Monthly Archives: October 2017

Benefits of Protein Powder

Even mentioning the words protein powder can stir up heated debates among doctors, nutritionists, athletes, vegan/vegetarians, and everyone in between.

Protein powder, some say, is a magic bullet that can help you look like this if you’re a man …

benefits of protein powder

Or this if you’re a woman:

best protein shake for women

In this article, I’ll dispel the myths and misconceptions … and break down the latest and greatest science of protein powder. I’ll  answer your most common questions I get on the topic, such as:

  • What exactly is protein powder
  • How is it made?
  • How much protein do you need?
  • Do you really need a protein powder supplement to lose weight and/or gain muscle?
  • How/when should you consume protein powders for optimal health?
  • What are the benefits and risks of various types of protein powder sources?
  • How do you choose the best one for you?

Without further ado, let us begin …

What Is Protein and Protein Powder?

Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids (the building blocks of life). Protein helps build, maintain, and replace the tissues in your body. Your muscles, organs, and immune system are made up mostly of protein.

Protein powder is a powdered form of protein (duh).

What Happens When You Eat Protein

When you eat protein, your stomach uses its acid and enzymes to break it down into those “building blocks” we talked about (amino acids).

what are bcaasThe most important of the amino acids for building lean muscle and losing fat are called BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids.

Together, the three BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue. Here’s a brief overview of each: 

  1. Leucine is a branched chain amino acid that helps your body synthesize protein.
  2. Isoleucine is a BCAA that can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
  3. Valine is the least important BCAA for body composition (it’s also the least-studied).

Protein powders can come from plant or animal sources, each having a different make-up of amino acids.

Different Types of Protein Powders (and Their Benefits and Risks)

There’s some intriguing science about the most common types of protein powder sources that we’ll explore a bit further …

Whey Protein

whey protein powder safetyAs mentioned, whey protein has been studied more than any other protein powder. A quick search of “whey protein powder” on PubMed brings up close to 400 studies to date.

While you can certainly find studies like this one that showed no link between whey protein and body composition, the overall body of evidence seems to suggest that whey works for building muscle. 

A meta analysis (a review of a group of studies) published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at 14 clinical studies including a total of 626 adults and concluded that whey protein powder has favorable effects on body composition (and is even more effective when combined with resistance training).

However, there are some side effects associated with whey protein, particularly for those with sensitivities and allergies to dairy.

And one study found that high protein diets from animal-based sources may lead to kidney disease. The researchers cautioned against eating too much protein from animal sources like whey.

Casein Protein

Casein is a slower digesting form of milk-based protein. Casein is often marketed as a “superior” protein source.

However, one study showed that casein did not have any noticeable differences on body composition, strength, and power and agility compared to whey.

Casein has a few major flaws as a protein source too. This study found that it promotes the growth of prostate cancer cells.  And since it’s milk-based, it’s probably not a good choice if you’re sensitive to dairy.

Brown Rice Protein

brown rice protein woman weight lossRice protein is a plant-based protein powder used by vegans, vegetarians, and people who can’t tolerate dairy products like whey and casein. In one study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found that rice protein had similar effects on body composition as whey.

In other words, there was no difference between the group of subjects that took rice protein and the one that took whey protein; both experienced positive body composition changes.

One of the main complaints you’ll hear about rice protein is it’s high in potentially toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.

While it’s true consuming high amounts of some of these metals can lead to negative health effects, heavy metals are in all plants that grow in soil. Here’s a quote from Jon Barron’s well researched article on the topic:

In summary, don’t have a knee jerk reaction to the label “heavy metals.” (Both calcium and iron are technically heavy metals.) Yes, obviously, when it comes to “toxic” heavy metals, less is better than more. But the issue is far more nuanced than a simple label–or even numbers on a chart for that matter. You have to factor in whether or not the element actually has any “proven” toxicity (tungsten has no demonstrated toxicity), whether it’s organic or inorganic (organic arsenic is virtually ignored by the body), and whether it’s bound or unbound (bound cadmium has only 2-6% absorbability).

Yes, many plant-based protein powders have tested high for heavy metals.

That’s why it’s up to you as the consumer to ask the manufacturer of your protein powder what their heavy metal contents are, especially if they use rice protein (if they won’t share those numbers, it’s a big red flag).

And choose a rice protein from organic brown rice to avoid ingesting potential chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Pea Protein

organic pea protein benefitsPea protein is another popular plant-based source of protein. It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in vegetarian / vegan / dairy free powders for several reasons:

  1. It’s generally lower in heavy metals than rice protein.
  2. It’s a “complete” protein source that contains an impressive BCAA profile.
  3. Pea protein powder is among the most hypoallergenic of all protein powders, as it contains no gluten or dairy.
  4. It’s easy on the gut and doesn’t cause bloating, a common side effect of many other protein powders from animal sources.
  5. It has been shown in small studies to have similar effects to whey protein on body composition.
  6. Pea protein has a PDCAA (digestible indispensable amino acid score) of .89 (whey is 1). When combined with rice, hemp, and/or soy in certain combinations, you can get this number on par with whey!

While pea protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or soy, it is a promising protein source for those looking for alternatives to dairy proteins. Again, organic pea protein is always a safer choice because you’re ingesting less pesticides.

Soy Protein

Soy protein is another popular plant-based protein powder. Most men should avoid it because it contains isoflavones and phytoestrogens that share similarities with estrogen.

It’s often extracted using hexane, a petroleum-based solvent … and most soy from comes from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans.

However, according to several studies, soy protein may have body composition benefits for older women.

One study showed that a daily supplement of soy protein prevented increases in subcutaneous and total abdominal fat in older women. Another showed soy protein had a mild effect on body composition in elderly women.

One caveat: whey has been shown to be more effective than soy for improving lean body mass when combined with resistance training. So if lean body mass is your goal, you may want to consider other protein sources than soy if you’re using a protein powder.

How Is Protein Powder Made?

Protein powder processing methods depends on the type of protein and the company making it.

Whey Protein Processing

how is whey protein madeMost commercial whey protein powders are made using a high-heat, acid-flushed, “ion exchange” process to separate the whey from the cow’s milk. This can strip away vital nutrients, creating an imbalanced, acidic “whey isolate” that’s then contaminated with synthetic additives, flavors, and chemicals to make it taste like something resembling food.

So why do companies use it?

Because processing protein with acids is cheaper, of course.

If you decide a whey protein supplement is best for you, I recommend choosing one that’s organic, from grass-fed cows, and raw or cold processed.

Ask the manufacturer how it’s made before you buy it and spend a few bucks more on an acid-free, organic product … it’s worth it.

What if you can’t tolerate milk-based products or prefer plant-based proteins though? How are those processed?

Plant Protein Processing

Many of the supposedly-healthy plant proteins used in supplements and packaged foods today are processed using hexane, a petroleum-based neurotoxin. Using hexane is an efficient and highly profitable way for food manufacturers to remove oil from plants and separate the protein.

If you decide a plant protein powder is a better option for you, look for plant-based protein powders that are cold processed and “enzymatically sprouted,” which means all-natural enzymes are used rather than chemicals to separate the protein from the plant.

Also, sprouting grains used in plant-based powders (e.g., rice, pea, amaranth) increases many of the plants’ key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain sensitivities.

Who Should Take Protein Powder?

best protein for womanProtein powder is most commonly associated with athletes and people who are active … but it may be beneficial to everyday Joes and Janes too if you’re not getting enough protein (more on that in a minute). Here are a few reasons why:

  1. For healthy adults, low protein diets can lead to weight gain and increased fat mass.
  2. Eating more protein can help increase levels of the hormone glucagon, which helps control body fat.
  3. Eating protein can help strengthen bones as you age.

So How Much Protein Do You Need?

It depends on several factors:

  1. How much muscle you currently have. The more muscular you are, the more amino acids your body needs to maintain your current body composition. If you don’t know your body composition and want to make real, measurable improvements to your health, go see a personal trainer who offers body composition analysis so you can get a “baseline” of where you’re currently at.
  2. Your activity level. The more you move, the more protein your body needs.
  3. Your age. The older you get, the more protein your body needs to maintain its muscle.
  4. Your hormones. If your body has high levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), it will use protein more efficiently than someone with low levels. These hormones decrease as you age, which is one of the reasons why older adults need more protein.

So back to the original question: how much protein do you need?

The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.

However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).

It’s not necessarily optimal.

Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).

does protein powder workIn a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers compared muscle development in three groups of athletes on the same exercise routine but with different protein intake levels.

One group was given 1.4g/kg of body weight, the second group received 1.8g/kg of body weight, and the third group got 2.0g/kg of body weight.

The researchers found that 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition in athletes.

Non-athletes and particularly older adults need at least 0.8 g/kg per day to help preserve current levels of muscle (or “lean body”) mass.

So to recap:

  • Athletes need at least 1.8 g/kg of bodyweight [For a 150-pound person, that’s 122 grams of protein per day].
  • Older adults and non-athletes need at least 0.8 g/kg of bodyweight [For a 150-pound person, that’s 54 grams of protein per day].

When Should I Take Protein–Before or After a Workout?

If your goal is to lose body fat and increase lean body mass (muscle), then the answer is both.

In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers concluded the following:

High-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g

That’s 27-34 grams of protein both before and after a workout for a 150-pound adult.

Couple other interesting things the study authors noted:

  1. Despite claims that you need to take protein immediately (within 1 hour) after a workout to maximize gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive.
  2. Even minimal-to-moderate pre-exercise high-quality protein taken immediately before resistance training is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-exercise period. In other words, eating protein before your workout may have more impact.

Long story short, eat a little protein before and after a workout if building muscle and/or losing body fat is your goal.

What is the Best Protein Powder?

“Best” is an ambiguous term. The best protein supplement for you depends on your age, your health goals, and a number of other factors.

Here are a few common things to consider:

  • What protein powders get absorbed by your body best?
  • What are the benefits and risks of all the ingredients in your protein powder?
  • What protein powders do not cause digestive distress (gas, bloating, etc.) when you take them?
  • What type of protein is best for your unique health needs (losing muscle, building fat, etc.)?

For me personally, I choose packaged products with only organic ingredients I can pronounce … that have no/low sugar and have some dietary fiber.

As you can see, choosing a protein powder is a highly personal decision though.

For most people, the potential benefits of protein powder outweigh the risks if your diet is lacking in protein and/or you want to improve your body composition.

Grab Our Free Protein Guide Here

The Best All Natural Protein Powder for Women

best protein powder for women[If you want the PDF version of this post for later reading, download it here].

I must admit I had some trepidation when writing this post. That’s because:

a) I’m a man who sells a protein powder, and

b) There is no single best protein powder for women.

Stay with me though …

Because there are certain objective criteria you can look at and questions you can ask to evaluate protein powders to find the best one for you (whether you’re a woman or a man).

In this post I’ll share those insights with you.

Plus, I’ll show you supposedly all-natural ingredients to avoid based on my 15+ years as a science writer/researcher in the health and wellness industry and founder of my own small nutrition company.

Let’s get going …

Compare 20+ of the best all natural protein powders by ingredients, nutrition, cost, and more.

Types of Protein Powder

We’ll begin by looking at several types of protein that are marketed to women.

Whey Protein

You may have heard that whey protein is the best type of protein powder for women.

It’s not. 

Here’s why …

Whey is derived from dairy (it was a waste product of cheese-making before supplement companies realized they could process it and sell it).

According to the National Institutes of Health, 65 percent of adults have a reduced ability to digest dairy (this is called lactose intolerance).

Lactose intolerance can cause any number of the following:

  • Bloating and gas
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Imbalance of gut bacteria (which promotes dysbiosis of the gut)
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

Aside from these inflammatory responses lactose intolerance leads to, whey is also hyper-insulinogenic. This means your body secretes a lot of insulin when you eat it. Hyperinsulinemia is associated with hypertension, obesity, dyslipidemia, and glucose intolerance (collectively known as metabolic syndrome).

Can whey protein help if you’re a woman looking to gain lean body mass (or “muscle mass”)? It appears so.

But the potential side effects outweigh the benefits, in my opinion.

Plant-based Proteins

Soy Protein

While there are studies that show soy might have some benefits for older women such as lowering cholesterol, easing menopausal symptoms, and reducing risk of breast cancer, other research casts doubt on these findings.

A report published by the DHHS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Effects of Soy on Health Outcomes, concluded that there was “little evidence to support a beneficial role of soy and soy isoflavones in bone health, cancer, reproductive health, neurocognitive function, and other health parameters.”

Perhaps most alarmingly for women, soy may stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

Also, most non-organic soy protein is derived from GMO crops.

Rice Protein

brown rice protein woman weight lossWhey protein is commonly thought of as a superior protein source for women looking to improve body composition (lose fat, increase muscle) compared to plant-based protein powders.

However, when one group of researchers studied whey vs. rice protein head to head, they found that both whey and rice offered similar post-exercise body composition benefits … there were no statistically significant differences between the two groups.

Another study found that leucine, the key amino acid to activate muscle building, was absorbed faster from rice protein than leucine from whey protein. The study also found that amino acids in brown rice protein are highly bioavailable and are non-statistically different from whey protein in trained athletes, despite claims from whey proponents claiming superior digestibility and “bioavailability.”

However, certain brands of rice protein have tested high for heavy metals like arsenic, which has made rice protein the source of much debate as well.

If you’re going to use a rice protein powder, make sure you ask the manufacturer for the heavy metal counts.

Finally, rice protein may be more beneficial when combined with other plant sources

Pea Protein

best protein powder for women Pea protein is one of the best plant-based sources of protein if you’re looking to replace body fat with lean muscle. It may also help you:

Lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decrease your risk of heart disease and kidney disease.

Pea protein has an impressive amino acid profile that may be complementary with other plant-based sources like rice and hemp.

Hemp Protein

hemp protein fiber muscleHemp protein is generally made of about 50% protein and 50% fiber. Because of this, some critics knock it as a protein source.

But hemp is one of the only vegan protein sources that contains all nine essential amino acids.

And hemp protein provides the essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a well balanced 3:1 ratio.

Consuming hemp is safe, healthy and legal (no, it won’t get you high). On top of that, hemp protein powder may help improve heart health, decrease osteoporosis risk, reduce sugar cravings and boost your immune system.

When combined with other plant proteins it offers a powerful plant-based complement.

Other Plant Proteins

There are plenty of other plant-based protein sources on the market (pumpkin seed, sacha inchi, flax, chia, barley, and algae, to name a few).

Not many of them have been studied in humans yet though.

This doesn’t make them bad options. Just stick with ones that are a) organic and b) processed using low heat methods (otherwise, vital nutrients can get destroyed).

What’s the Best Protein Powder for Weight Loss?

Any protein powder can help you lose weight as long as you create a calorie deficit.

Unfortunately, many of the protein products out there are marketed as weight loss supplements with “all-natural ingredients.” I’ll talk about the latter point in a minute, but the truth is, there’s no such thing as a “weight loss protein powder”.

There’s evidence that eating a high protein, plant-based diet is one of the best ways to lose weight. Supplement companies use this data to their advantage.

Check out this report from the National Institutes of Health for more info about common ingredients touted for their weight loss benefits (spoiler alert: most don’t have a strong body of evidence to support their supposed efficacy).

There are actually certain ingredients protein powder manufacturers put in their products that may do more harm than good for some women … even though they’re marketed as all natural and clean.

Here are a few, in particular, to think twice about …

Protein Powder Ingredients Women Should Avoid

Red Flag Ingredient #1: Sugar 

I’ve reviewed many protein powders that contain 10 grams or more of added sugar per serving.

That’s roughly half a day’s worth if you’re a woman and a third of a day’s worth if you’re a man.

Sugar is one of the biggest causes of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Doesn’t matter if it comes from all-natural honey or highly-processed high fructose corn syrup … they produce the same metabolic responses in your body.

And artificial sweeteners like sucralose and sugar alcohols like xylitol may be worse.

Red Flag Ingredient #2: Flavors

The FDA allows food companies to use the term “natural flavors” to describe any food additive that originated in nature. They’re now the 4th most common ingredient on food labels.

In a fascinating 2011 interview that aired on 60 Minutes, scientists from Givaudan, one of the largest companies in the $24 billion flavor market, admitted their number one goal when creating flavors was to make them addictive!

One of my biggest beefs with these “flavors” is protein powder manufacturers don’t have to tell you what’s in them.

David Andrews, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has this to say about so-called “natural” flavors:

The truth is that when you see the word “flavor” on a food label, you have almost no clue what chemicals may have been added to the food under the umbrella of this vague term. For people who have uncommon food allergies or are on restricted diets, this can be a serious concern. [Natural flavors] will often have some solvent and preservatives—and that makes up 80 to 90 percent of the volume. In the end product, it’s a small amount, but it still has artificial ingredients.

Here’s my final red flag …

Red Flag Ingredient #3: Fillers, Gums, Emulsifiers

We talked about potential allergens and additives in flavors. But there some other common ingredients to be wary of when you see them on the ingredients list of protein powders. Food manufacturers love these fillers because they have unique properties that add desirable texture and/or shelf life to processed foods.

But they may come at a price: many have been shown to cause digestive distress and gut imbalances and/or raise your glycemic load, which can lead to a whole other set of issues.

  • Gums (xanthan, locust bean, arabic, carrageenan, guar, carob, etc.)
  • Lecithins (soy and sunflower)
  • Dextrins (maltodextrin and rice dextrin)

If you’re using a protein powder that doesn’t have organic ingredients, there’s a high likelihood all of those plant-based ingredients are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals.

If you’re in the dark about how these pesticides can impact your health, read what scientists have to say.

Summary: What’s the Best All Natural Protein Powder for Women?

Let’s not sugarcoat it: most women humans buy nutritional supplements like protein powders because they want to look better and/or feel better.

But what if looking and feeling better comes with a price?

Many protein powders have ingredients that cause inflammation, change your gut flora, raise your blood sugar, or worse.

Even most of the ones marketed as “all natural” have some type of highly-processed pseudo-food like gums, fillers, and other additives.

Most of them are deemed safe for consumption by the FDA … but “natural” has quickly become an ambiguous and over-marketed term in the protein powder business.

At the end of the day, all-natural comes down to the ingredients: are they real food as close to their natural state as possible or are they pseudo-foods that contains fillers, additives, and other junk?

In most cases it’s the latter, unfortunately.

The best protein powder for you depends largely on your health and fitness goals. Are you trying to lose body fat? Gain muscle mass? Eat cleaner, more natural foods?

In my opinion, the potential price you’ll pay down the road is not worth the risk when it comes to protein powders that contain these types of ingredients.

Click here to get my spreadsheet comparing 20+ protein powders/shakes by ingredients, nutrition, cost, and more.