How to choose the best protein powder for you

Protein powders and other sports supplements have hit the market in a big way, with more and more people investing in their health and athletic performance. But how do you know if you should be taking a protein powder? Are some types better than others? We have written this guide to help you find out!

Do I need to supplement my diet with protein?


Most of us will get enough protein - around 0.75g per kg of body weight - by consuming a healthy, balanced diet. However, some people can benefit from increasing their protein intake, and protein shakes / protein powders provide a quick and easy way to do so.

You could benefit from supplementing protein if:

  • you lead an active lifestyle and want to make sure you maintain your muscle mass
  • you want to build muscle and strength
  • you don’t tend to eat much protein in your diet, e.g. carb heavy
  • you’re training for a big sporting event, e.g. a swimming race, marathon or weightlifting competition

How much do I need?

The amount of protein needed is based on the amount or type of activity you are doing and is measured per gram per kg of your body weight. This means a short, petite person with a sedentary lifestyle e.g. desk job will need significantly less protein than a tall, heavier set person who plays team sports.

See the table below to see how much protein you should be consuming every day:

Activity Amount of protein
No to little activity 0.75g
Endurance athletes 1.2g
Team sports 1.5g
Muscle gain 1.8g
Muscle gain and weight loss 2.0g

If you choose to increase your protein intake, you can do this in a few ways.

One way to consume more protein is by simply increasing the amount of protein you eat at mealtimes, with foods like lean meat, soya products, wholegrains, legumes, beans, fish, etc.

Another way is to use protein powder or high-protein meal replacement shakes to quickly top up your protein.

Of course, you can always do both if you want to seriously boost your protein intake, it all depends on how much you need.

What are the different types of protein supplements?

Complete vs incomplete

Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, which are used as the ‘building blocks’ for muscle growth.

Every time you bench press your way to a new personal best or reach your next running milestone, your body will need these amino acids to help your muscles get bigger and stronger.

What food contains protein?


The most popular protein sources are meat, fish and other animal proteins, like milk, eggs and cheese. Whey protein, for example, is made from dairy protein and is the most common protein powder ingredient. This is because they are considered complete proteins and are easy for most to incorporate into their diet.

But animal products are not the only foods that contain protein. You can find protein in most foods, including your fruit and veg!

Plant-based protein sources


Although they do contain protein, most fruits and vegetables are considered an incomplete protein as they lack one or more of the 9 amino acids. To combat this, it’s advised to consume a combination of plant proteins to ensure you’re getting a wider range of amino acids.

It’s good to mix it up with your food anyway, to make sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need, as well as the protein. Easy to make meals which combine to provide complete protein include:

  • peanut butter sandwich made with wholemeal bread
  • whole wheat pitta and hummus
  • rice and beans

However, you do not need to combine different plant protein sources at every single meal. Instead, it can more useful to focus on including a variety of plant-based foods throughout your day to make sure you’re getting enough of that amino acid goodness.

Complete vegan protein sources include:

  • pea
  • soy products e.g. soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame
  • hemp
  • quinoa
  • amaranth
  • buckwheat
  • Ezekiel bread – made from sprouted legumes and wholegrains like barley, wheat, lentils, spelt, to make it a complete protein source
  • spirulina
  • chia seeds
  • nutritional yeast
  • mycoprotein (Quorn)

Are there complete protein powders?


Yes. The general idea of protein powders is to give your body an easy-to-digest protein that it can put to work straight away.

Popular complete protein powders include:

  • whey protein powder
  • casein protein powder

Complete vegan protein powders include:

  • pea protein powder
  • soy protein powder
  • hemp protein powder

What are concentrated, isolated and hydrolysate proteins?


There are also three variants of proteins; concentrated, isolated and hydrolysates.

  • concentrated protein is made up from 60-80% protein with the remaining being fat and carbohydrate

  • isolated protein has a higher percentage of protein, 90-95%, as more of the fat and carbohydrates have been removed, which makes it a good keto protein powder

  • hydrolysate protein is around 99% protein, making it a great low carb protein powder

Which is the best protein powder for me?


So now we’ve explored the different types of protein and how much you need according to your goals, let’s find out which types of protein powder are best for you and your lifestyle.

Here’s a little refresh on which popular protein powders are complete and incomplete before we get into their pros and cons below:

Complete Incomplete
Whey Rice
Casein
Hemp
Soy
Pea

Whey protein powder


Whey is a by-product in the process of turning milk into cheese and is the most popular protein supplement available in different ratios and diet/lean variants.

Pros:

  • complete protein
  • you can choose from concentrated and isolate whey protein
  • promotes muscle growth
  • quickly digested to support muscles after working out
  • gives you a feeling of fullness
  • contains a good amount of BCAAS leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are particularly effective for supporting muscle growth when combined with exercise
  • cheap

Cons:

  • contains lactose so may not be suitable for those with a lactose intolerance (to counteract this, choose isolate whey or whey with added lactase enzyme)
  • not suitable for vegans or people with a dairy allergy

Casein protein powder


Casein is also produced from the production of milk, but this process can concentrate or isolate the protein found in milk, from the carbohydrates and fats.

Pros:

  • high quality source of complete protein
  • high percentage of protein, in particular histidine, methionine and phenylalanine
  • digests slowly,
  • can bind to calcium and phosphorus and other minerals so they can be digested easily

Cons:

  • contains lactose so may not be suitable for those who are intolerant
  • digested slowly, so less readily available post-exercise than whey
  • not suitable for vegans or those with a dairy allergy

Soy protein powder


Soy protein is made from soy bean flakes (legume) that have had their fat removed and washed in alcohol or water to remove their dietary fibre and sugar. It’s one of the few plant-based proteins that do contain all of the 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete vegan protein.

Pros:

  • high protein percentage
  • promotes muscle growth
  • can help raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol
  • this natural protein powder contains little fat and no cholesterol
  • plant based protein powder suitable for vegans and more likely to be suitable for those with a dairy allergy
  • a gluten free protein powder

Cons:

  • not suitable for those with soy allergy
  • contains phytates which can decrease mineral absorption

Hemp protein powder


Hemp protein powder is made from pressed and ground hemp seeds, which when processed this way, have less fat than whole hemp seeds. It contains all of the essential amino acids, as well as fibre and essential fats, making it a complete protein.

Pros:

  • full of fibre
  • very easy to digest
  • contains BCAAs that support muscle synthesis
  • good percentage of protein
  • unlike other popular protein powders, hemp contains healthy fats that are packed with omega 3 & 6
  • contains phosphorous, magnesium, iron, calcium, manganese, copper and zinc
  • dairy free protein powder suitable for vegans and vegetarians
  • a great choice for those who are intolerant to soy
  • sustainable with less impact on the environment than animal-by products

Cons:

  • can be a shock to the digestive system if eaten too quickly or you usually eat a low-fibre diet
  • can taste quite ‘earthy’, so you may have to mix with other flavours if you don’t fancy that

Rice protein powder


Made from, well, rice! It contains all of the essential amino acids but is classed as incomplete as it only contains a very small amount of one of the acids, lysine.

Pros:

  • high percentage of protein
  • easily digested and high in fibre
  • vegan and vegetarian protein powder
  • naturally dairy, gluten and lactose free protein powder
  • full of B vitamins
  • a great choice for those who are intolerant to soy
  • slow digestion to help you stay fuller for longer
  • sustainable with less impact on the environment than animal-by products

Cons:

  • it’s an incomplete protein, so combine with a seed or legume protein such as hemp or pea
  • as it digests slowly, it is not absorbed immediately after workouts

Pea protein powder


Turns out our humble petit pois packs an impressive amount of protein! Pea protein powder is usually sold in isolate form as the yellow peas it comes from usually have high levels of carbohydrate. Once isolated, the final result has lower levels of carbohydrates and a higher percentage of complete protein.

Pros:

  • complete plant-based protein with all 9 essential amino acids
  • high protein content
  • a great choice for those who are intolerant to soy
  • suitable for vegetarians and vegans
  • sustainable with less impact on the environment than animal-by products
  • easy to digest
  • rich in iron
  • gluten and dairy free
  • low in fibre from the isolating process, so less likely to cause gassiness or bloating like whole peas can for some people

Cons:

  • texture can be slightly more grainy compared to other protein powders

Plant-based combinations

To create a complete protein with rice protein powder, combine it with another plant-based protein. All the other plant-based protein powders we have talked about are complete. But, it still may be worth mixing up so you get to enjoy the benefits from each different one.

Go on, make your own protein pick ‘n’ mix by mixing the following:

Seed Legume Grain
Hemp Pea Rice
Soya

Top Tip: if you combine rice protein with pea protein, then you have yourself something very similar to whey protein. This could be useful if you are transitioning to a vegan diet and need a different whey to get your protein fix.

Which protein powder is for me?


Picking a protein is entirely a personal choice, based on your goal and dietary requirements. For example, it’s wise to choose a higher calorie ‘bulking’ protein powder if you’re looking to put on weight and muscle, whereas if you want to lose weight, a low-cal diet protein powder would be a lot more suitable.

Use our guide below to find out which protein supplement could help you reach your goals:

A guide to help you select which protein powder supplements is right for you based on your goal and dietary requirements

If you need any further guidance, visit your local H&B store and speak to one of our trained colleagues.

Can I cook / bake with all the protein powders


Yes! Although most recipes will point your towards whey powders, you can use any of the above protein powders to make yummy protein-stacked pancakes, guilt-free protein cookies and so much more. You don’t need to chug down protein shakes everyday.

If you need some inspiration, check out our super tasty protein powder recipes.

Shop Sports Nutrition Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

Last updated: 31 July 2020

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