When it comes to convenience, nothing beats a scoop or two of protein powder blended with some fruit, greens, almond milk and ice for a quick and healthy meal or snack. For anyone living the typical ‘on the go’ lifestyle, protein powder seems to be a godsend for athletes, dieters, or just about anyone who wants to make a healthy choice but has little time for meal prep or cooking. And while protein powder boasts convenience, if you are anything like me, you have probably also wondered if the convenience factor of protein powder and bars is somehow overshadowing the possible negatives that might come with relying on these hyped-up products on a regular basis.
Almost every canister of protein powder you see makes some type of compelling claims. Everything from, low calorie and low glycemic to high ORAC values (a measure of antioxidant capacity), probiotics, and even hypo-allergenicity. But is it really just all good stuff in there, or does something you don’t want get added to protein powders in the processing?
I often recommend protein smoothies as a way of getting a balanced meal and a serving of greens (depending on the recipe) and I have received many questions both online and in person regarding the best and healthiest brands of protein powder. This motivated me to buy many different varieties available in both health food and standard grocery stores. In this post, I will give a basic explanation of why we need protein, share my research and opinions on the healthiest options, and offer a few tips on what you should look for and what to avoid when shopping for protein powder.
What is Protein
Protein is a macronutrient (macronutrients are necessary for growth, metabolism and other functions of the body) that is broken down into amino acids when digested. Amino acids are “the building blocks of life” and the body needs a variety of them to function properly. Some amino acids must come from our diet – these are the essential amino acids and some the body can make for itself (most of the time) – these are non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids – the body can’t manufacture, and thus we must consume in our diets.
Non-Essential amino acids – amino acids the body can make for itself (most of the time).
Why Do We Need Protein
As mentioned, proteins are broken down into amino acids to produce things like enzymes, hormones, antibodies and more, they are the building block of the cell and help to transport substances and make repairs throughout our body. The presence of amino acids in our blood plasma also causes an increase in hormones that aid in controlling body fat stores and improve use of fatty acids for energy production. When you consume protein after a workout, it facilitates recovery by providing the tools the body needs for cellular repair and restoration.
How Much Protein Do We Need
From Precision Nutrition:
- Basic protein intake: 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 g per pound) of body mass in untrained, generally healthy adults.
- Athletic high intensity training: 1.4-2.0 g/kg (or around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of body mass.
While there are some naysayers to the idea that protein is vital to maintaining a lean physique, there is a growing body of research that indicates the consumption of protein also helps you maintain a healthy body composition, strong immune system and healthy metabolism while also promoting satiety.
Please also note that macronutrient ratios and food choices often need to be adjusted based on individual need. The goal is to start with what works for most people (see above), record what you are doing so you can make sure you are compliant and then make adjustments as needed.
Main Types of Protein Powder
- Whey is a complete, dairy-based protein shown to be easily absorbed and utilized by the body, especially post workout.
- Popular options include “hydrolyzed” “isolate”, neither of which seem to be necessary to get the benefits of whey protein. “Hydrolyzed” means the product has broken down to improve digestion. “Isolate” means the protein has gone through a purification process.
- Attention should be paid to the source and processing of the whey – as this process is not regulated by the FDA.
- Avoid pasteurized dairy sources and artificial sweeteners.
- Choose whey from organic grass-fed dairy.
- Whey and casein are diary based proteins so avoid if you have a dairy allergy.
- Soybeans contain all of your essential amino acids (referred to as a complete protein)
- Soy protein performs comparably to whey protein as a workout recovery drink.
- Soy isoflavones can potentially interact with hormones like estrogen and potentially skew hormone levels when taken in excess. For men, specifically, the fear is that increased soy intake could reduce testosterone levels. However, research suggests that the effect of this isn’t always a a huge concern unless you are ingesting large amounts of soy.
- There is quite a lot of research being done on the potential negatives of soy but I find this research to vary quite a bit so it is hard to say for sure whether one should avoid soy or that we don’t need to worry.
- Some of the above mentioned negatives are:
- most soy available in the USA is often genetically modified.
- soy is high in phytic acid which can prevent absorption of important minerals.
- the processing of soy to create soy protein powder could render the proteins ineffective.
- I personally avoid soy and I do not use soy protein powder because of the GMO and phytic acid research claims but I remain optimistic about soy products and if I have a little tofu now and then I am OK with it.
Vegan Protein Powder Blend
Plant-based proteins are fantastic because they eliminate potential allergens and are often made from organic ingredients by reputable companies that (one must hope) are concerned with creating high quality ingredients that are processed correctly. Sources of vegetarian protein are commonly derived from peas, hemp and brown rice.
The down-side of one single type of vegetarian protein is that most are incomplete proteins, meaning it will not contain the all essential amino acids the body needs to function properly. Vegan protein powder blends solve this issue by providing a complete array of the essential amino acids in vegetarian form. The result is a gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free supplement that can nutritionally stand up against animal-based products, without users having to worry about amino acid deficiencies, allergens, or stomach upsets.
Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Protein Powder
- What is the source of protein? (vegan, whey, egg, etc)
- Is it a complete protein? (you need to make sure you have a source of essential amino acids in your diet)
- Is the serving size appropriate for my purposes? (a reasonable serving that doesn’t ruin the taste of a smoothie should give 16-20 grams)
- Is there any sugar or an artificial sweetener in my protein powder? (if so, am I ok with that? – most of the time the answer to that is no)
- Is this protein certified by a governing body or quality control company? (supplements are not regulated by the FDA so you should feel good about the standards of the company you are buying protein powder from)
- What type of potential toxins may be in this? (many powders have dies, or other harmful contaminants that we will cover in the next section)
- Is the taste tolerable enough that you will eat this? (healthy protein often tastes like junk! I have a vegan protein and a whey version because I sometimes don’t finish the smoothies made with the vegan protein because of the taste)
This is the number one criteria because, well, if it’s doesn’t taste good, you won’t drink it! If you’re adding fruits like bananas and berries to your shake, save yourself some grams of sugar or artificial flavors and get a plain neutral-tasting powder. However if you prefer to just add water or some type of milk, go for a product that has fruity flavor from natural fruit extracts. Some companies will ship you free samples if you request them on their website, or you can buy single-serve packets instead of investing in the whole canister if you’re not sure about the taste. Which brings us to the next important criteria…
What does the Nutrition Facts Panel say? Are you getting straight protein or are you mistakenly looking at a meal replacement that has carbs and fat as well. Is there sugar in it? An artificial sweetener? How much protein is in one serving?
This is big one, and there are three main things to consider when looking at the ingredient list:
1) Is it organic? You don’t want any pesticide residues adding to your toxic load. Non-GMO and organic would even better. 2) Is it plant-based? Legume, hemp and grain-based products are naturally more hypoallergenic, taking care of the finally criteria.
3) Is it allergen-free? Milk/casein/lactose, gluten/wheat, soy, eggs and nuts are among the top allergens that people react to without even knowing it. If your protein powder is causing digestive upset, ezcema, or even brain fog, it’s not worth it.
You’ve heard of mercury as a heavy metal we need to be wary of when choosing fish. And who could forget the arsenic scare in brown rice? Protein powders are also at-risk for contamination with neurotoxins like cadmium, arsenic and lead. Consumer Reports did testing on some popular protein powders and found that several brands, including Muscle Milk, Myoplex, Designer Whey and GNC, all had traces of these dangerous elements.
The top five picks I’ve listed are clear of heavy metals (at least from what I know) and contain no refined sugar. FYI Certain flavors of Terra’s whey does contain stevia.
||Grams of Protein per /Source
(milk, gluten,soy, eggs, nuts)
||good, but contains stevia
||yes, and non-GMO
||no – made from milk
||20 grams Organic Hemp, Chia, Quinoa plus the highest quality Organic Pea 100% grown
||yes, and non-GMO
|Garden of Life Raw
||17 grams/Blend of Sprouted grains, legumes and seeds
||yes, and non-GMO
Protein Product Brand Awareness
From Consumer reports
“The results showed a considerable range, but levels in three products were of particular concern because consuming three servings a day could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by USP.”
The article goes into detail about the heavy metals in our environment and how they can accumulate in the body. My advice – don’t read the article. DISTURBING to say the least.
Meet your daily protein requirements through a balanced diet combined with a organic grass fed whey or a vegan blend is with an emphasis on real food protein sources as much as possible. Try using protein powder or a bar no more than once per day.
All About Protein
Protein Powder Reviews
Research On Why You Should Avoid Soy
Banana and Blueberry smoothie summer breakfast with vanilla sticks.
I often have clients tell me how I’d be so proud of them because they whipped up a delicious smoothie for breakfast. When I ask what they put in their smoothie, I hear things like – “bananas, strawberries, yogurt, orange juice and milk.”
Here’s the problem with most peoples smoothies…
The ingredients. Yes, the ingredients I mentioned -the ones almost everyone uses to make a “healthy” smoothie…are all “healthy”… but a common oversight people have is that combinations like this leads to a meal or snack that is very high in sugar.
Smoothies made with lots of fruit and combined with juice and or sweetened yogurt often contain little to no protein or fat (ratio-wise) and will cause a spike in your blood sugar and a release of the insulin hormone which will then result in unwanted fat storage, energy crashes and perpetuates sugar cravings. You see, fruits are great and high in antioxidants and vitamins, but they are also sweet (especially fruit juice!) and rich in fructose (fruit sugar), so having too much fruit and combining it with sweetened yogurt or juice can cause blood sugar issues and insulin sensitivity just the way a bagel or donut might!
You might be surprised to know that one of the most common ingredients in smoothies that spikes overall sugar content is yogurt?! I’ll explain more by pasting an email conversation I had with a client (see below).
What do you think of this for my breakfast shake?
- small apple
- small banana or half a large (frozen)
- 1 container of Activia vanilla yogurt (the small one)
- 1/2 teas cinnamon
- Almond milk and ice to a good consistency.
If using 3/4 cup almond milk, check out the break downs of each listed:
The one on the right is using Activia (4 oz.), the one on the left is replacing Activia(4 oz.) with protein powder. Why do this? As you will learn going forward, creating balance within meals is a key to having balanced blood sugar, reduced fat storage, satiation and more even energy levels. It is also important for active people to get enough protein. The one on the right is really high (ratio-wise) in carbs and especially sugar. Replacing the Activia reduces sugar by almost half, reduces overall carbs and increases protein. Try it and see how it tastes.
If you’re a smoothie lover and making them regularly, you don’t have to give them up or choke down disgusting tasting “chopped up salad” that tastes “like it was scraped off the top of a pond” lol. Just be sure to take a look at the overall sugar content in your smoothie…start minimizing sugary ingredients and balancing with protein powder and healthy fats.
In fact, start to minimize sugar in general. If you’re eating too much fruit, find yourself snacking on treats everyday or snooping around the kitchen after 10pm looking for a sweet fix, that’s a sign that your blood sugar is imbalanced and it is probably sabotaging your progress.
Interested in more information about balanced nutrition? Email me to receive the FREE 10 Day Fitness Reset program that sparked the conversation above!
Clean Eating Sweet Potato Cakes
– 1 pound peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
– 2 tablespoons healthy oil (I used coconut but you can also use olive or even organic butter)
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– 2 eggs (1 egg if using whole wheat pastry flour)
– 1 cup coconut flour (or 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour) + more for kneading
– oil for cooking
– salt and pepper to taste.
– Put your potatoes in a large pot of water and boil until soft.
– Drain the water and mash in the oil and salt.
– When the mashed potatoes are still warm (NOT hot!), quickly stir in the eggs.
– Add the flour and stir until you have dough.
– Turn the dough out onto a work surface, and gently knead by hand, adding flour as you go. Remember, this is very soft dough. You want to add enough flour to keep it from sticking to everything, but not so much that flour is all you taste when you eat them.
– Press or roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness.
– Using a small glass or round cookie cutter, cut out circles and place in a skillet with warmed oil.
– Cook on low to medium heat until brown on both sides. They will burn quickly if the heat is too high. Take your time.
– Serve with maple syrup or savory toppings such as salt or raw cheese. [Credit: The GraciousPantry.com]
Tuscan Kale Spaghetti Squash Lasagna Bake
– 2 x 3-4 pound spaghetti squash
– 1-2 tablespoons sunflower oil, divided
– 1/4 cup minced shallot
– 4 teaspoons minced garlic
– 2 x 15oz cans cannellini beans, drained + rinsed
– 1 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes, not oil-packed
– 10 cups ribboned Tuscan/dino/lacinato kale, stems removed ~2 med. bunches
– 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh oregano,
– 1 large egg
– 15oz full-fat ricotta cheese
– 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
– sea salt + pepper
– 3 slices gluten-free bread, I used Udi’s
– 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
– 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly chopped oregano
– Preheat your oven to 400° F.
– Slice spaghetti squash lengthwise and scrape out seeds. Drizzle with oil, a sprinkle of salt + pepper and then rub in. Line 1-2 baking sheets with parchment paper and place squash cut side down. Bake for about 35-40 minutes until just tender enough that you can scrape the squash into strands. You don’t want it fully cooked since it will be baked again.
– While cooking, place bread in a blender or food processor and grind into breadcrumbs. Toast on a pan in the oven [top rack is fine] for about 6-8 minutes. Remove and let cool fully, then toss with oregano and parmesan.
– Flip the cooked squash halves over and let cool for 15 minutes [longer is fine].
– While cooling, heat a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add 2 teaspoons of oil. Once hot, add the shallot and let cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add garlic with 1 teaspoon of oil and stir frequently for about 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned. Preheat oven to 350° F.
– Raise the pan heat to medium. Add white beans and a hefty sprinkle of salt + pepper. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in sun-dried tomatoes and let cook for about 2 minutes. Stir in kale and oregano. Let cook for 1-2 minutes until just starting to wilt. Remove mixture from the heat.
– Scrape about 90% of the spaghetti squash into a large mixing bowl, leaving some attached to each shell. Empty the kale mixture over the squash and combine. Add salt and pepper until seasoned to your liking.
– Whisk the egg in a small mixing bowl. Mix in the ricotta, parmesan, a pinch of salt, and about 1/4 teaspoon black pepper until. Empty over the squash mixture and toss with your hands to evenly distribute. Scoop 1/4 of the mixture into each squash shell. Do not pack in. Bake for 25 minutes, until the top layer is a lightly crisped and brown.
– Sprinkle with toasted breadcrumb mixture and bake for another 5-8 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly, then serve.
Having a salad is often a persons attempt at having a healthy meal. I mean…the majority of ingredients are usually vegetables (unless you are eating a “salad fat” approach to dieting) so it’s hard not to assume it’s healthy. I think having a salad is a great start to making healthy choices but you should know that salads are not always as healthy as their persona implies. Below you will find five reasons why salads could be making you “salad fat”.
- Bacon bits, chopped up whole yolk eggs,
- Croutons and other crunchy things
- Iceberg lettuce
Need I say more?
You might be thinking…ok I get the dressing part, I get the cheese part, I get the bacon & egg part…but HOLD UP…I do not understand how croutons and iceberg lettuce translate into me being “salad fat”! Looking at the nutritional value of iceberg lettuce and croutons and combining it with simple human psychology can give you a hint. First, neither croutons or iceberg lettuce have much to offer in terms of nutritious value or fiber content so they don’t satiate you and they do very little to fuel your cells. Second, and this is where the psychology comes in…if you assume what you’ve eaten earlier in the day was healthy you are more likely to “cheat” a little with meals later in the day. Not to mention that since you are still hungry because of the low nutrient and fiber content in your iceberg lettuce salad, guess what types of food choices you are more likely to make later in the day? You guessed it! You are more likely to overeat and make unhealthy choices if you’ve had a “healthy salad” that barely supplied your stomach or your nutrient starved cells with what they need to feel satisfied.
Don’t believe me? Check out this Caesar salad breakdown…
1. Iceberg lettuce
- Upside: low cal
- Downside: low nutrient value, low fiber content, not filling, no taste
2. Parmesan cheese
- Upside: tasty
- Downside: saturated fat & salt content
- Upside: crunchy
- Downside: very little nutritional value as a carbohydrate, often disregarded as calories even when entire salad is covered with them
4. Anchovies (for those who eat them)
- Upside: great source of omega-3, some protein
- Downside: very salty and only semi-appetizing
- Upside: healthwise- none, but it does add taste to iceberg
- Downside: high in saturated fat & usually made with trans fats which are very bad for you
As you can see, what seems like a healthy option – caesar salad, can be sort of a trick. With its low % of protein, low quality carbohydrates, and high salt and saturated fat content what seems like a delicious salad is more like a saturated fat delivery system! This can also be true of other types of salads when generous amounts of cheese, dressing & things like bacon bits are used on them.
If iceberg lettuce and croutons are all that is available, try to improve the overall profile of the salad (caesar or any other) by adding a chicken breast, using 1/2 the dressing, using vinegar and oil or balsamic as a substitute for cream based dressing, and avoiding croutons. This doesn’t make it a perfect meal but it improves the overall profile tremendously.
Do you ever wonder why you can’t stay away from junk food? I mean…what is it that makes it so irresistible? It’s definitely not the nutritional value I can tell you that. In fact, the more junk food you eat, the more likely you are to feel lethargic and unmotivated. Even though most of us know what the ramifications of junk food overload are, we still eat the stuff! WHY? What is the allure with these foods and how do you get it under control?
First, there is something you need to know. Junk food is addictive. When I say addictive I mean that we can develop “dependency-like” behaviors towards food based on how their chemical make up impacts the receptors and hormonal responses in the brain and body.
The main content in most junk food can be divided into three main groups: salt, sugar and fat which can all be “addictive” especially when artificial versions of these are used in the right combinations. In addition to these three main ingredients, food additives such as preservatives, food coloring, and artificial flavorings can also have negative influences on your health.