Protein is the nutrient du jour these days. It is well-loved for its satiating powers: it’s more filling than carbs, although gram-for-gram each delivers the same number of calories. Protein is also essential for maintaining and/or building muscle. And it can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight. That’s mostly because protein is a filling nutrient that staves off hunger, which can help you consume fewer calories. For instance, in a 2015 study in Nutrition Journal, women who ate a high-protein breakfast (at least 30 grams protein) were more satisfied after their meal and ate fewer calories at lunch, compared to women who ate a low-protein breakfast (only 3 grams).
It’s not too surprising then that protein powders are increasing in popularity, according to market research firm Grand View Research. Can protein powders help with weight loss? “Yes!” says Chris Mohr, RD, of MohrResults.com. “Are they necessary for weight loss? Of course not. It depends on how they’re used.”
What Is Protein Powder?
Protein powders are pretty much what their name implies—powdered forms of protein that come from plant and/or animal sources. Some of the most common powders come from milk (casein and whey), eggs, soybeans, and peas. “The biggest trend in protein powders right now is plant-forward protein powders,” says Mohr. “And second to that is single-ingredient protein powder. Some companies that have moved into single ingredient because fewer ingredients are popular.”
What Else Is in Protein Powder?
Some protein powders are more than just the protein in powder form. They may include added sugars, low- or no-calorie sweeteners, or other ingredients (think: creatine, added fibers, miscellaneous vitamins and minerals) that you might not be expecting. So, read the ingredient list to know what you’re getting.
A good general rule of thumb, though, is that unflavored varieties ($28, Target) will have a more streamlined ingredient list—and often just the protein itself—while flavored varieties ($19, Target) will include the flavor and often an added sugar or a low- or no-calorie sweetener.
One word of caution: Protein powders are technically dietary supplements, so manufacturers (not the federal government) are responsible for evaluating the safety and effectiveness of their product. Unfortunately, in 2018 a nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project tested 134 protein powders and found 75% contained lead, 55% contained BPA, and overall plant-based powders had more heavy metals than other protein powders. The takeaway: Choose a brand and product that you trust.
Let’s take a closer look at the more common animal and plant protein powders on the market.
4 Common Types of Animal-Based Protein Powders
If your diet includes a mix of animal and plant-based foods, any of these types of protein powder could fit in your diet.
Whey Protein: In a 30-gram serving, there are about 25 grams protein. Whey is one of two proteins found in milk. (The other is casein.) Whey protein is a complete protein—it contains all nine essential amino acids, and is an especially good source of the amino acid leucine, which plays a key role in protein synthesis (a must for muscle building). This is why whey protein ($22, Target) is well-known and often used by fitness buffs and weight-lifters.
Casein Protein: In a 30-gram serving, you’ll find around 26 grams protein. The other protein in milk, casein is a slower-digesting protein. The benefit of casein protein ($35, GNC) being digested slower is that it can help prevent muscle breakdown and promote protein synthesis over a longer period of time.
Egg Protein: In a 30-gram serving, you get about 25 grams protein. Eggs score the highest of whole foods in regards to protein quality and digestibility, per the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score. But egg protein powder ($15, Amazon) is typically just egg whites, which, in theory, could alter the score.
Collagen Protein: A 20-gram serving delivers around 20 grams protein. Collagen protein powder ($25, Target) is quite trendy. And there are a lot of touted benefits to taking collagen. The research, however, seems to be strongest around collagen supporting joint and skin health.
4 Common Types of Plant-Based Protein Powders
Soy Protein: In a 30-gram serving, there’s about 25 grams protein. A complete protein, soy is fairly comparable in its benefits to whey and casein protein powders in that it’s helpful with weight management and muscle health (though whey protein is still superior here), yet soy protein ($21, GNC) excels when it comes to heart health.
Pea Protein: In a 30-gram serving, you get around 27 grams protein, give or take depending on the brand. Made from split peas, pea protein ($15, Amazon) contains all of the essential amino acids, but is low in one—methionine.
The drawback to plant-based protein powders is that single ingredient ones are not always complete proteins, or if they are a complete proteins, they’re typically limited in one or two amino acids. This is one reason many plant protein powders are a combination of different plants—so that the overall amino acid profile is more balanced. Also: “plant-based protein powders are probably not your only source of protein, so it’s more than likely that you’ll get the other amino acids that you need from other meals during the day,” says Mohr. And thus, you’ll still reap the benefits of adding a protein powder to your diet.
How to Use Protein Powders
The simplest way to incorporate protein powders into your diet is with a smoothie or a shake. But think beyond the glass and try adding them to pancakes and waffles, baked goods, and even hot cereals like oatmeal.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
The government recommendation (called the Recommended Dietary Allowance) is 46 grams for women over age 14 and 56 grams for men over 19. Another common guideline is to eat 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (To determine your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. For example, a 200-pound person weighs 90.9 kilograms.) That guideline is based on generally healthy people who aren’t very physically active. Minimally active, moderately active, and intensely active individuals could increase to 1, 1.3, or 1.6 grams per kilogram respectively.
Related: Our Best High-Protein Vegan Recipes
Some experts suggest eating a little more protein than the 46- to 56-gram recommendation and being mindful of when you eat it. “What’s more important than the total amount of protein is when you eat it: spread it out throughout the day equally,” says Mohr. “For most people, that’s around 20 to 30 grams per meal. For men, aim towards the higher end, plus add in some protein-rich snacks. For women, the lower end of that range is fine.” Then, as Mohr explains, that’ll get you to about 60 to 90 grams of protein per day.
Spreading out your protein intake is helpful because how you metabolize protein is unique. We don’t store protein in our body like we do carbs or fat. “When you eat protein your body’s protein synthesis will peak over a couple hours and then declines. Because of that, it’s important to have a consistent intake of protein to provide your body with the tools that it needs to keep protein synthesis elevated throughout the day,” says Mohr.