When it comes to nutrition, it is always a struggle to figure out what is actually healthy, what works best for your body and whether not it’s worth incorporating into your diet. To make things even worse, it’s almost impossible to find reliable, unbiased sources of information regarding anything health or fitness. One question I get a lot is, “how do I choose a protein that is right for me?”
From whey isolate to whey concentrate to casein to various plant proteins … this stuff can get confusing! The most important thing to remember, however, is that although supplements such as protein powders are great for feeding muscles and promoting weight loss, they are not all created equal. ALWAYS read your labels. Many brands on the market are loaded up with added chemicals, artificial sweeteners/flavors and poor-quality ingredients.
There are a lot of reasons you should incorporate a protein supplement into your diet. Protein is considered to be the powerhouse of muscle building. Also, it also helps control appetite, stimulates metabolism and has shown to change weight-regulating hormones.  In fact, a higher protein intake creates changes in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain responsible for the weight-regulation. By consuming more protein, you can increase satiety hormones and reduce hunger hormones such as GLP-1 and peptide YY.  
Picking which supplement is best for you will also depend on your fitness goals. Those looking for meal replacements to lose weight will want a different product than someone who is looking to gain mass and muscle. I’m going to do the best I can to familiarize you with the different types of proteins, point out key differences and hopefully help you decide which is best for your needs and goals. Though this is a very simplified overview, I would be happy to dive into this topic more. Just reach out at email@example.com
Protein Types: Animal vs. Plant
This one will be an easy decision for those who eat a plant-based diet, but for those who consume animal products as well, things get a little tricky.
The first thing to note is that generally, plant-based proteins are more slimming than their animal-derived counterparts. Since many animal-based proteins use whey (a dairy derivative – we’ll get into this later) as a base, some may experience mild bloating and discomfort, though milk proteins provide one of the best source of amino acids for the body. This is why animal proteins are considered a “complete protein,” which means they contain all nine essential amino acids the body needs – plant proteins are not typically complete proteins. Let’s take a further look at the pros and cons of each category.
- Complete Protein: As mentioned above, animal proteins contain the entire spectrum of essential amino acids – this is important for muscle growth and repair.
- Supports Immune System: Our immune cells require amino acids to function, animal proteins contain Lactoferrin, a critical molecule that helps boost the immune system and has been shown to have positive effects in fighting cancer and microbial infections, and immunoglobins, molecules that stimulate an immune response.
- Reduces Hunger: Whey, in particular, is highly satiating. This can help curb hunger, and in turn, help promote weight loss! 
- May Help Treat Diabetes: Studies show that whey protein is useful in regulating blood sugar and increased insulin levels and sensitivity.  Properties of whey have been compared to those in diabetic drugs. 
- Better Taste: Obviously a debatable statement, but more often than not, individuals prefer the taste of animal-based proteins over plant-based.
- May Cause Digestion Issues: Though most is removed/reduced, whey does contain lactose. This can be problematic for some and can lead to bloating, bowel issues and flatulence.
- Can Have High Sugars: Make sure to look at your labels, a lot of supplement powders contain a lot of sweeteners in order to improve the taste. Don’t just assume because it’s labeled “healthy,” that it really is!
Alright here are some examples of animal proteins you see on the market:
Whey protein is one of the most commonly purchased proteins. It is derived from milk, and though it is high in protein, it contains lactose which may pose problems for some individuals. Whey protein concentrate retains a decent amount of lactose, but whey protein isolate contains very little due to the nature of its processing. Whey isolates are also one of the quickest absorbing proteins and are an excellent option for those on a low-carb diet.
Casein is the preferred “bedtime protein,” that many choose to consume before going to sleep as it takes between 5 – 7 hours to fully breakdown within the body. This keeps you anabolic through the night and keeps your body absorbing and utilizing nutrients while you snooze. It also has high glutamine content, which helps in muscle recovery and immune support.
Now you can obviously choose to consume eggs in their whole form as a source of protein, but there are egg white protein powders you can purchase. Next to whey, egg protein contains the highest source of the muscle building BCAA, leucine.  It’s also a great choice for those who have dairy allergies but still want a complete protein option.
- No Allergens: Rice, pea and hemp protein are usually well tolerated with minimal risk of allergies. Soy, on the other hand, tends to be a common food allergen. Rice, pea and hemp tend to be used as part of detox programs such as elimination diets.
- Contains More Than Just Protein: Plant-derived proteins provide extra vitamins and minerals that you can’t get from animal products alone.
- Higher in Fiber: Plant proteins contain more fiber per serving than animal proteins which can aid in weight loss and digestion.
- May Not Be as Beneficial for Muscle Building: Now, this isn’t to say it isn’t possible, because it is! There are tons of athletes, bodybuilders and powerlifters that eat a plant-based diet! But, plant proteins contain lower amounts of amino acids that are critical for muscle growth.
Here are some popular plant-based proteins.
Rice protein reduces glycemic response which helps control the impact of blood sugar spikes. It also is easy to digest and has a pretty mild flavor.
This form of protein powder has a great amino acid profile which can assist in recovery and prevent the breakdown of muscle post-workout. In addition to being lower in carbohydrates than some other options, pea protein is also gluten-free!
Known to be one of the best sources of plant-based protein, hemp seeds also contain all nine essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce on its own. Hemp protein also includes a hefty amount of omega fatty acids, which are great for heart health.
Soy is a debated source of protein in the health community, as its benefits and risks are a hot topic of controversy for many. However, it is known that soy is a complete protein, containing all essential amino acids and has been shown to improve cholesterol levels. Some athletes will turn to soy protein to aid with muscle synthesis and repair.
Protein Shakes as a Meal Replacement
If you are going to be leveraging protein shakes as a meal replacement (I drink them as a breakfast or post-workout), I would recommend that you make sure to add a lot of nutrients and a healthy fat such as nut butter, avocado, unrefined coconut oil, flax seeds, etc.
As a basic rule, here’s how to “build a protein shake” if you are using it as a meal replacement:
- Choose Your Liquid
Ex: Water, Coconut Water, Cow’s Milk, Dairy-Free Milk
- Choose Your Fruit
Ex: Berries, Pineapple, Apples, Bananas, Mango, Kiwi, Pomegranate, Oranges, Grapes
- Choose Your Greens
Ex: Kale, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Parsley
- Choose Your Fats / Protein
Ex: Protein Powder, Nut Butters, Avocado, Hemp Seeds, Egg Whites, Greek Yogurt, Kefir
- Add a “Superfood” or Other Add-Ins
Ex: Chia Seeds, Raw Cacao, Bee Pollen, Goji Berries, Flax Seeds, Shredded Coconut, Matcha, Herbs/Spices, Black Iced Coffee
You need to decide what is best for your goals and body. This may take some trial and error, but that’s okay! I swore by plant-based proteins only because I was so caught up on the “dangers of whey,” but after incorporating it into my diet, I found that my body was benefiting. I now switch between a rice protein and a whey protein as supplements to help me with muscle maintenance and growth.
❥ As always, I am here to help in any way I can.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org