The ultimate guide to protein powders for athletes. Find out if you really need a protein shake before or after a workout to gain muscle!
Protein powders are a convenient option for plant-based athletes. But there are some things you need to consider when choosing protein powders, such as:
- Do you actually need to spend $30+ on a tub of protein powder for muscle growth?
- What’s in protein powder?
- Can you get the same nutrients from food?
- How to know if a protein powder is safe
- How plant-based protein powders stack up to whey
This article delves into all of these topics and more.
How much protein do athletes need?
Although protein is most known for its role in muscle building, it’s also a major component of skin, hair, teeth, nails and organs. Proteins also plays a role in antibodies, messengers, enzymes, transporters and storage.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for most people is 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day. That said, research spanning the past 30 years has indicated that athletes engaging in intense training may benefit from ingesting anywhere from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram (0.45 to 0.9 grams per pound) of body weight per day to maintain muscle mass.
Although each athlete is different, higher intakes are generally recommended for shorter periods of intense training or when cutting calories. Recent research suggests that most athletes benefit from a protein intake of around 1.6 grams per kilograms (0.72 grams per pound) per day.
Although protein is crucial, the most important thing is to make sure you eat enough calories each day. Burning more calories than you eat will lead to muscle loss, injuries, illness, and training issues.
Do you really need protein powder?
Protein powders have become a popular option, especially among plant-based athletes, because they are a quick and convenient way to get 20+ grams of protein.
Not to mention that protein powders are easy to drink, especially after intense exercise that causes indigestion or nausea. [Related: How To Avoid Stomach Issues While Running] Protein powder also can also help athletes with high daily caloric needs.
For example, one of the members in Greenletes U is male, vegan, triathlete, who is 6’4”. His activity level requires about 4,000 calories per day. He mixes protein powder into a smoothie with fruit, nuts, seeds and plant-based milks to help with post-workout recovery and increase his calorie intake.
That said, protein powders are not necessary for everyone. You can absolutely get the same amount of protein from food as you can from protein powders. And whole foods contain other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carbs and fiber, whereas protein powders don’t.
What’s in protein powder?
Protein powders are made from a protein source, which is dehydrated and turned into a powder. The most common source of protein powder comes from whey, which is one of the proteins in cow’s milk.
There are generally two types of protein powder–isolate and concentrate. The difference between these two is in the amount of processing of the protein. Protein isolate is processed down to just the protein, so that type of powder will have minimal fat and carbs and more protein.
Protein concentrate is less processed and contains some fat and carbs and a lower protein content. Many people opt for the protein isolate because they prefer a powder that is solely protein.
How to know if a protein powder is safe
Protein powders are supplements, so they are not regulated for safety by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
The manufacturer is responsible for the safety of the supplement. The FDA created something called Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), which is a set of guidelines that manufacturers are supposed to follow to ensure their products are safe.
That said, the GMPs are sort of an “honor system” and there aren’t many checks and balances in place to make sure companies are following these guidelines. When tested, some companies have been found to have heavy metals in their products or the contents of the protein powder do not match what’s on the label.
This can make buying a protein powder seem scary and unpredictable. But there are some things you can look for to make sure you are buying a reputable brand of protein powder, such as look for 3rd party testing on the label.
Companies such as NSF International, Informed Choice, c(GMP), and USP test supplements to make sure that the product is safe, it contains what’s on the label and it meets the FDA’s GMPs. Look for those labels on your protein powder to ensure it’s safe.
Is plant based protein powder good for building muscle?
If you’re a plant-based athlete, you may be wondering how does plant-based protein powder stack up to whey?
There are two rating systems that measure how your body is able to utilize protein: the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) and digestible indispensable amino acid score (DIAAS).
These ratings suggest that soy is the only plant-based protein that measures up to whey. Potato, peas and beans come close to animal protein, but they score about 25% lower.
Consequently, it’s best to opt for plant-based protein powder that has about 30 to 40 grams of protein, as compared to 20 grams of protein in whey.
The good news is that there is a huge variety of plant-based protein powders, and each has its own benefits.
Here are some of the best types of plant-based protein powder:
- Soy protein is the most effective plant for stimulating muscle growth. It’s a high quality protein with ample amounts of the essential amino acids
- Pea protein also has all of the branched-chain amino acids and it has a neutral flavor that blends well into smoothies. It’s particularly high in arginine, an essential amino acid.
- Hemp protein is high in healthy fats, like omega-3 and omega-6, so it may keep you full longer. But hemp protein also has a somewhat grassy taste.
- Almond protein has a neutral taste, as well as healthy fats, calcium and potassium. And brown rice protein is also neutral and easy to drink.
- Chocho is new to the plant-based protein space, and it’s rich in vitamins and minerals. But it’s also very sustainable!
How much protein powder do you need each day?
The amount of protein powder you need per day depends on the person. As stated earlier, many athletes should aim for about 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Some people may be able to get that amount through food alone and do not require protein powder.
Others may find protein powder advantageous for their training diet. Since protein powder is a processed supplement, it has less nutrients than food source of protein. For this reason, it’s best to limit protein powder to one serving per day.
The serving size depends on the product. Look at the nutrition facts label to determine if one serving is one or two scoops of powder. Generally, one serving of protein powder has about 20-30 grams of protein.
Listen to the Greenletes Podcast to learn more!
I recently had Registered Dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth on the Greenletes Podcast to chat all about protein powders. We discussed:
Natalie and Frances discuss:
- who protein powders are right for
- research on the difference in bioavailability between whey protein powder and plant-based protein powder
- the different sources of protein powder, like whey, soy, pea, hemp, rice. Is one considered best?
- what ingredients should people avoid/ look out for in protein powders
- sweeteners in protein powders
- how to use protein powders
If you’re still unsure about whether or not you need a protein powder, listen to this episode to clear up all your confusion.