Whether you’re trying to gain muscle, lose fat, or just get the nutrients you need on the go, protein powder can be a great addition to any healthy eating plan.
“Protein is an essential macronutrient that helps our body rebuild muscle, and is an important part of daily nutrition,” says Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C. “Protein powders are a quick way to help ensure that your body is nourished and satisfied.”
But which one is right for you? After all, the protein powder aisle is stacked with so many options: whey, casein, soy, pea, concentrates, isolates, grass-fed, and more flavor options than your taste buds probably even know what to do with.
It might (OK, definitely) feel confusing, but having all of these options is actually a good thing, says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., a consulting dietitian with Promix Nutrition and trainer at SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. It gives you the ability to pick a powder that’s formulated with your exact nutritional needs and fitness goals in mind.
Use this guide to figure out which protein powder will work best for you.
So You Want To…Recover From Workouts And Build Muscle
When it comes to packing on muscle, whey protein is your best option, says Cooney.
The “gold standard” of protein powder, whey comes from cow’s milk and contains all of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) your muscles need in order to repair and grow after your workouts, according to board-certified sports dietitian Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D. It also digests pretty quickly.
In fact, whey proteins “support easier digestion, increased muscle protein synthesis, and more efficient recovery,” adds Brittany Michels, M.S., R.D., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe.
You can find whey in multiple forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey Protein Concentrate
The least filtered of the bunch, whey protein concentrate contains slightly more carbohydrates and fat (and thus, calories) than the other forms. However, those extra carbs can help fuel your muscle before or after exercise, Matheny says. We love that True Athlete’s Natural Whey Protein contains 20 grams of protein per serving and is free of artificial colors and flavors.
Whey Protein Isolate
Isolate, meanwhile, is highly filtered to remove the vast majority of fat and carbs so nearly only protein remains. This makes it a good choice for people who have lactose intolerance, Deubst says. (Most lactose is removed in the filtering process.) It’s also your go-to if you want the most protein per calorie, says Cooney.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Lastly, hydrolysate is a form of isolate that has been partially broken down so it can be digested even more quickly and easily. It tends to be the most expensive option but comes in handy if you have trouble digesting isolate, according to Matheny. Optimum Nutrition’s Hydro Whey uses hydrolyzed whey protein isolates and contains 30 grams of protein per serving.
Some whey protein powders even combine multiple forms of the muscle-booster. Alani Nu’s Whey Protein, for example, contains both whey isolate and hydrolysate for a fast-acting, easily-digestible boost.
Hold the Whey
If you avoid animal products, of course milk-based proteins like whey won’t fit your lifestyle. Luckily, the plant protein scene is booming.
Soy protein has long been a popular option because it’s one of very few complete plant proteins. This means it contains all of the amino acids you need for muscle health and strength, Dubost says. (She recommends soy protein isolate over concentrate, as is contains higher levels of protein.)
That said, there are a few reasons some may choose to avoid soy. First, soy contains compounds with weak estrogen-like effects called isoflavones. (Worth noting, though: Research on their health impacts is a mixed bag). Plus, almost 100 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO, according to the USDA. Another no-go for some.
Soy-Free Plant Proteins
If you prefer a soy-free plant protein, you’ve got all sorts of options, from pea to hemp to brown rice to quinoa. You can also look for a protein powder made from a blend of different proteins. These blends ensure you get all of the amino acids you need. Cooney loves plnt brand Plant Protein, which is made from a blend of pea, cranberry seed, chia seed, and sacha inchi proteins. (It also contains iron, a nutrient not readily available in a plant-based diet.) Another of our top picks: Ambrosia Collective Planta Plant Protein, which offers a 2:1:1 BCCAA ratio and is made from brown rice and pea proteins.
So You Want To…Lose Weight
You’ll also want to opt for a protein powder with less than two grams of added sugar per serving, Cooney adds. Better yet, choose a tub without added sugar at all. “Removing sugary foods helps keep your insulin stable, so fewer calories get stored as fat,” she explains. The result: “Your metabolism speeds up and you can lose weight with less struggle.”
Whether you choose a plant-based or animal-based protein is up to you. One great plant-based option Cooney recommends: fitfactor Plant-Based Protein Shake. It provides 24 grams of protein and seven grams of fiber, plus garcinia cambogia, cinnamon bark extract, and green coffee bean extract. If you’re looking for something whey-based, though, Michels recommends Body Tech Elite Whey Isolate Ripped. This formulation contains l-carnitine, yerba mate, and green tea extract, and offers 30 grams of protein per serving.
So You Want To…Support Your Skin And Joints
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and plays a major role in our skin and joints. As our bodies age, though, they naturally produce less of it, explains Cooney. This can cause our skin to lose its elasticity and contribute to wrinkles, fine lines, dryness, and more. It also impacts our joint health.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to consume collagen? “Powdered hydrolyzed collagen peptides,” Cooney says. “In this form, the amino acids have been broken down so they’re easier for your body to digest.”
For well-rounded benefits, look for a multi-collagen powder. These options contain up to five types of collagen, providing more comprehensive support than single- or duo-type options, Michels says. Her go-to is The Vitamin Shoppe brand Multi-Source Collagen.
So You Want To…Boost Your Everyday Nutrition
Simply looking to round out your daily nutrition and make sure you meet your protein needs? A meal replacement powder comes in handy here.
“There is no right or wrong way to add more protein, but you can certainly boost overall nutrition by choosing one that includes additional nutrients,” Michels says. “Meal replacement powders are generally low in calories and provide not only protein but satiating fiber and a fruit and vegetable profile. They’re one of the most comprehensive options for everyday nutrition.”
Michels likes plnt brand Meal Replacement Plant Protein, which offers 17 grams of protein and five grams of fiber per serving.