What to Look for in a Protein Powder

Are protein powder supplements really necessary? The answer is — it depends! Many people believe protein powders and supplements are a poor meal replacement for real food. However, using a good quality supplement can have many benefits.

Research has investigated using protein supplements as a nutritional intervention to improve both metabolic conditions and body composition.

Supplements can be useful when we’re time poor or in times of recovery from illness, injury, or surgery — when our protein needs increase.

Benefits of Protein Supplements

  • Weight Management — loss or gain
  • Muscle Growth
  • Post-exercise Recovery
  • Food Challenges eg. Older adults, vegan’s, vegetarians, and people with chronic illness
  • Injury/Surgery Recovery

I often see female clients heavily restricting calories in an effort to lose weight, which can lead to low protein intake. This results in increased carbohydrate cravings, low energy, and poor food choices later in the day. In weight loss, supplemental protein can increase satiety (feeling of fullness) and the nutrition profile of an already healthy smoothie.

And for those wanting to increase muscle – a 2018 systematic review found protein supplementation significantly increased muscle strength and size during prolonged resistance training. The researchers also found that once protein intakes reached amounts greater than ~1.6 g/kg/day there was no additional benefit.

We usually recommend consuming protein within 30-45 minutes post exercise to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, improve recovery and enhance performance.

Not only is it a very personal choice with regards to flavour and texture, but also what you, as an individual, can tolerate.  Ideally, choose a high-quality unsweetened powder with only natural ingredients. Many contain unnecessary artificial flavours, sweeteners, and fillers.

Cautions: Limit protein for kidney disease — People with kidney disease can’t tolerate a lot of protein at one time. In this case, choose a protein powder that has a lower protein content (10-15 grams per serving).

Current research recommends consuming moderate doses (~20–25 g) of rapidly digested, leucine-rich protein to optimise muscle protein synthesis.

Nutrients Journal, 2018

Different Types of Protein

Whey protein is the most researched in terms of effects on muscle gain, weight loss, and wound healing.

Whey protein has been shown to increase nesfatin concentrations — a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus involved in the regulation of hunger and fat storage.  A recent 2019 study found that increasing levels of nesfatin in overweight women improved their resting metabolic rate and reduced fat around the trunk and upper body.

Most people can tolerate whey protein without an issue even if they’re intolerant to lactose. Whey isolates and concentrates are best to use after a workout.

Research has investigated individuals who train at night can benefit from protein supplementation. This may be due to whole-body protein balance being negative overnight during the period of fasting.

Whey contains all essential amino acids, especially leucine. The branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine activates a biological pathway that prompts muscle protein synthesis and helps build muscle.

Note: Free-range chicken, eggs, sustainable wild-caught fish, beans, lentils, and nuts are nutritious food sources of BCAAs. 

Soy protein is another common choice and somewhat controversial. It’s still unclear as to whether sex hormones are significantly affected by soy protein consumption. A recent clinical trial found that soy-based protein can be effectively incorporated into a calorie-restricted, high-protein diet for improving body composition and cardiometabolic health.

If you do choose soy, find one in isolate form that’s not genetically modified.

Rice protein is 100 percent plant-based and a good choice for vegetarians and vegans or for people who don’t consume dairy products.

Pea protein is suitable for vegetarians and vegans and highly digestible and hypoallergenic.

Hemp protein is also 100 percent plant-based. Another good option for vegetarians and vegans. It’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Getting the Most Out of Your Protein Powder

  • Post-exercise Recovery: an athlete or frequent exerciser can benefit from consuming protein within 60 minutes of a workout—particularly if your workout is 60 minutes in duration.
  • Weight Control: consuming protein at each meal gives a feeling of satiety & helps to reduce cravings.

Things you should look out for in a protein supplement:

Artificial Sweeteners

This is the most important one to avoid. The easiest thing to remember is the numbers you should always avoid: 900’s. Sweeteners used can be sucralose, Splenda (955), aspartame, Equal, NutraSweet, (951), and saccharin (954).

Side effects of these sweeteners include headaches, migraines, and gastric distress such as bloating, depression and weight gain. Definitely not what we are after!

Glucose, Fructose, and Dextrins

These additives are unnecessary and can cause bloating and gastrointestinal distress. They can also cause malabsorption issues and mineral loss.

Milk and Skim Milk Powders/solids

Milk and skim milk powders are often used in cheaper supplements as bulking agents. These powders are often high in lactose sugar (also known as milk sugar) causing bloating, gastrointestinal distress, constipation, and loose stools. Not fun…

Oils and Fats

Some powders will contain unnecessary fats and oils to improve the thickness, mouthfeel, and flavour.  These are often trans fats from hydrogenated sources and not the healthy fats we actually need.

TIP: Adding coconut or MCT oil instead to your smoothies will give you a good dose of heart and brain-healthy fat. 

Thickeners and Gums

Xanthan gum and guar gum are commonly used as thickening agents to create fullness; you will find these in many meal replacement shakes. The common side effects from these are gas, bloating, gastrointestinal distress and nausea. 

Try my Strawberry Dream Smoothie Recipe in the recipes section – YUM!


If you are eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet and not in intense training, protein powder is not essential. However, it can be beneficially incorporated into weight loss, recovery, and muscle growth plans.

At the end of the day, it’s important to vary your protein sources to get a variety of essential amino acids, through a healthy and balanced diet that’s rich in colourful, minimally processed, whole foods.