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The Beginner’s Guide to Using Protein Powder

Walk into any gym nowadays, and you’re just as likely to hear the rattling of a shaker bottle as the clanking of weights. Powders, bars and other supplements have become so ingrained in workout culture that it’s hard to imagine not following up a great workout with a shake of some sort (and sometimes even mid-workout). And protein powder, specifically, is leading the charge. Created by various sources — from whey to soy to pea — the popular supplement has cemented its place in our minds, our diets and even our local grocery stores.

If you’re an elite athlete or just a weekend warrior, chances are you have a tub of protein powder sitting somewhere in your house. And if not, maybe you’ve gulped down a shake or smoothie at some point. But do you really know what’s inside your protein powder? And do you know how use it to get the best results? To help you more effectively decide how, when and if you should use this supplement, we created this beginner guide. Here’s how the most popular questions about protein powder shake out.

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Protein Powder Primer: The Why’s and What’s

Many gym-goers grab a tub and start adding shakes to their diet without first considering why or if they need protein powder at all. As Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, puts it, the most obvious reason to supplement with protein powder is to reach your protein intake goal for the day. However, they aren’t absolutely needed. “If you can meet your protein needs with whole foods, that’s fine,” says St. Pierre. If you find yourself taking in a quality whole-food source of protein three to four times a day, generally a gram of protein per pound of body weight, you might not even need the powder fallback. But, when you’re crunched for time, protein supplements can be your biggest ally.

Although the labels may claim otherwise, the various tubs are more equal than you think. At the heart of all protein powders is just what one would assume (or hope) — protein — whether it’s from whey, hemp, soy, or something else. Still, you might see terms like “hydrolyzed” and “cutting edge” to spruce up bottles. St. Pierre argues that the pursuit of better and faster digesting protein powders may be frivolous in the grand scheme of things (research agrees). “A lot of companies will push for getting you to pay big bucks for grass fed whey or cold-filtered whey,” St. Pierre says. “These could be things that make them better, but how much better is up for debate.”

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So, if spending more doesn’t necessarily make a protein powder better, what should consumers look for when shopping the supplement aisle? St. Pierre recommends first looking for a reputable company that has good manufacturing practices (they’ll often advertise that on the label). He also suggests buyers vet out various products using third-party certifying brands like Informed Choice. Certifying companies buy actual products off of store shelves (just like a normal buyer) and run tests to make sure the bottle contains what the label advertises.

After narrowing your protein search down to a handful of brands, it’s time to investigate the nutritional facts. While the numbers and words may sound foreign, St. Pierre recommends just looking at a handful of characteristics. He likes a protein powder that is relatively low in fat and carbs.

When to Mix It Up

So, you’ve done your research and brought home a tub of high-quality protein powder. What now? Figuring out the best times to supplement can be difficult. Here are the two most common uses for protein powder during the day and specific applications for each.

1. Meal Replacement

When you’re rushing out the door late for work in the morning, the last thing you have time for is to make a quick breakfast to kickstart your day. That’s one scenario where protein shakes can come in handy. In general, St Pierre recommends adding in a source of vegetables, a serving or two of fruit and some healthy fats alongside a scoop or two of protein powder. In fact, he and the team at Precision Nutrition have coined a term for these massive meal-replacers — “super shakes.” These shakes can be used in place of a meal or in addition to a regular meal when trying to gain weight. Here’s their recommend recipe for both men and women:


2 scoops of protein powder

1-2 cups of vegetables (like spinach, which doesn’t affect the taste)

2 handfuls of fruit (fresh or frozen)

2 tablespoons of healthy fat (a nut butter or seed for example)

Mixer (almond milk, regular milk, water — your choice)


1 scoop of protein powder

1 cup of vegetables

Handful of fruit

1 tablespoon of healthy fat

Mixer (almond milk, regular milk, water — your choice)

These recipes bring up another topic of concern — gender differences. Workout supplements are often viewed as a male-dominated industry, but protein powders are also effective for women. St. Pierre points out, however, that women have different nutritional needs than men. In general, they need less protein per pound of bodyweight (primarily due to differences in body composition). For that reason, St. Pierre initially recommends for females to use one scoop instead of two. However, he’s quick to admit that the “cut in half” lesson isn’t the definitive solution. “It’s not that women need exactly half as much as men…Ultimately, it’s just giving you a framework to start something. You can adjust it from there based on your needs,” says St. Pierre.

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Gender differences aside, if these shakes are so nutrient-dense, why shouldn’t you just blend up a shaker bottle for each meal and ditch cooking (and dirty dishes) for good? St. Pierre cautions that although the shakes are great, they still aren’t the same as whole food. “There is more nutrients inherent to whole foods then there ever will be in a powder,” he says. You can also sometimes lose nutritional value drinking your nutrients and vitamins instead of eating them. For that reason, he recommends supplementing with no more than two shakes in one day (even that is pushing it). The key is to use shakes in a pinch and rely on whole food sources for the rest of your meals.

2. Post-Workout

With the advent of the post-workout window — a thin slice of time to intake nutrients after a workout for the biggest benefit — protein shakes and shaker bottles became a necessity for a gym trip. If you didn’t slug a shake before you walked out the door, the notion went, you were compromising recovery time and crippling the benefits you could reap from your workout. Protein supplementation post-workout has been shown to be beneficial, particularly in helping individuals recover after a tough session and potentially increase muscle and strength gain. However, the post-exercise window may have been a bit overblown. St. Pierre acknowledges that post-workout nutrition is important but not as much as you may have previously thought. “Basically, it’s not a bad thing to have a shake right after you work out, but you don’t have to,” he explains. “Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking that you’ve wasted a workout because you didn’t have a shake right after working out.”

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So, how should post-workout shakes fit into your nutrition? It’s really up to personal preference. Previously, protein shakes were thought to digest faster in the stomach than whole foods providing muscle-building nutrients to the recovering muscles quicker. St. Pierre explains that new research indicates this isn’t the case. Now, he advises clients use whatever is most convenient. “If you want to have a shake, that’s cool. If you want to make a whole food meal, that’s more than OK, too. Either approach is valid, so it’s personal preference,” says the coach. Stomach sensitivity may also play a role as well. Some individuals have a harder time taking in whole food directly after a workout. In those cases, a shake would be a proper substitution to get in a quick dose of protein.

Protein powders have seemingly become a necessity for an active lifestyle right alongside high-tech fitness trackers and cutting-edge footwear. Although protein shakes may be a convenient way to take in calories, it doesn’t mean that they’re always the best option. Whole food sources are still your best bet for getting vital nutrients. The takeaway is to build your diet with a base of solid food and use protein powder as a — you guessed it — supplement when it’s healthy and convenient.

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Originally published July 2014. Updated March 2017.

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Protein Powder: Everything You Need to Know

If you’re putting in the hours in your gym’s weights room, lifting dumbbell after barbell after kettlebell, it’s only natural to expect bigger, stronger muscles. Unfortunately, if you’re not also making the same effort in the kitchen to ensure you’re eating the right food to support your workout regime, the effect of your exercise might be a little disappointing.

By the right food we mean protein, which is essential for repairing and rebuilding your damaged muscles after a tough session. The benefits of protein aren’t limited to building muscle, either: it’s required for a host of other critical bodily functions and also has the happy knack of making you feel fuller for longer, which diminishes the likelihood of you turning to sweet or fatty snacks to fill a hole.

Eating more protein is generally something people have no trouble signing up for, because it’s found in many delicious foods. However, getting the amount you need to support a heavy training workload is not always that easy. If you’re looking to hit the 1.4-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day that’s recommended for those trying to build muscle, it will probably take more than a chicken breast for lunch and dinner and a handful of nuts for breakfast. A lot more, in fact, and that can be as expensive as it is annoying to keep track of.

Protein shakes can be a handy way to ensure you hit your daily targets. They’re easy to make and quick to consume, and they’re certainly easier to get down after a savage training session than a plate of steak and eggs.

But with more protein shakes options now available than ever before, finding the right product for the right situation can be confusing. Here you’ll find out all you need to know about the options available, allowing you to make the right decision to get the results you want with minimum time, effort and expense.

Do I need a protein powder?

If you follow any sort of exercise programme, whether it’s based around weights, cardio, or endurance training, then you need more protein than the UK government’s current recommendation of 55g per day. Powdered protein offers a quick and easy way to increase your daily intake. A fast-digesting protein such as whey is especially useful after training when you might not feel like sitting down to a proper meal. Casein, a slow-release protein, is a great option before bed because it drip-feeds muscle-building amino acids into your bloodstream overnight to rebuild muscle tissue as you sleep.

It’s always important to remember the clue is in the name “supplement” – they are designed to fill in the nutritional gaps of a complete and varied diet. Getting most of your daily dietary protein from red and white meat and fish is the best way, because you’ll also consume more of the essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients vital to health.

How should I consume protein powder?

You can drink it with water, mix it with flavoured fluids such as milk or coconut water and blend it for a healthy fruit smoothie, or even use it as an ingredient to cook with – protein powder cookbooks are big business.

Browse protein powder cookbooks on Amazon

How much protein powder should I take?

Serving suggestions for most protein powders are typically around 30g, and with good reason. Research suggests that this is around the ideal amount to repair the damage done by training and initiate muscle protein synthesis, the process through which new muscle tissue is laid down. Research also shows that a high-protein diet can also help reduce body fat levels, so you’ll not only get bigger and stronger but leaner as well.

When should I take protein powder?

After a workout is the most obvious time to consume a protein powder because that’s when your muscles need it most. Drinking a shake of whey protein mixed with cold water or milk within 30 minutes of finishing your training session will initiate recovery by flooding your bloodstream with amino acids, which are quickly shuttled into your muscle cells to become new muscle tissue.

Protein powder can also be taken at other times. Blend a scoop of your favourite flavour with an egg and a banana then cook in a pan to make some high-protein breakfast or dessert pancakes. And it’s especially useful to have to hand to make a shake when you’re out and about all day and don’t have time to eat a proper meal.

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What else is in protein powder?

Many protein powders contain additional ingredients from the sports nutrition world designed to support or enhance performance and recovery. Here are the key compounds.

Creatine: This organic compound powers cells and has been shown to improve effort during high-intensity training like lifting weights.

L-Carnitine: Often added to “diet” whey products, this amino acid mobilises fatty acids from fat cells so it can be used to provide energy.

Enzymes: Enzymes or probiotics help your stomach break down specific compounds for better digestion and nutrient absorption.

Why are some whey protein products so expensive?

Making high-quality and effective products isn’t cheap, so some reputable brands’ products may seem quite expensive. But, as with high-quality food, you get what you pay for. If a product appears too cheap, or too good to be true, the chances are it is.

What if I follow a specific diet?

If you are vegan you need to find a non-dairy protein powder, and happily these are now far easy to get hold of than ever before. If you are vegetarian most protein powders should be suitable although it’s always worth checking each product’s nutritional information. If you follow another specialist or restricted diet or have allergies, then as with any food you will have to check every individual product to ensure it’s suitable for you to consume.

The Big Three Protein Powders

Whey is a liquid left over from milk once it has been curdled and strained and is a by-product of the cheese-making process. Whey protein powder is one of the most popular sports nutrition products in the world because of its availability, cost and effectiveness. Once consumed whey is rapidly digested, then absorbed by your digestive system so it gets into your bloodstream and your muscles very quickly, initiating the recovery and rebuilding process.

Whey protein powder comes in one of four forms: concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate and native. All four types are abundant in BCAAs, the amino acids that are essential for rebuilding and repairing the muscular damage caused by working out. Some whey products use one type of protein exclusively, typically a higher-quality protein source for a premium product, or an inferior type to keep the cost down. Other products contain different combinations of whey, as well as other sources of protein, such as casein or soy, again depending on the product’s recommended use or to reduce manufacturing costs.

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Casein is the main type of protein found in dairy, making up around 80% of the protein content of cow’s milk. Whereas whey protein is rapidly absorbed by your body, making it the perfect post-workout protein source, you break down and digest casein much more slowly, over many hours, to give a slow and sustained release of amino acids into your bloodstream and then to your muscles.

To fuel your muscles with the essential nutrients they need to repair and rebuild muscle tissue, supplement with a casein protein shake just before bed. The slow-release digestion of casein makes it the perfect source of protein to drip-feed amino acids in to your muscles during the night to build new lean muscle mass during sleep while your body recovers from the effects of training.

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Weight Gainer

If you’ve consistently struggled to add muscular size despite following a challenging training programme and a high-protein diet, you might need to consider a high-calorie protein powder that also includes a significant amount of carbohydrates. Known as weight gainers, these products can include multiple forms of protein as well as quick- and slow-release carbs to dramatically increase your calorie consumption to help build more muscular size.

Weight-gainer products are typically used by bodybuilders during a bulking phase when they want to add as much muscle mass as possible, even if that means storing some extra fat, or by serious athletes who burn a lot of calories through training and don’t want to be in a daily calorie deficit (burning more than they consume). If you’re a “hard gainer” or ectomorph who has always struggled to add muscle mass despite training and eating right, you may benefit from the extra energy these products provide to ensure your body is always in a calorie surplus so it has the fuel it needs to grow muscle.

Other Types of Protein Powder

If you follow a strict diet or have allergies to dairy, you may want to consider some vegan and hypoallergenic protein powder alternatives. Here’s what you need to know about the most common other sources.

Egg protein

A powder made from separating and dehydrating egg whites from the yolk.

Pros: It is a complete protein source, containing all the essential amino acids, as well as other health-boosting vitamins and minerals.

Cons: It is one of the more expensive options, favours are often limited and not as tasty. And obviously, it can trigger a reaction if you have an egg allergy.

Soy protein

One of a handful of plant sources to contain all the essential amino acids, soy is hulled and dried into a flour, then concentrated or isolated into powder form.

Pros: One of the few vegetarian sources of a complete protein and also wallet-friendly.

Cons: Research suggests that soy can increase levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen (which encourages fat storage), and the plant is often genetically modified to boost crop yields.

Rice protein

Rice is known as a source of carbs, but brown rice contains around 8g of protein per 100g, which is isolated and ground into powder.

Pros: Ideal for vegans and those with dairy, soy or gluten allergies, it also contains B vitamins.

Cons: Not a complete protein source, so you’ll need other forms of protein to get all the essential amino acids.

Hemp protein

Derived from the seeds of the cannabis plant, hemp protein has gained popularity as a hypoallergenic protein source that’s also high in essential fatty acids.

Pros: A high-fibre vegan protein source that’s also ideal for those with common food allergies. If you’re worried about THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, don’t be – it’s absent from hemp protein.

Cons: It’s low on leucine, one of the most important amino acids for muscle growth.

Pea protein

Made from the golden, not garden, pea plant, this is a slow-release type of protein much like casein. And don’t worry, it comes unflavoured.

Pros: A vegan-friendly alternative to night-time casein for a gradual release of amino acids overnight.

Cons: It’s not a complete protein source so you can’t rely on it alone, and you may want to blend with other ingredients to improve the taste.

Eric Carter