Members of the SWEAT Community often have queries about protein supplements, including questions about what kinds of protein powders they should use to get the best results.
Most women can meet their daily nutritional requirements with a balanced diet that includes regular portions of high protein foods. However, when you are short on time, a protein shake may be a convenient way to meet your nutrition targets.
So you can make an informed choice when choosing whether to include a protein powder in your eating plan, here is some information on the different types of protein supplements.
- What are the different types of protein powders?
- Dairy-based protein powders
- Plant-based protein powders
- How much protein do I actually need?
- Should I take a protein powder supplement?
What are the different types of protein powders?
Protein powders can be derived from dairy, eggs, rice, soy beans or peas. While most women will meet their protein requirements by eating a wide range of whole foods, these supplements may be used to help you to reach your daily macronutrient targets if your daily protein intake is insufficient.
Here are some of the differences between some popular types of protein powders.
Dairy and egg protein
These widely available protein supplements are derived from eggs, milk and cheese.
Whey protein powder
Whey protein is the most commonly used protein powder. It has several advantages: it’s easily soluble in water and it is a complete protein, containing all of the nine essential amino acids required for protein synthesis and muscle repair.
Whey protein is also quickly and easily digested and absorbed, helping you to feel satiated quickly.
Most health food or supplement stores will have several different types of whey protein available.
Whey protein concentrate (WPC)
Whey protein concentrate contains around 70-80% protein, along with some lactose (the sugar found in milk) and fat. Most people prefer the taste of WPC over other types of whey protein.
Whey protein isolate (WPI)
Whey protein isolate contains around 90% protein, with less lactose and fat than whey protein concentrate.
Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH)
WPH or hydrolyzed whey is a pre-digested form of whey protein. It contains around 99% protein, and dissolves much faster in water than whey protein. This type of protein powder tends to taste quite bitter, even when mixed with other ingredients.
Casein protein powder
Casein protein is digested and absorbed more slowly than whey protein. It isn’t as water-soluble as whey protein but it will keep you satiated for longer. This supplement can be used to aid muscle recovery overnight, when daily protein needs aren’t being met in meals and snacks.
Egg protein powder
Egg-white protein powders are a lactose-free option that generally contain around 80% protein, including all nine essential amino acids.
In 2012, a small eight-week study of female athletes by the Tokyo University of Agriculture, Japan, compared supplementing egg white protein to an equivalent amount of carbohydrate. While there was a change in blood biochemistry, there was no difference in body composition or muscle strength between women — both groups saw an increase in fat-free mass and 1RM (a measure of muscle strength for a single lift) during the eight weeks.
More research is needed to show if supplementing with egg white protein powder has a beneficial outcome on muscle recovery and training goals.
Collagen protein powder
This type of protein powder isn’t as effective as whey, casein or egg protein powders for the purpose of muscle growth and recovery. However it can help to support joint health, digestion and skin elasticity.
If you’ve been training for a while, you may have heard of branch-chain amino acids or BCAAs. This supplement isn’t a complete protein powder. It contains the three amino acids that can’t be produced by the body: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The powder is generally very bitter, and is used either before or after a workout to promote muscle growth and recovery.
A 2019 study led by the University of Sydney, Australia, found that long-term elevation of BCAAs in mice leads to obesity, overeating and reduced lifespan. More research is needed to confirm the long-term effects of elevated BCAAs in humans resulting from excess protein consumption. However, there is a strong correlation between high levels of BCAAs and obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Plant-based protein powders
For women looking to build muscle on a plant-based diet, there are protein powders made from plants that you may consider.
Soy protein powder
Suitable for vegans, soy protein makes a great plant-based alternative to whey protein as it also contains all the essential amino acids. It’s also low in fat and carbohydrates, but doesn’t dissolve as easily in water as whey protein.
Pea protein powder
While pea protein powder contains all nine essential amino acids, it’s low in methionine — this can be overcome by combining pea protein powder with protein powder made from brown rice.
Pea protein powder is also rich in iron, an important nutrient for women to consider.
Rice protein powder
Protein powder made from brown rice contains all of the essential amino acids, but it is low in leucine. This can be overcome by combining it with pea protein powder, or with a healthy eating plan that supports your fitness goals.
Hemp protein powder
Hemp protein is a plant protein that is easy to digest. While it isn’t a complete protein source it does contain seven of the essential amino acids, as well as omega-3 fatty acids that are important for overall health.
How much protein do you actually need?
To gain lean muscle and recover effectively from your workouts, you need around 1.6g of protein per kilogram (that’s 0.73g per pound) of bodyweight, per day.
A 2018 systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression, led by McMaster University, Canada, found that protein supplementation in conjunction with resistance training above 1.6g per kg has no further impact on muscle strength or size.
When it comes to fueling your body, more protein isn’t necessarily better. Consistently exceeding your daily protein requirements can have undesirable effects, including putting stress on your kidneys, dehydration or disruption of the digestive system.
Once you’ve been training for a while and your body has adapted, you can decrease your protein intake to approximately 1.2g per kg.
When you aren’t doing resistance training, you still need around 0.8g of protein per kg (or 0.36g per pound) to stay healthy.
Should I take a protein supplement?
Most women, even those who are training hard, can meet all of their protein requirements for muscle recovery by including regular portions of high-quality protein in their daily meals.
A 2015 systematic review conducted by the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found that for untrained participants, taking a protein powder supplement in the initial weeks of resistance training, had no effect on muscle strength or lean muscle mass.
As training duration, frequency and volume increases, a protein supplement may promote increase in muscle size, strength, endurance and power.
In 2020, the Harvard School of Medicine advises that protein supplements are a processed food that may contain additives, sugars, flavours and other chemicals. Further, protein supplements aren’t regulated in most countries, which means that the claims on the label are the manufacturers’ claims — safety and labelling of the products isn’t monitored and any claims are not generally independently verified.
A 2018 study by a non-profit group called the “Clean Label Project” found that protein powders can also contain other contaminants that contribute to adverse health outcomes.
According to a 2019 literature review by the Louisville School of Medicine in the US, protein supplementation should be a short-term solution to meet training demands, and should not replace long-term healthy eating habits.
How to use a protein powder for post-workout recovery
If you choose a protein supplement for convenience, opt for one that has a complete profile to ensure that you get the most nutritional benefit.
When using protein powder directly after training to aid muscle recovery, it will be most effective when taken with a carbohydrate source. You might choose a supplement that contains carbohydrate, eat a piece of fruit or mix the protein powder with milk.
Remember, refueling after your training isn’t just about eating protein for muscle repair. To aid muscle recovery, your body also needs to rehydrate by drinking water and refuel carbohydrate stores. That’s why for most people, eating a healthy snack or your next meal is the best way to refuel after a workout!
A protein supplement can help to make up a dietary deficit
A healthy, balanced diet will provide enough protein for your training and muscle recovery. However, if you follow a vegan diet or combine resistance training with heavy endurance training, you may find it harder to meet your protein needs each day.
If you are unsure if you are meeting your protein needs, a sports dietician or nutritionist can assess your daily intake and provide a recommendation on the best way for you to adjust your meals and snacks to optimal nutrition.