one study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, researchers found that omega-3 supplements even help minimize post-exercise soreness. Why? Evidence suggests that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may help reduce inflammation, Rodriguez points out.
“HMB (short for short for β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate) is the metabolite of leucine, meaning when leucine is broken down, one of its products is HMB,” Wilson explains. “HMB has been shown to increase recovery, decrease soreness, improve lean mass, decrease fat mass, and improve blood markers of poor recovery.” In other words, while leucine is beneficial to increase strength, recovery, and muscle size, HMB helps prevent muscle loss in times of excessive training or dieting, so it can be a beneficial addition to a post-workout protein formula.
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