Whether you’re new to the gym or have been going for a while – if you are considering starting to take protein powders, I’ve found the amount of choice can feel overwhelming. To help with that, I have researched and collated this simplified guide to a few of the most popular types of protein powders on offer to help you make a more informed decision about which one to go for. If you have specific dietary requirements or allergies, always check the ingredients of protein powders before buying, or consult with your GP.
So, first of all, what do they do? Protein powders are an easy way to increase the amount of protein in your daily diet when mixed with a liquid of your choice, which can help to build muscle amongst other fitness and wellness goals. You should not rely solely on protein powders as a source of protein but should use them as a supplement alongside a balanced diet to reach a daily protein target if that is something that you are looking to do. This can also be useful for vegetarians or vegans who are restricted in their daily protein intake. For reference, if you are looking to build muscle mass and undergo regular exercise, you should aim to eat around 1.2-1.6g per kg of your weight per day. For example, if you weigh around 70kg and building muscle is a target for you, you should aim to eat around 84-115g of protein per day. This number is a general guide based on someone who exercises regularly, for sedentary adults this number is roughly 0.75g/kg.
Also, a quick note just to say that you can still successfully enjoy the gym or other forms of exercise without taking any protein powders or tracking how much protein you eat in a day. You can still build muscle from exercise without them, it just helps a bit. It’s not necessary to spend money on protein powders or be made to feel like you have to in order to be a certified gym goer. If it feels unnecessary to you, or like something you wouldn’t enjoy having to think about – don’t!
The science (briefly:)
Protein powders are derived from either animal or plant-based sources ranging from cow’s milk to peas and soy. When they are then processed, naturally occurring carbs, fats, minerals and fibre are usually removed and nutrients and often sweeteners are added.
Protein powders aid in a process called Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) which is the process of producing new muscle protein to maintain and build muscle. If you cast your mind back to GCSE biology, you might remember that protein is made up of amino acids. Leucine is a type of amino acid and is key in starting the muscle-building process. MPS occurs when you increase the amount of amino acids going to your muscles, stimulated by a higher protein intake combined with exercise. The higher the protein (amino acid) intake, the greater the chance of stimulating MPS with exercise, and the more likely you will be to build muscle.
Probably the most popular and cheapest protein powder on the market, whey protein is derived from cow’s milk making it unsuitable for vegans or people who are lactose intolerant. It is the simplest form of whey protein. It contains a high level of Leucine, making it ideal if building muscle is your main goal. Due to its consistency, most people would mix this with milk and make it into a thicker, typical protein shake-style drink although it could also be mixed with water.
Similar to whey concentrate, this is also derived from cow’s milk so again is not suitable for vegans. Isolate undergoes more processing than whey concentrate, reducing the fat and carbs content and slightly increasing the level of protein. It is also typically more expensive than whey concentrate. The filtering process also separates the protein from the lactose in the milk, however, it isn’t completely lactose-free. This means it is gentler on the stomach and has less of a chance of causing bloating. If you are lactose intolerant and considering whey isolate, I would advise checking with your GP or doing more research into the specific brand of whey isolate that you are interested in to check that they are safe. The consistency is the same as whey concentrate so is typically consumed in the same way.
Clear whey is similar to whey isolate in its protein content – the main difference is the texture. Instead of this being a thicker consistency, the powder is much thinner, so clear whey is mixed with water to make a more juice-like drink rather than a creamier shake. Think of it like adding squash to water, it flavours it without changing the texture. So, if the thought of a thick protein shake has been putting you off or if you fancy a lighter option – opt for this one. It is still derived from cow’s milk so isn’t vegan friendly but again contains lower lactose levels than whey concentrate. But, like whey isolate, it still isn’t completely lactose-free, so consult your GP if you are lactose intolerant.
There are also a range of vegan protein powders available. Instead of being derived from milk like whey protein, vegan protein is derived from peas, soy, beans and other plant-based sources of protein. They still contain leucine, meaning that gaining muscle is still possible even without high-protein foods as a part of an everyday diet. Pea protein powders have the highest leucine levels so if gaining muscle is your main goal, opt for a pea protein powder. There are vegan alternatives for both the thicker-textured powders as well as thinner clear powders to suit whichever style you prefer. Obviously, this isn’t derived from dairy so is safe if you are lactose intolerant.