If you’re shopping for a protein powder, the choices can seem endless: There are plant- and animal-based blends; powders with additional ingredients like fruits and veggies; and about as many flavors as you’d find on Starbucks’s secret menu. But finding the best option for you doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. We spoke to registered dietitians with sports nutrition expertise to get the inside scoop (pun intended) on finding the right protein powder.
Do you really need protein powder?
Protein is a vital macronutrient that helps support our immune system and build and repair muscle, Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and owner of Kelly Jones Nutrition and Student Athlete Nutrition, tells SELF. So while you certainly need to consume enough of it, do you need to do so in tub form?
“In a perfect world, we would obtain all of the nutrients we need each day, including protein, from whole foods alone,” Jones says. But in the real world, you might not always have time to shop for and prepare high-protein snacks and meals, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan eating style.That’s where a protein powder can come into play—it’s a convenient way to get more of this crucial micronutrient in your daily diet.
If you’re not sure how much protein you actually need, the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Keep in mind, that’s the average minimum to prevent deficiency—if you’re an active person, you may want to shoot for closer to 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram, Jones says. Ample protein is particularly important if you exercise a lot, especially if you lift weights, because it helps repair the small tears in your muscles after intense workouts.
If you do the math and realize you aren’t getting enough, adding a protein powder to your routine could help. You may also consider consulting your doctor or a registered dietitian to get a clearer idea of your individual nutrition needs.
What to look for in a high-quality protein powder
When you start shopping for protein powders, the first step is choosing between animal-based powders like whey, or plant-based varieties. One isn’t inherently better than the other, but there are a few key differences to consider.
Most registered dietitians consider whey the “gold standard” for protein supplementation, Angie Asche, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performance, tells SELF. That’s partly because whey is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine of the amino acids your body needs to function. It’s also generally easy to absorb and digest, provided you don’t have a dairy allergy, Asche says.
If you’re vegan, dairy-intolerant, or prefer to eat fewer animal-based foods, plant-based protein powder that uses peas, beans, soy, and brown rice as its main ingredients is a great alternative to whey. Just keep in mind that certain plant protein sources are considered “incomplete,” says Asche. That’s why a lot of plant-based powders combine multiple protein sources, which can create a complete profile (think: peas and rice).
What to avoid in a protein powder
For the most part, what you skip can come down to your own preferences—this writer, for example, won’t come within six feet of a birthday cake-flavored protein powder due to its way-too-sweet taste. But there are a few ingredients that experts suggest taking a closer look at before making your purchase.