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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 …
Types of Protein Powder
We’ll begin by looking at several types of protein that are marketed to women.
You may have heard that whey protein is the best type of protein powder for women.
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
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.
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.
Whey 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 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 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.