“I’m new to protein powders and I’m not sure where to start. It seems there are tons of different types of protein, lots of different brands and even some controversy. Which types of protein are best?” – Confused About Fuel
CAF, let’s start at the beginning. What is protein, where do we get it and why is it important?
Isn’t protein just another word for beef?
Protein is made of life-building chains of amino acids, and we need it to build healthy muscles and help keep all our critical body systems working reliably. Having too little can lead to sluggishness, constipation, thinning hair, anxiety, and many other ailments. While you may not know it to go to certain restaurants where you “choose a protein” (which is usually chicken, beef, fish or tofu), protein is not a food group. That’s like calling leafy greens or dairy “a calcium.” Protein is simply a nutrient, and it’s not just found in meat.
How do vegans get their protein?
I spent nine months as a vegan, and this is the question I was asked more than any other. Protein is a part of nearly any food that grows, though some foods certainly contain more of this nutrient than others. Vegetables and fruits contain protein, and vegans rely on veggies in addition to other sources for protein intake and many other nutrients. You can find higher levels of protein in meats (and your protein levels will be greater in meat that’s naturally raised – think free-range or grass-fed). You can find it in other animal products like dairy or eggs. But if you don’t want to eat meat all day or maybe you’re trying to cut back on cheese, you can also find great protein levels in nuts (peanuts contain the highest protein amount, but almonds are also excellent) and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia and hemp are great seeds to experiment with). Legumes (beans and peas) are a personal favorite. Soy is another big player for many, though I recommend staying away from processed soy (soy milk, soy-based meat alternatives) and sticking with whole soy (edamame) or fermented soy (tempeh).
So what about protein powders? The most common forms of protein powders are: whey, soy, egg, plant-based blends and hemp. I’ll touch on a few of these here.
A quick disclaimer: watch out for any kind of “isolate” protein powder. These powders have typically undergone extreme refining by heat, which breaks down the proteins and turns them into carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
- Pros: easily available, less expensive compared to some, typically tastes better than some of the plant-based proteins
- Cons: it’s hard to find a whey protein that’s not been heat-processed, it’s hard to tell if it comes from cows treated with growth hormones
- Recommended: Tera’s Whey – rBGH-free, cold-processed, organic, made from grass-fed cows. Plus, 21g of protein per serving!
- Pros: vegan-friendly, great flavor, good for dairy-intolerant folks
- Cons: this is a processed soy and is often heat-processed and carcinogenic
- Recommended: None. I advise all my clients to stay far from processed soy of any kind.
- Pros: free of animal hormones and soy hormone-altering issues, great tastes available, easy for folks with allergies and sensitivities
- Cons: can be gritty, more expensive
- Recommended: Raw Meal – this includes not only 17g of protein per serving, but also at least 100% of your recommended daily value of all your other vitamins and minerals. It’s non-GMO and organic. It’s made with whole, raw foods that have been dehydrated instead of heat-processed. It also includes digestive enzymes and probiotics to help your digestion along.
Whatever you decide on, before purchasing, I recommend going into a health food store like Whole Foods, Sprouts, Mountain Mama or Natural Grocers to ask someone questions about what’s in the product you’re considering. This is a great way to get some extra information and probably some consumer feedback before buying.
Pro tips: A banana can add some sweetness and smoother texture to your protein smoothie. Avocados are even smoother, though – and despite their veggie-like flavor in guacamole, I promise, you can’t taste it in a smoothie at all! Avocados are great ways to get amazing, healthy fats in your diet, and for those who don’t like the texture of avocado, putting it in a smoothie can make that a thing of the past! If you want to add some extra protein to your smoothie, throw in a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter, chia seeds or hemp seeds before blending.
Good luck on your experimenting, CAF, and if you readers have any experience with different types of protein powders, leave your comments below!