Oxygen knows that there will come a time in your busy day when eating a chicken breast or hard-boiled egg just isn’t an option, yet you want to stay faithful to your diet and avoid the doughnut or fast food that’s calling to you. There are clean options — in the form of supplemental protein. And of course, protein shakes are a necessity around workouts. Here are a few of the best choices to have on hand for your next training session or diet emergency.
A fast-digesting version that offers about 25 grams of protein per average (30 gram) scoop
Whey powder can’t be beat when it comes to building lean muscle. As the most popular protein powder on the market, whey provides an ideal array and proportion of amino acids to assist with muscle recovery and growth, as well as enhancing fat loss. Derived from milk, whey is considered to be the fastest-digesting “complete” protein, which means that it contains all the essential building blocks of muscle (amino acids), including high amounts of the all-important group of branched-chain amino acids. BCAAs become depleted after exercise and are needed for the maintenance of muscle tissue. That’s why it is so often recommended to consume a protein shake that includes whey within minutes after a training session.
Bonus: Supports your body’s production of disease-fighting antioxidants.
Nutrition: Whey has several health benefits: lowering blood pressure (by dilating blood vessels), reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol and total cholesterol, and increasing the powerful antioxidant glutathione.
Top shelf: Whey isolates and whey concentrates. The concentrated version is the most economical. It contains some carbohydrate (lactose) and fat from milk. The isolate form has had more non-protein components partially removed, so it’s higher in protein than the concentrate. The isolate version has only about one-tenth of a gram of lactose per tablespoon. That amount of lactose is rarely a problem for someone who is lactose intolerant.
An animal-based protein source with no fat and approximately 22 to 26 grams of protein per scoop
Egg protein powder is typically made from dehydrated egg whites that are processed into a fine powder. It also undergoes a pasteurization process to prevent salmonella and inactivate their avidin protein. Egg whites contain a slew of aminos. Among those are the branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. These aminos — particularly leucine — are critical for driving muscle protein synthesis and therefore muscle growth. Egg protein is considered the most nearly perfect source of protein because its amino acid pattern most closely matches that needed for human growth.
Bonus: Egg-white protein is naturally devoid of carbs and fat. That means it bypasses a lot of the processing that other protein powders endure.
Nutrition: Egg-white protein is digested at a moderate rate, meaning it falls somewhere between very-fast-digesting whey and very-slow-digesting casein. This is likely why egg whites have been shown in clinical trials not only to boost protein synthesis but also to prevent muscle protein breakdown. Egg-white protein doesn’t contain lactose, so it is perfect for those who are lactose intolerant.
Top shelf: In searching for egg protein powder, look for products made with pure extracted egg albumen or ovalbumin, which is the most common protein in egg whites.
A slower-digesting protein that builds muscle while you sleep, with 15 to 20 grams of protein per average scoop
This complete milk protein provides a prolonged release of amino acids over time, which is important for keeping you full between meals, plus it reduces the muscle damage that can typically occur 48 hours postworkout. Casein may be beneficial before bed because the slow absorption will supply your body with protein through the night when it enters a catabolic state (breakdown of protein tissue for energy).
Bonus: Research shows that taking casein before, during and after exercise — or anytime, really — effectively supports muscle protein synthesis and also boosts endurance and strength gains.
Nutrition: Boosts immunity due to high amounts of glutamine.
Top shelf: Micellar casein. This is an unhydrolyzed form that retains the slow-release effect. Hydrolyzed casein (aka casein hydrolysate) is processed for speedier digestion, but that also increases the rate at which dietary amino acids are incorporated into skeletal muscle protein.
This type is easy on the stomach and offers 15 grams of protein per average scoop
As with all plant proteins (quinoa being the exception), rice protein is incomplete. It lacks one of the essential amino acids, lysine, which helps manage triglycerides (a form of body fat) and is necessary for hormone production and bone growth. You can solve this problem by pairing brown rice protein powder with milk or soy to fill the missing link.
Bonus: Some people may experience gas and bloating from animal-based powders such as whey and casein, but rice protein absorbs easily, making it very well tolerated if you’re lactose intolerant or if you have a sensitive stomach.
Nutrition: Brown rice protein is gluten free and a source of energy-boosting B vitamins.
Top shelf: Consider organic brands when purchasing plant protein powders to minimize your exposure to pesticides.
An animal-based protein source with no fat and approximately 20 to 23 grams of protein per scoop
There may be no better source of protein than a steak fresh off the grill. But sometimes your schedule calls for something faster or easier to swallow. Essentially, beef protein powders are beef with the fat and cholesterol removed. What remains is an array of amino acids, including the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine).
Bonus: Beef protein isolate has an amino acid profile comparable to standard whey protein powders.
Nutrition: Beef protein is an ideal alternative for those who must avoid lactose (present in small amounts in all milk proteins) because of allergies or intolerance. Beef protein isolate can be combined with other animal-based protein powders, such as egg, to form unique blends that are specific to your dietary goals and needs.
Top shelf: Look for hydrolyzed beef protein isolate. This type has been hydrolyzed or put through the process of hydrolysis. The result is that longer protein chains are broken into smaller peptide fragments; in essence, the protein has been predigested, which means faster digestion and absorption.
A popular vegetarian protein source, with 20 to 25 grams of protein per average scoop
Soy protein is something that even meat lovers should consider for overall health. And although sports research shows that soy results in inferior strength gains when compared to whey, the differences are minimal for a healthy woman.
Bonus: Some studies show that diets rich in isoflavones (compounds found in soy) have bone-sparing effects. Soy is well-known for being heart-healthy and for lowering cholesterol.
Nutrition: Asian populations with soy as a dietary cornerstone have historically had lower rates of cardiovascular disease, menopausal symptoms, breast cancer (and other hormone-dependent cancers), diabetes and obesity than Western populations.
Top shelf: Soy isolates. They contain more isoflavones and less fat or cholesterol than soy concentrates. (Until research clarifies the issue of estrogenic effects, many doctors recommend that women on hormone therapy or who have estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer minimize use of soy supplements because they contain high amounts of isoflavones. And although animal studies using extremely high doses of soy have shown hormone changes in males, a moderate amount of soy is unlikely to have any hormonal effects on men.)
At 15 grams per average scoop, this is another plant-based source of protein
Suitable for active people who avoid all foods of animal origin, hemp protein offers a good dose of the anti-inflammatory group of essential fatty acids, omega-3s, which aid in muscle recovery after your workouts. Hemp foods come from the same plant species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.), but from a special variety that contains virtually no THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which triggers marijuana’s psychoactive effects. As a result, if the protein powder comes from a reliable source, there should be no question about passing a drug test.
Bonus: Hemp protein powder can supply any diet with a vegetarian source of essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, chlorophyll and a complete, balanced gluten-free source of the essential amino acids.
Nutrition: Helps your heart by lowering cholesterol levels with fiber. The omega-3 fatty acids enhance memory, focus and concentration. Hemp’s cardio-protective properties can be attributed to its polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) content, specifically the omega-3s. Hemp seeds, which technically are classified as nuts, are composed of 25 percent protein and 30 percent oil, more than three-quarters of which are PUFAs.
Top shelf: Look for a product that supplies at least 50 percent protein by weight.