You can find protein within every single cell in your body. Your body breaks down every gram of protein that you eat into essential amino acids that keep every system in your body working efficiently. But unlike the carbohydrates and fats in your diet, your body doesn’t metabolize and store protein efficiently. This is why it’s critical that you consume protein daily for optimum health and wellness.
How much protein you need is open to debate. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram that you weigh, which translates to approximately 10 percent of your daily calories (1). If you aim for your RDA, you might avoid a protein deficiency, but studies also suggest that this base minimum isn’t enough if you want to look and feel your best.
You don’t need to be an athlete or a gym enthusiast to experience the benefits of protein supplementation. More and more research suggests that consuming more high-quality protein above and beyond your recommended dietary allowance may (2, 3, 4, 5):
- Slow signs of aging
- Improve your body composition
- Support weight loss
- Enhance your athletic performance so you’re more energized in everyday life
- Help you control your appetite
- Strengthen your bones
- Boost your immune system
- Prevention of muscle wasting for older adults
Many people find it difficult to increase their protein consumption from whole foods alone, as foods that are rich in protein can also be quite dense and heavy. Protein supplements offer a budget-friendly, convenient and portable way to enhance your protein intake.
But before you run out and buy a protein supplement, it’s important to know that not all protein supplements are made alike. In fact, many protein supplements may do more harm than good.
If you’re looking to take control of your health and experience optimum vitality, you’ll need to look beyond the simple nutrition facts. When shopping for the best protein powder, it’s not just about quantity (e.g., how many grams of protein are in each scoop), but it’s also about quality.
Not sure where to start? We’ve prepared the ultimate checklist that you need. Review this list before shopping for a protein powder. For maximum health benefits, make sure the protein you buy fits the following important criteria.
7 Steps to Find the Best Protein Powder
Walk into any grocery store or health food market and you’ll see rows and rows of protein products, from powders to bars to ready-to-drink shakes. With all the fancy names and shiny labels, it can be hard to filter through what’s marketing hype and what’s actually healthy according to the latest nutrition research.
Educating yourself on what to look for when reviewing a protein supplement can help you to find the best product that supports your lifestyle and your goals.
1. Understand Your Ingredient Terminology
When you scan an ingredients list, you’ll notice that the various kinds of protein come in many different forms. These forms refer to how the protein powder was manufactured. While the protein might come from a whole food source, different extraction processes are used to take that whole food and turn it into a protein supplement.
Protein concentrates are the most budget-friendly type of protein supplement. When it comes down to cost per gram of protein, concentrates usually deliver the most bang for your buck. The whole food ingredient is run through a heat-based dehydration process. This results in a powder that can be up to 70 percent protein while retaining some of the whole food’s other nutrients.
Protein isolates go through a more intensive extraction process with multiple steps and extra filtration. This removes almost everything, including fats and carbohydrates, except for the protein itself. This means a protein isolate can be up to 95 percent protein. The powder often has a thinner texture. Some people find this more preferable when making shakes and smoothies because it’s easier to mix and usually has little to no flavor of its own.
Combining Concentrates and Isolates
You want to consider using a protein supplement that combines different ingredients and different extraction processes. An ideal protein supplement will combine isolates and concentrates, plus whole food ingredients that haven’t been so intensively processed. This way you get the best of both worlds, while also ensuring a complementary branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) profile.
2. Know Your Protein Sources
The source of your protein before it’s run through the extraction process will be either animal-based or plant-based. Very common protein sources that you’ll likely see on an ingredients label include:
- Milk (I.e., casein or whey)
Whey concentrate or whey isolate, which comes from milk, is by far the most common protein source that you will find in protein powders. It’s also one of the most well-researched sources of animal-based protein, with dozens and dozens of medical journals measuring its benefits and its drawbacks.
Many supplement manufacturers will tout studies that declare whey protein as the ideal protein source in a supplement. You’ll often hear references to its digestibility and amino acid profile.
However, a growing body of research is highlighting the need for more plant-based foods in your diet, especially due to the standard American diet that the majority of the general population consumes.
Are There Benefits to Single-Source or Multiple-Source Protein?
Some people wonder if it’s beneficial to have protein from different sources or if they should stick to just one main ingredient. It’s important to remember that there are nine essential amino acids (amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own), plus non-essential amino acids and conditional amino acids. These amino acids form the building blocks of protein.
For optimal health, it’s critical that you get the full array of amino acids throughout the day (6). The best way to do this is to ensure you’re getting protein from multiple food sources and ingredients. Not only does this help ensure you’re getting the full spectrum of amino acids, but it also gives you synergistic nutrients.
For example, rice is low in the amino acid lysine and legumes are low in the amino acid methionine/cysteine. By combining the effects of rice and legumes, the amino acid profile is much more balanced with no issues of shortages of either lysine or methionine/cysteine in the protein supplement (7, 8).
Are There Benefits to Adding Seeds to Your Protein?
Some protein powders add seeds to the mix. Seeds and nuts are rich in essential fatty acids and protein, but they also include a wide range of additional health benefits. By adding more seeds to your diet, you take advantage of these wellness perks.
For example, pumpkin seeds are incredibly rich in antioxidants and minerals that may help to reduce inflammation (9, 10, 11). Eating pumpkin seeds has also been linked to a reduced risk of common forms of cancer, including prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women (12).
Hemp is one of the richest sources of sulfur and other minerals, (13) and may have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health (14). Hemp is also high in both insoluble and soluble fiber (15), which can improve your digestion, move the protein and other food through your system, and may even help to moderate blood sugar levels after a meal (16, 17).
Chia seeds are also rich in fiber, (18) which can help you feel full faster and longer. This in turn may help you with appetite control and weight loss. Animal studies also suggest that chia seeds can help you lose belly fat (19).
If we are consuming too many acidic foods, they can make us more susceptible to sickness and disease by depleting our physical resistance to stressful situations. The minerals in seeds also contain alkalizing properties and when added to protein powder, provide it with a beneficial alkalizing power (20).
These three seeds boost the protein content of your shakes while also conveying significant health benefits.