Picture this: you’re able to hit blend on a delicious combo of fruit, yogurt, and a handful of spinach when you pause and wonder…do I need more protein? As you’re continuing your journey of healthy eating, and a healthy relationship with eating, you may be wondering which protein is better for you: whey protein vs. plant-based protein…or do you even need them at all?
In this blog post, I’ll walk you through why you might choose to use a protein powder, which one might be a better fit for you, and when you might skip protein powders altogether.
As always, nutrition is highly individualized and there is no perfect answer to suit everyone. Get ready for a protein-packed blog post!
Why do we need protein at all?
Let's channel our inner Bill Nye and do a tiny science lesson about protein. That way, when we are talking about whey and plant-based protein shakes, the info will make more sense. Grab your imaginary lab coat and let’s go!
Protein is one of three macronutrients. The other two are carbohydrates and fat. Our body prefers to use carbohydrates and fat for energy and to use protein to build and repair. Muscles may be the first thing that comes to mind, but our bodies actually are building and repairing things with protein every single day, whether or not you are pumping iron at the gym.
What kinds of things are we building with protein?
We use protein to build new cells each day, including red blood cells, new skin cells, and constantly renewing the lining of the gut. (Did you know that we replace the lining of our intestine every few days? Kind of cool!)
Proteins are big giant molecules that are made up of individual teeny tiny amino acids. There are eleven amino acids that we can make and nine that we can’t; we need to eat them so that they’re available for our daily building projects. The nine amino acids that we cannot make are called essential amino acids.
Proteins that have all of the essential amino acids that we need are called “complete proteins”. We can also eat a variety of “incomplete proteins” throughout the day and easily get all of the essential amino acids that we need in total (hey there, beans and rice!). We don’t need to micromanage this too much, we just need to eat a variety of foods throughout the week.
(More on food combining in general, right here: Why Food Combining Charts Are B.S.)
While I don’t like to talk too much about numbers with nutrition as that can be triggering for folks recovering from disordered eating, I’ll offer a range here for protein. Protein recs are generally based on how much someone weighs and their activity level.
For someone weighing 150 pounds, they might need 60 to 110 grams of protein in a day; the lower range for sedentary folks, the higher range for strength training athletes.
There are a lot of foods that are rich in protein - let’s review those nice and quick before we talk about the protein powders.
We get protein from a whole lotta different foods. These include:
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, and cheese)
- Soy (tofu, edamame, and tempeh)
- Beans and lentils
In smaller amounts, we also get protein from grains, such as wheat, rice, and barley as well as some veggies, like broccoli.
Okay friends - now that we’re in the know about what protein does for our body and where we find it in our regular diet, let’s shake things up with our protein shakes.
The most common protein powder? Whey protein.
Whey protein powders
Whey protein comes from cow’s milk. It is a “complete” protein – meaning it has all of the essential amino acids – and is generally well-tolerated, i.e., no big bellyaches after drinking it. The exception might be if you have lactose intolerance - whey protein might be a no-go for you.
Whey is separated from milk as it is turned into cheese; whey is a byproduct of this process that is being upcycled. The protein powder is enjoyed by enthusiasts and anyone looking for a convenient high-protein option.
There are a few options for what it means to be a plant-based protein powder (and in case you’re curious, “plant-based” is not a regulated term: food brands can pop that term onto any packaging that they wish).
Plant-based proteins include:
- Pea protein
- Hemp protein
- Soy protein
- Brown rice powder
Many plant-based protein powders work well for people with allergies or other dietary restrictions; plant-based protein powders can be gluten-free as well; be sure to check the label if that is something you need.
Other protein powders
Whey and plant-based protein powders don’t even run the full gamut of protein powders available: you can also consider:
- Collagen powder (A type of protein powder made from connective tissue, skin, tendon, bone, and cartilage of animals that doesn't include all essential amino acids but has become popular in the wellness space.)
- Casein powder (the other main protein in milk)
- Cricket protein powder (this is NOT an April fool’s joke)
There are enough options to make your eyeballs spin faster than your exercise bike…but can we just get the nutrition we need from our foods? What is special about protein powders?
What is in protein powder?
The nutrients in whey and plant-based protein powders vary quite a bit.
Since there are different types of protein powders and different brands, there isn’t a concrete answer here. In general, we can digest and absorb animal proteins more easily than plant-based proteins.
How much protein is in protein powders?
In general, whey protein powders have 20 or more grams of protein per serving, generally “one scoop”. But keep in mind that a “scoop” is not a standard measurement, companies get to pick how big their scoop is for their powders. So, more protein per serving might just mean a bigger scoop (not to mention, a higher cost per serving).
Pea protein powder can have 15-30 grams of protein per serving, depending on the brand and the size of their scoop. Pea protein powder can be combined with brown rice protein to optimize the amino acid profile – just like having beans and rice for dinner.
Soy protein powders can have 15-20 grams of protein per serving, also depending on the brand and serving size.
Beyond the protein, some protein powders are sweetened and so they may provide some carbohydrates, including sugars, too. Some protein powders have other “filler” ingredients to help smooth out the texture or to make their product taste better.
The calories will vary widely depending on the type of protein being used, the size of that brand’s scoop and what other ingredients are added to the mixture. It also matters what the company declares “one serving” to be.
Benefits of a protein powder
For some people, a protein powder – whether it is whey protein or a plant-based choice – may be a convenient refueling choice.
Boosts overall protein intake
Having protein powder may fill gaps if you’re not having quite enough protein. This can improve your body’s ability to repair and grow muscles after a good workout. It does not mean that more protein, beyond what you actually need in a day, is better.
We like to picture the protein from our shakes marching directly to our biceps, but it doesn’t really work that way.
Our muscle size and tone are dependent on our genetics, physical activity, gender, and more. We can’t simply plump up our muscles by adding more and more protein to the shaker bottle.
When we have meals that are lower in protein or fat, we tend to get hungry more quickly. Having protein with meals and snacks helps us to feel satisfied for longer.
Understanding that our food choices influence how we feel is an example of gentle nutrition: remember that we are optimizing our meals to feel good instead of counting grams of protein because a diet or trainer at the gym said that you should.
For more on gentle nutrition, and how it fits into the bigger picture of becoming an Intuitive Eater, click here: Getting Started With Gentle Nutrition.
Improves muscle recovery
Having protein shortly after an intense workout can improve your muscle gain and reduce soreness. For many folks, a protein shake is a convenient way to optimize nutrition. However, it is just as reasonable to have a turkey sandwich (and will probably cost less).
When comparing pea protein and whey protein in a study group of people who were doing strength training exercise, the muscle growth was better for the people taking a protein supplement as compared to no additional protein. But, it didn't actually matter if it was pea protein or whey; the benefits were the same.
(Psst: if you wanna know more deets on intuitive eating while working out, check out this podcast episode: How to Intuitively Fuel a Workout.
So…do I need protein powder?
Protein powders can have a reputation of being magical elixirs, with the ability to boost your biceps, promising fat loss, and maybe even repair your gut…it can make it seem like you have to have protein powders to achieve your goals.
The truth is: you don’t. Protein powders are a tool. They might be helpful, but they might not be the only way to do things.
Consider your purpose
With Intuitive Eating, your intention around an eating choice matters.
If you’re using a protein powder to nourish your body quickly and conveniently, they might be a great choice, assuming that you find a powder that you like the taste of, and that fits in your grocery budget.
But, if you’re using protein powder to seek weight loss or to follow a structured eating plan (aka a diet), then you’re not following Intuitive Eating.
Your intention around your choices is kind of like when your partner says the right words but uses a pain-in-the-butt tone of voice. It isn’t just what they said, it is how they said it.
(Psst: new to Intuitive Eating? Visit this post next: What Is Intuitive Eating? A Beginner’s Guide)
Consider the cost
When you compare the cost of a protein powder to the cost of eating a high-protein food, such as chicken, beans, or walnuts - the protein powder may cost more. Like, a lot more.
A rough estimate is that protein powders will cost about $1.50 per serving and provide about 20 grams of protein.
You could also buy a dozen eggs for about that much and you’d get 7 grams of protein per egg (at a cost of 21 cents) or 84 grams of protein for the whole dozen. If you scrambled three eggs, you’d get 21 grams of protein for a cost of 37 cents.
Obviously, the exact prices will vary depending on where you live and which protein powder you use, but this quick comparison of cost.
Consider safety: 3rd party testing
How do you know what is really in your protein powder? Unfortunately, there have been issues of contamination in protein powders.
To boost safety, consider buying a protein powder that has been verified for quality by a 3rd party. 3rd party testing of supplements, including protein powders, checks that the contents actually match what is printed on the label and the supplement is free of contaminants such as lead, mold, or a banned substance (such as a pharmaceutical drug).
If you’re not sure if your supplement is legit, I recommend doing a background check using a 3rd party site. A few good examples are LabDoor, Informed Choice and NSF. Labdoor, for example, will send a sample of each product to an FDA-registered laboratory for a detailed chemical analysis, which includes measurements of active ingredients and potential contaminants.
Is whey protein or plant-based protein right for me?
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to explore if using protein powder is a good fit for you.
- What is my intention for using protein powder?
- Do I like how things taste with protein powder in them?
- Does protein powder fit into my budget?
- Does using protein powder simplify my decision-making around eating?
- Does using protein powder allow me to feel more full and satisfied?
- Can I skip protein powder without feeling guilty?
If your answers point you towards a yes - great!
It’s super important to understand the WHY behind your food choices. Are you following bogus diet culture food rules that tell you something pumped with protein powder is “healthier” or are you just eating (or in this case using a protein powder) in an actually healthy and nourishing way? To help you find out I’ve got a super quick quiz you take take to help you find out if you’ve got harmful food rules or if you’re just eating healthy. Click here to take the quiz!
The next section includes some recipes that I love that are boosted with a protein powder to increase satiety after eating. If you are using protein powders, I recommend getting one that fits into your budget, you enjoy the taste of and feel good about after consuming: no need to stomach a stomach ache for the sake of increased protein.
And if your answers lead you to a “no protein powder for me” option - also great! You can be a healthy and satisfied Intuitive Eater without protein powder. You can also have protein powders on certain days and not others; the best answer is the one that you enjoy and keeps your muscles strong.
In either case, fueling for your next Peloton ride or hike is more than just protein. If you’re ready to learn more, I have a podcast episode for you to check out, that’s all about How to Intuitively Fuel a Workout [feat. Katie Spada, RD].
Ways to use protein powder
If you have decided that using protein powder is a good fit for you, you may like to see some ideas beyond the shaker bottle. Here are a few of my favorite protein-enhanced recipes.
And sometimes, the way to higher protein is about choosing one ingredient from the grocery store over another, like which box of pasta you pick. Let’s cover those options next!
Swaps for higher protein
You can also make some ingredient swaps so that your meals are higher in protein, without a protein powder.
For example, my 4-Ingredient Pumpkin Protein Pasta recipe uses bean-based pasta instead of wheat, and Greek yogurt instead of cream. The resulting recipes still taste great (to me!) and keep my belly feeling full for longer.
Hot tip: higher protein does not mean “healthier” or “better”, it just means that eating things with a little more protein might keep you feeling full for longer than something with less protein. But if the protein-enriched versions don't taste as good to you, it might not be worth it. Remember that food is allowed to add enjoyment to our days.
Key takeaways: whey protein vs. plant-based protein
As an intuitive eater, you are learning that as with most things in food and nutrition, a protein powder is just a tool. It isn’t “good” or “bad”, it is just an option in your toolbox. What can make a specific food a productive fit for your day is how you use it.
Check your intention before you scoop: am I using the tool to lose weight or because I think I have to have a protein shake? Better step away from the scoop and shake it off friend, that’s diet culture running her dang mouth.
Or, am I using the protein powder as a simple way to refuel with less decision fatigue? Shake it up, baby, and enjoy your shake.
Intuitive Eating empowers you to find the eating choices that fuel your body without the constraints of a diet. Talk about a gold medal choice!
If you’re not sure if you’re using protein powder in a non-diet-y way or not be sure to take this quiz to find out if you’re just eating healthy or if you’ve got harmful food rules that need to be broken!
Need more guidance? Be sure to check out my YouTube channel for more tips to help in your intuitive eating journey!
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