If you’re a regular in the free weights area, does any of this sound familiar to you?
- You only have a fraction of the time needed to find, buy, cook and eat protein-rich foods
- You’re not sure where to start when it comes to buying a protein powder
- You’re not even sure what a protein powder contains or how much you should take, if at all
I’ve been there. And after a few years, I now understand protein powders to a level that just about qualifies me to write this guide for you (I think).
Still, I need your help.
Once you’re done reading, if there’s anything you were hoping to get from this post that I missed, please let me know in a comment. I’ll either reply to you directly or update the post with your question + the answer.
Let’s start from the very beginning …
What is protein powder?
Protein powder is made from one of several natural protein sources (sometimes a combination). It’s meant to be consumed alongside a healthy diet, to top-up your protein intake, so that your body has enough of the stuff to generate maximum gains in the gym.
There are different types of protein powder, we’ll discuss the following in this guide:
- Rice & Pea
Why would I take protein powder?
When your body isn’t getting the amount of protein it needs to grow and repair the muscles used when working out, through solid foods alone.
Imagine this …
You’ve roared through a gruelling kettlebell workout. And you’re done.
Do you take a shower, drive 15 minutes to the nearest restaurant, park up, wait for a table, order a couple of steaks and wait a further 20 minutes before tucking in? Or do you take a seat in the gym and enjoy your pre-made protein shake, straight after* the training session?
For those who realise their protein intake is too low for what they need, the three most common reasons for using supplements are:
*Not all protein powders are best consumed after working out. Keep reading to find out the ideal times to take each supplement.
How much protein powder should I take?
Like everything in the world of fitness … it depends.
It depends on your fitness goals, age, diet, health and more.
As a guideline, the minimum daily intake of protein is 0.8g/kg of bodyweight. That’s protein in general – so, from everything you eat and drink per day including supplements.
— Note: This guideline doesn’t necessarily apply in extreme cases of obesity or ill health. —
If you weigh 70kg, you’re recommended to consume 56g of protein per day.
There’s a highly detailed piece on this from Examine.com that breaks down the different protein ‘targets’ per person-type.
— Another note: For more information on maintaining a healthy workout diet, our guide on tracking your macros might help you out. —
Whey protein powder is the most well-known supplement. And it’s pretty safe to assume it’s the most popular.
Whey comes from milk – extracted during the production of cheese.
It contains a collection of proteins, which hold the essential amino acids your body needs in order to synthesise protein and build muscle.
In other words, whey has the ingredients you need to get bigger and stronger.
You can get those same ingredients from drinking whole milk … but whole milk comes with a lot of other ingredients, which may not be good for your diet when consumed in excess. Plus, a whey protein shake will contain a higher concentration of protein than a glass of milk.
Whey is available in three different forms:
- Whey concentrate
Standard. Medium to high levels of protein.
- Whey isolate
More expensive. Only high levels of protein.
- Whey hydrolysate
Even more expensive. Similar to isolate only designed to help the body absorb the contained amino acids faster. Not necessary for the average gym goer.
If you’re just starting out with protein supplements, then whey can be the ideal option. Due to its popularity, there are plenty of different providers and flavours out there to try. And it’s not too expensive compared to some of the others.
Whey is best taken as soon as you finish a workout. The protein zips straight into your bloodstream, before travelling to your muscles. This repairs your muscles after training and triggers your body’s natural production of protein.
During the production of cheese, whey separates itself from casein – another source of protein which is also available as a supplement.
Your body absorbs casein at a much slower rate than whey. Therefore, it’s not the best supplement to take pre or post-workout, when you might need a quick intake of amino acids. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.
The effects are gradual. And casein doesn’t support the body’s natural production of protein like whey does.
But it brings many of the same long-term benefits. And it is effective when it comes to reducing protein breakdown in the body – making it a preferred muscle-building supplement.
Some believe casein is actually better at supporting the development of lean muscle mass – but it’s difficult for me to promise something like that here.
The most noticeable difference is that casein has the ability to form a gel when water is added (and most other liquids). That means you can mix casein powder into a thick, satisfying protein shake – or even bake it into certain desserts, which makes it another good option for the ‘supplement virgin’.
Again there are three types available:
- Calcium caseinate
- Micellar casein
- Casein hydrolysate
- Milk Protein
Both whey and casein are extracted from milk. But milk can be a rich (and cheap) protein source itself – with both previous proteins consumed at the same time, in a less concentrated form.
Basically, it’s milk in powdered form – only with all the non-protein ingredients taken out (i.e. saturated fats).
Depending on your fitness goals, this may be enough of a supplement to keep your protein intake at the level you need.
— Note: As whey, casein and milk protein come from milk, there’s always a chance that traces of lactose are present. So, if you have any dairy related allergies or intolerances, it may be worth considering different sources of protein. —
Just as milk protein is pretty much powdered milk, egg protein is pretty much powdered egg whites.
As you’d imagine, it can taste quite … well … eggy.
It’s rich in L-Leucine – an essential amino acid that helps muscle growth. And it’s lactose-free.
Beyond that, the benefits of egg protein are nothing special.
Rice and Pea Protein
The vegan alternative to whey, rice and pea protein is another supplement rich in essential amino acids.
As it comes from rice and peas, it doesn’t threaten to kick-off any sensitivities to dairy.
But aside from that (and price), there are no major benefits that edge rice and pea protein ahead of whey in the newcomer’s supplement leaderboard.
Soy protein comes from the soybean.
There are two types available:
- Soy concentrate
Heavily processed – isoflavones* are removed (meaning oestrogenic properties are also removed)
- Soy Isolate
Soy protein is extracted in isolation – isoflavones remain (meaning oestrogenic properties are present, but not a threat to your testosterone levels unless your hormone regulation is already abnormal in any way) *I’ll be honest, I had to Google that word to double check.
Hemp protein comes from the hempseeds of the hemp plant.
As a complete protein source, it’s unique in that it also provides plenty of fibre, Omega-3 and Omega-6.
It’s a cocktail of nutrition that can support your diet in more ways than just a higher protein intake.
Controversially, the hemp plant is a cousin of marijuana. But hemp will not get you high. There are no psychoactive properties.
Protein powders are designed to help increase your protein intake in a convenient and manageable way
Whey protein is fast-releasing and can help build muscle when consumed straight after a workout
Casein protein is slow-releasing and can help build muscle over time, when consumed on a regular basis
It’s up to you whether you wish to add protein powders to your diet – there are ways to get the protein you need without using supplements