If you’re shopping for a protein powder, the options can seem endless: There are plant-based and animal-based blends; powders with additional ingredients such as fruits and vegetables; and as many flavors as you’d find on Starbucks secret menu. But finding the best fit for you doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. We spoke to registered dietitians with sports nutrition backgrounds to get the inside scoop (pun intended) on how to find the right protein powder.
Do you really need protein powder?
Protein is a vital macronutrient that helps support our immune systems and build and repair muscle, Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, a board-certified sports dietitian and owner of Kelly Jones Nutrition and Student Athlete Nutrition, says to SELF. So while it’s true that you need to consume enough, should you do it in tub form?
“In a perfect world, we would get all the nutrients we need each day, including protein, just from whole foods,” says Jones. But in the real world, you may not always have time to shop for and prepare high-protein meals and snacks, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan eating style. That’s where a protein powder can come in—it’s a convenient way to get more of this crucial macronutrient into your daily diet.
If you’re not sure how much protein you really need, the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Keep in mind that that’s the average minimum to prevent deficiency: If you’re an active person, you might want to aim for around 1.4 to 2 grams per kilogram, says Jones. Plenty of protein is particularly important if you exercise a lot, especially if you lift weights, because it helps repair small tears in your muscles after intense workouts.
If you do the math and realize you’re not getting enough, adding a protein powder to your routine could help. You may also consider consulting your doctor or a registered dietitian to get a better idea of your individual nutritional needs.
What to look for in a high-quality protein powder
When you start shopping for protein powders, the first step is to choose between animal-based powders like whey or plant-based varieties. One isn’t inherently better than the other, but there are some key differences to consider.
Whey is considered the gold standard for protein supplementation by most registered dietitians, Angie Asche, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performancehe tells himself. That’s partly because whey is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine amino acids your body needs to function. It’s also generally easy to absorb and digest, as long as you don’t have a dairy allergy, Asche says.
If you’re vegan, dairy intolerant, or prefer to eat fewer animal-based foods, a plant-based protein powder that uses peas, beans, soy, and brown rice as main ingredients is a great alternative to whey. Just keep in mind that certain plant protein sources are considered incomplete, says Asche. That’s why many plant-based powders combine multiple protein sources, which can create a well-rounded profile (think: peas and rice).
What to avoid in a protein powder
For the most part, what you leave out may depend on your own preferences—this writer, for example, won’t go anywhere near six feet of a birthday cake-flavored protein powder because of its overly sweet taste. But there are some ingredients that experts suggest taking a closer look at before you buy.