How to Pick the Right Protein Powder

Fitness expert Chris Powell shares what you need to know before you buy.

By Chris Powell
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The Best Protein Powders for Your Needs (3:38)

When I first got into the fitness craze 25 years ago, I remember going to Costco with my parents to buy MetRx protein shakes. It was one of just a few different protein shakes available, and it was a miracle it had gone ‘mainstream’ at a warehouse store. They had vanilla, chocolate, and peach flavors, and the texture was thick, chalky, and tasted awful. But, if you were serious about fitness, you didn’t care and drank it anyway because that’s what all the “fit people” were doing. Boy have things changed! Although there was plenty of room for improvement, the shake industry had caught on to something groundbreaking, because nowadays, we are in the midst of a full-blown protein shake craze!

Why? 

First, we are learning more and more about the importance of protein in our diets for both weight loss and overall wellness, so the demand for more protein in our diets has gone up. Keep in mind, the average American consumes somewhere between 80-90 grams of protein per day, which is plenty if you are living a sedentary lifestyle. However, many popular sources of protein are expensive, take time to cook, and start to feel repetitive (we can only eat so much chicken and eggs before we want to pull our hair out). 

Protein powder offers three attributes that are most valuable to us these days: convenience, affordability, and taste.

1. Convenience

Time is more valuable than ever. Protein powder is easy to find, non-perishable, affordable, and delicious. You can also take protein powder on the go and supplement your diet with a delicious shake in a matter of seconds. In fact, it takes less than 30 seconds to put a scoop of protein powder in a shaker bottle, add liquid, and shake. How’s that for a time saver? In addition, protein powder offers a concentrated amount of protein, typically ranging from twelve to 25 grams per scoop. Most protein powders are usually low in fats and carbs, and therefore allow a lot of flexibility with the rest of your meal combinations.

2. Affordability

Priced between $.50 and $1.00 per serving, protein powder is by far the most cost-efficient source of protein available. It is even more efficient than your favorite inexpensive fast food chain.

3. Taste

With advances in flavor and texture, companies have started making delicious protein powders in a wide variety of flavors with smoother consistencies than ever before. With options ranging from your basic vanilla to root beer float, they are starting to taste more like real milkshakes.

So, it begs the question: Should you use protein powder in your diet?

It depends! If you are already incorporating an ample amount of protein in your diet and are getting closer to your fitness goals, then no. As the saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ However, if you are not getting enough protein, or you are living an active lifestyle that requires more protein, then a powdered protein source is a convenient, affordable, and delicious solution.

Which protein powder is right for you?

Nowadays there are protein powders available that fit everyone’s different lifestyle and dietary needs.

Powdered proteins for meat/dairy eaters and selective vegetarians:

  • Whey Isolate: Fast-digesting and great as a post-workout protein to rebuild and remodel muscle. Low in lactose for dairy sensitive people.
  • Whey Concentrate: Less expensive than isolate, but with more lactose. Still a great source of protein.
  • Casein: Slow-digesting release. Makes you feel full for a long time and great for muscle growth and repair over time.
  • Egg: No lactose and has a high biological value, so it is easy to digest. 

Powdered proteins for vegans and vegetarians:

  • Soy
  • Pea
  • Hemp
  • Brown rice and other grain proteins

All the plant-based sources have different (but great) qualities, depending on your dietary needs. They vary in textures, flavors, and prices, so if you are going the plant-based route, be sure to try as many as you can to find one that best suits your needs.

Selecting a Protein Powder

I suggest you select a powder that has less than 2g fat, less than 5g carbs, and has between 18-25 grams of protein per scoop. This way, you are allowed flexibility to add additional foods with more carbs and fats to your meals throughout the day. However, there are some protein powders that can be consumed as full meal replacements with balanced amounts of dietary fats and carbohydrates to round out a complete meal in one shake!

When it comes to ingredients, you should aim to look for options that have less than 10 ingredients listed on the packaging -- the cleaner, the better. However, if you are new to protein powders and are taking your first steps toward a healthier lifestyle, my philosophy is not to worry yourself with the list of ingredients. Just find one that you enjoy and will drink on a regular basis. Then, over time, aim to transition to a protein powder with a cleaner ingredient list and no artificial sweeteners, flavors, fillers or thickeners.

Ultimately, if you feel like a powdered protein supplement is right for you, then get out there and start tasting the options – I’m sure you’ll find one you love!

Related: 

What You Need to Know About the Protein Shake Diet

Why People Are Putting Collagen in Coffee (and Should You?)

7 Surprising Sources of Protein

Article written by Chris Powell
Fitness Expert