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Choosing the Right Protein Powder (whey vs. hemp vs. casein vs. plant based vs. brown rice vs. pea vs. others)

By EAT SMARTER
Updated on 18. Aug. 2016

Many people think that protein powders are made for large, greek-statuesque bodybuilders. That is not actually the case, protein powder is a great way to add extra protein to your day or recover after a workout. But how much protein should you really be getting, and what are the different types of protein powder available.

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Protein should come from a variety of whole food sources, but sometimes it is hard to get the recommended daily value from whole foods alone, especially for vegetarians and vegans. This is where protein powder may come in, but how much protein is actually enough? According to the FDA, the average adult should get 50 gram of protein per day based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. This number can vary depending on age, activity level, and various other factors. There are a number of tools which can be used to calculate your personal recommended intake, such as this one from the USDA.

Protein is a macronutrient that is needed for many essential body functions and processes. Macronutrients provide energy and are needed in larger quantities than micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Unlike carbohydrates and fat, the body does not store protein for use in-between meals, so we should be consuming it at all meals.

Protein is needed for our bodies to function properly, as it is a crucial part of the production of cells. It helps make hormones, enzymes, and other substances the body needs to stay healthy and happy. One of the main reasons many athletes make protein an important part of their workout is because protein helps to build and repair tissue, such as muscles. This means that the tiny tears that happen to your muscles from a workout are repaired more quickly and new muscle is developed. But, this does not mean that adding more protein is going to make you bulky.

When you walk through just about any grocery store you can find products with added protein or giant tubs of protein powder, so what are the different types of protein powder and how do you choose the one that is right for your needs?

Whey Protein:

Whey is a byproduct of cheesemaking and is the source of one of the most popular protein powders available today. Whey protein powder is inexpensive and is inexpensive, especially compared to some of the other powders on this list. There are a few different types of whey protein: whey protein isolate, whey protein hydrolysate and whey protein concentrate. Whey protein isolate and hydrolysate are known for having more protein per serving due to increased processing. Be sure to read the ingredients list on whey protein before purchases, because a lot of brands add sugar and flavorings to make the taste more appealing. Whey is a complete protein but is not suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or vegan.

Casein Protein:

Just like whey protein, casein protein is a byproduct of the dairy industry. Casein protein breaks down much slower than whey protein, making it a great choice for meal replacement or before bed consumption. This slow break-down makes casein protein not a great choice for post-workout protein shakes. Casein protein is more expensive than whey protein and is not suitable for people who are follow lactose-free or vegan diets. Casein protein is a complete protein and provides a good dose of glutamine, which gives our bodies a healthy immunity boost.

Hemp Protein:

Hemp protein is made from the superfood hemp seed and is one of the most expensive protein powders on the market. The high price tag is due to the restrictions set on growing hemp (aka cannabis). Hemp protein is a great choice for vegans and vegetarians because it is one of the only plant based complete proteins (it contains all 21 amino acids). Hemp protein also provides a good dose of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However, people who consume should pay attention to the calories it contains as well as the fat content.

Soy Protein:

Soy protein is one of the most popular protein powders for vegans and vegetarians, it is inexpensive and full of glutamine and arginine (both of which are important for healthy body function). Soy protein is good for both pre- and post-workout and helps to speed up the metabolism. It contains isoflavones, which can help reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease. Soy protein may cause hormone imbalances, so it is not the best as an exclusive protein source, but should be fine in small doses. Soy is a crop that is genetically modified (read about GMOs here [link to GMO article]), so keep an eye out for the GMO Free label on the package if that is important to you.

Pea Protein:

If you are concerned about drinking a protein powder that will taste like mushy peas, fear not, pea protein is made from split yellow peas and does not taste like the green vegetable some of us love while others just cannot stand. Pea protein is cholesterol free, however it is not a complete protein, so it needs to be combined with other protein sources to become complete. It is also low in cystine, an amino acids that is part of the formation of healthy hair, bones, and tissue.

Brown Rice:

Brown rice protein is another excellent source for those with dietary restrictions, as it has almost the same benefits as whey protein. Brown rice protein is also a good source of fiber, complex carbs and vitamin B, but it is deficient in the amino acid lysine which is an important protein building block. Brown rice is not a complete protein, and just like soy it is not commonly GMO free.

There are many protein powders available on the market today, so choosing the right one comes down to what your personal needs are. If you do not have any dietary restrictions and you are looking for a fast absorbing protein, whey is probably your best choice. If you are looking for something to keep you full and even work as a meal replacement casein protein powder is the right choice for you due to its slow breakdown.

If you are a vegan, vegetarian or you have dietary restrictions and you do not mind spending a little extra money on your protein, hemp is likely the best choice for you. If you want a plant based protein other than hemp, but do not want something that is not a complete protein, it is a good idea to look at protein blends. These are protein powders that are made from a variety of plant sources that come together to make a complete protein.

A few things to keep in mind when shopping for your protein powder: keep in mind your daily goal for protein intake, make sure you carefully read the labels and avoid powders that contain too many additives, and keep a look out for the GMO Free label. It is easy to overlook the amount of sugar that is in some protein powders, which can provide unwanted calories. If you get an unsweetened protein powder it is easy to add a little maple syrup or honey to your shake if you need a little sweetness, that way you can control how much and what type of sugar you are adding to your diet.


Remember, there are many protein powders on the shelves so do your research before buying to find out which one is best for you. And don’t think that you will start to look like a bodybuilder just by adding a bit more protein to your diet.

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