With all the options available to enhance your protein intake, it can feel a little overwhelming trying to figure out which protein powder is right for you. I get it! It can get a little confusing. And just when you think you finally have it all figured out, a new product comes on the market promising to be better than the last, and you’re left wondering “Now what? Should I replace what I’ve been using or add this to the mix too?” 

Well, let me help break down the role of each one and how they can support your body pre-, post-, or during a workout, or simply as daily support for better health in general.

Types of Protein Powder                             

Collagen

Collagen is said to be the “glue” that holds our bodies together. Collagen is the most abundant protein in our system, accounting for about one-third of its protein composition. It contributes to firm skin, supple joints, and strong bones, and reduces signs of aging. It also supports hair and nail growth, decreases musculoskeletal aches and pains, repairs fast-growing tissue like gut mucosa, skin, and gums, helps with recovery from physical activity, builds muscle mass, and aids with detoxification. 

There are four types of collagen:

Type I – Accounts for 90% of your body’s collagen and provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, fibrous cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth.

Type II – Is found in elastic cartilage, which cushions the joints.

Type III – Supports the structure of muscles, organs, and arteries.

Type IV Helps with filtration and is found in the layers of your skin.

Collagen

There are two collagen alternatives to choose from: bovine and marine. Bovine, aka beef collagen, contains type I and III collagen and is abundantly found in animal connective tissue, skin, bones, and cartilage. Having said that, if you’re a pescatarian or simply wish to reduce your red meat protein intake, then the marine, aka fish collagen, would be a more suitable option for you. It only contains type III collagen, however, which comes from either the skin, bones, or scales of fish.

Ideally, we would be getting doses of collagen from our diet, like bone broth, gelatin, eggs, codfish, and spirulina. The reality is, very rarely do we consume adequate amounts. That is why supplementing with a high-quality collagen supplement is a sure way to get ahead of the most common signs of aging like older-looking skin, thinner hair, brittle nails, stiff joints, and slower recovery from physical activity. And since collagen powder doesn’t have any flavour (unless it’s added), you can easily mix it into a variety of foods and drinks, like a protein shake, coffee or tea. Collagen doesn’t have to be taken at any specific time of day, but it is important to be taking it daily for optimal results. Here is my go-to whole body collagen supplement. 

Amino Acids (AAs): Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) vs Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) – What’s the difference?

Amino-Acids

BCAAs gained popularity in recent years among athletes specifically for muscle gain, recovery, and athletic performance. These 3 isolated BCAAs, valine, leucine, and isoleucine, were believed to offer a quick performance boost. But in reality, EAAs are the superstars of this picture. They offer all the benefits of BCAAs and then some. In fact, recent studies have revealed that taking BCAAs can actually be harmful to our health when taken in isolation and may actually cause an imbalance, slow the rate of muscle gain and even negatively impact our overall health.1 This imbalance causes your body to break down muscle tissue to free up EAAs and maintain homeostasis.

Another important factor to consider is that the breakdown, synthesis and utilization of BCAAs require B Vitamin cofactors.2 Using them in isolation may also tax your B vitamins reserve.

Before we dive in deeper, let me give you some background on AAs. 

AAs are the structural building blocks of protein. They help build muscles, organs, glands, ligaments, tendons, nails, hair, and bones. They also regulate dozens of processes in the body including sleep, digestion, metabolism, blood sugar, sexual function, immune system, hormone production, nitrogen balance, immune system regulation, ATP (energy) production, muscle protein synthesis, absorption of nutrients and minerals, proper functioning of neurotransmitters, and more… AAs fuel just about every process in your body.

There are 20 AAs in total, of which 9 are essential, hence the name Essential Amino Acids. 

What does the word “essential” mean in this scenario other than our body MUST have them? It basically means that our body cannot produce them so they must be consumed through diet (protein-rich foods like meat, fish, and eggs) or supplementation.

However, most people don’t get enough protein to consistently maintain muscular growth and our body doesn’t have the ability to store it either. Therefore, your protein must be replenished daily. The more you use up, the more you need. And since not all proteins are created equal, it’s not always easy to tell if we’re getting enough through our diet. This is where supplementing with EAAs could be beneficial, especially if you have a physically active lifestyle.

Each EAA plays a different role in supporting your health and performance, from building and repairing muscles, to balancing blood sugar levels, to producing growth hormones and managing sleep, appetite, mood, and so much more. 

Now, of the 9 EAAs, 3 are BCAAs. 

I know what you’re thinking. Since EAAs already include BCAAs, wouldn’t it be better to just supplement with EAAs altogether?

I’m glad you asked!

EAAs have all of the benefits of BCAAs—and then some. Studies show that EAAs are one of the best supplements available for enhancing athletic performance, recovery, and overall health. Some of the benefits EAAs provide that BCAAs do not include:

  • Helping to preserve muscle mass, decrease muscle damage and promote a healthy inflammatory response
  • Supporting faster recovery after training
  • Helping regulate your appetite
  • Promoting good sleep, and better cognition and mood
  • Improving metabolic health and blood sugar balancing

So, for this category, I think the choice is pretty clear, EAAs are the way to go. Here is my favourite one

Whey Protein

Whey-Protein

Grass-fed whey is considered best when it comes to protein supplements. Whey is the liquid that separates from the milk (20%) during cheese production, leaving behind the casein (80%).3 Whey is a high-quality protein source and is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 EAAs. It keeps you feeling full and satiated longer and is taken up by the body at a much faster rate than other proteins. It’s also easily digested and quickly absorbed by the body versus other types of proteins so if you’re looking to bulk up fast, this might be a good option for you. 

Due to whey’s bioactive peptides called lactokinins, it also helps to lower blood pressure in people who are at risk and effectively modulates blood-sugar levels, particularly in people with Type II diabetes. If you fall within this category, this protein may be the “whey” to go.

However, before you run out to get your whey protein powder, know that different forms of whey serve different functions. Let me elaborate.

Whey concentrate is the most widespread form of protein available. It’s minimally processed and normally has higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals and immune-boosting nutrients, especially if it’s sourced from grass-fed milk. Although it contains low levels of fat and cholesterol, which may be sought-after characteristics, bear in mind that it does have less protein than whey isolate. It also contains some traces of lactose, making it more difficult to digest than the isolate if you have dairy sensitivities.

Whey isolate has the highest biological value and is considered the number one choice. It contains a high level of leucine, a BCAA that triggers muscle protein synthesis, and promotes the formation of glutathione, your body’s most potent antioxidant and liver supporter. It also supports cardiovascular function and lowers blood pressure. You ideally want to consume isolate before, during or right after exercise so it can be quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. 

It’s important to mention, especially if you have a dairy sensitivity, that while whey does derive from cow dairy, it contains such a minute amount of lactose or casein after processing that most people will never experience any digestive discomfort after drinking it. In fact, research shows that our bodies can only effectively process the A-2 casein found only in Southern European cow milk versus the North American cow milk, which contains casein A-1, the type we cannot process as well. This can explain why some people have difficulty digesting dairy or but have no issues with it when they visit Europe.4

Here is my go-to whey protein

But how do these protein options compare to some of the plant-based protein powders out there?

There are several vegan options available including soy, pea, hemp, and brown rice. But as in many vegan food options, very few ingredients contain all 9 EAAs so we often have to combine a few different ingredients to ensure we get them all. 

Plant-Protein-Powders

Soy has received a bad rap in the past due to its high concentration of phytoestrogens and the fact that a large majority of all soy is genetically engineered. On the other hand, soy is one of the very few plant-based options to be considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 EAAs. It also contains arginine and glutamine to help with muscle strength and repair, fibre and phytonutrients, and has antioxidant and immune-enhancing properties. So if your estrogen levels pose no concern and you’re able to find organically sourced soy protein powder, it could be a very viable vegan option.  

Similar to soy, peas also have all 9 EAAs. Due to its hypoallergenic properties, pea protein powder is slowly gaining popularity among health-conscious consumers who are looking for plant-based and sustainable options. Some studies show it to be as effective as whey in terms of increasing muscle mass during resistance training5 and may also contribute to weight loss by slowing down digestion and promoting satiety.6 Pea protein powder is free of gluten, dairy or soy which makes it easy to digest and therefore is one of the best protein supplement options available.

Here is my go-to pea protein powder I use in my smoothies.

Hemp protein powder also stands out as one of the top plant-based options available for multiple reasons. In addition to having a flavourful nutty taste, being easy to digest, and containing all 9 EAAs, it also has a high fibre content to support digestive health and keep blood sugar under control.7 Not only that, hemp’s high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help manage your weight, reduce inflammation, and protect against neurodegenerative disorders.8 More research is needed to determine the exact amount of each EAAs in hemp.

Brown rice is one of the top nutrient-dense foods and packs a serious punch of crucial vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, calcium, and iron. The high fibre content makes brown rice protein powder ideal for helping with weight loss. High fibre could also be associated with lowering cholesterol levels and maintaining better blood sugar levels. Although brown rice offers many health benefits, it falls short of being a complete protein because it lacks the AA lysine. So combining it with another protein that contains lysine, such as collagen, would be a good workaround to ensure you’re getting the benefits of all EAAs. 

Protein Requirements

I’m sure by now you’re probably wondering “how much protein should I eat?” Because we’re all biologically individual, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. From a longevity point of view, maintaining muscle mass as we age is key. Unfortunately, as we age, keeping an optimal amount of muscle mass becomes difficult as we gradually begin losing skeletal muscle mass and function as early as in our 30s—also known as sarcopenia. Digestion slows down and the production of stomach acid and enzymes, responsible for breaking down the protein enough for our body to utilize it, starts to dwindle. Therefore, maintaining a good muscle mass as we age is essential, not only for muscle strength and integrity but also for maintaining healthy bones as bones need protein too to stay strong. So what is the latest on protein requirements? According to the Institute of Muscle-centric Medicine®, a general guideline is that an adult should consume about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. 9

It’s important to note that while protein is essential, eating more than what your body can absorb or need could become stressful on your organs, particularly the kidneys and liver. But if your organs are in good health and functioning well, then I highly recommend you obtain your protein from real food sources first such as red meat, fish, quinoa, legumes, nuts, and seeds, to name a few.  

Although there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to which protein powder is the best, it basically boils down to what’s the best option for you and working around your diet to ensure you’re getting the proper nutrition and in the right amount. I hope that I’ve helped demystify some of the differences between certain protein powders and that you feel better equipped to select the right one for you. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

Santé!

Dr. Nathalie

Specific References 

  1. Greenfield, B. The Secret Darling Of The Nutrition Supplements Industry & Why Ben Greenfield Has Changed His Mind On Amino Acids: Myths, Deception & Truth Of BCAAs vs. EAAs. https://bengreenfieldlife.com/article/supplements-articles/how-to-use-amino-acids/
  2. Parra, M., Stahl, S., & Hellmann, H. (2018). Vitamin B? and Its Role in Cell Metabolism and Physiology. Cells, 7(7), 84. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells7070084
  3. Davoodi, S. H., Shahbazi, R., Esmaeili, S., Sohrabvandi, S., Mortazavian, A., Jazayeri, S., & Taslimi, A. (2016). Health-Related Aspects of Milk Proteins. Iranian journal of pharmaceutical research : IJPR, 15(3), 573–591.
  4. Gundry, S. R., & Buehl, O. B. (2017). The plant paradox: the hidden dangers in “healthy” foods that cause disease and weight gain. New York, NY: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins.
  5. Babault, N., Païzis, C., Deley, G., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M. H., Lefranc-Millot, C., & Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1), 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5
  6. Overduin, J., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Wils, D., & Lambers, T. T. (2015). NUTRALYS(®) pea protein: characterization of in vitro gastric digestion and in vivo gastrointestinal peptide responses relevant to satiety. Food & nutrition research, 59, 25622. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v59.25622
  7. James W Anderson, Pat Baird, Richard H Davis, Jr, Stefanie Ferreri, Mary Knudtson, Ashraf Koraym, Valerie Waters, Christine L Williams, Health benefits of dietary fiber, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 67, Issue 4, 1 April 2009, Pages 188–205, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x
  8. Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S. A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 3(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.111.000893
  9. Dr. Lyon, G. The Lyon Protocol. www.drgabriellelyon.com 

General References:

  1. Jennings, M. K. S. (2020, May 5). Collagen — What Is It and What Is It Good For? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/collagen#what-it-does
  2. Bantilan Ms, R. C. D. (2019, November 7). What Is Bovine Collagen, and Does It Have Benefits? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/bovine-collagen#what-it-is
  3. Wolfe, R.R. Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 30 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9 
  4. Parra, M., Stahl, S., & Hellmann, H. (2018). Vitamin B? and Its Role in Cell Metabolism and Physiology. Cells, 7(7), 84. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells7070084
  5. Greenfield, B., EAAs Vs BCAAs: How To Choose The Best Amino Acid Supplement.  https://getkion.com/blogs/all/eaas-vs-bcaas  
  6. Arnarson, A., December 10, 2021. 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Whey Protein. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-health-benefits-of-whey-protein 
  7. Dr. Axe, August 27, 2018, Vegan Protein Powder: 4 Best Plant Proteins & How to Use Them.  https://draxe.com/nutrition/vegan-protein-powder/ 
  8. Dr. Axe, May 2, 2021, Pea Protein: The Non-Dairy Muscle Builder (that Also Boosts Heart Health). https://draxe.com/nutrition/pea-protein/ 
  9. Greenfield, B. The Ultimate Guide to Protein & Protein Powders, The Truth About Whey Protein Isolate, Protein Dosing/Timing Guide (& My Brand New Rich, Creamy, Delicious Clean Protein Smoothie Recipe). https://bengreenfieldlife.com/article/the-ultimate-guide-whey-protein/ 
  10. Greenfield, B. Why You’re Probably Eating More Protein Than You Need. https://bengreenfieldlife.com/article/how-much-protein-do-i-need/ 

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