Whether you’re an avid gym goer, someone looking to improve their metabolism, or just an average Joe looking to feel fuller on fewer calories, increasing your protein %—your per cent of total calories from protein—is a must.
While some people have no problem incorporating more meat, fish, and poultry into their diet, it’s not always easy. Thus, many Optimisers in our programs ask, ‘What protein powder should I buy?’
But while protein powders can make your protein numbers look great, they might be shorting you on other fronts. So, in this article, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of:
- the pros and cons of protein powders,
- what you should look for in a protein powder, and
- when it might be better to get your protein from real food.
As you’ll see, while protein powders can be a convenient way to supplement your protein intake, they’re often not the best investment in terms of cost or to help you balance your nutrients per calorie budget.
The Pros of Protein Powders
We all live busy lives looking for time-saving hacks. Powders are quick, convenient, relatively cheap, and often super tasty, with many benefits.
Let’s start with the most apparent benefit of protein powders: convenience!
Whether you’re running out the door to work, wanting a quick meal in a hurry, or trying to get some extra protein in a jiff, protein powders are an easy and convenient way to make all those things happen.
While people often carry nuts, a banana, or an orange in their bag, protein can be a little harder to take with them. Because eating more protein is associated with greater satiety, more stable blood sugars, and improved metabolic health, protein powders are an excellent option for when you’re hungry and want to stay full, at least compared to other less optimal snack options.
Higher Protein %
As the chart below shows, people hitting a higher protein % tend to consume a lot less energy. In our Macros Masterclass, we guide Optimisers to get adequate protein while dialling back their energy from fat and carbs.
Protein powders are undoubtedly a quick and easy way to boost your protein intake. Protein supplements with a higher protein % thus enable you to get more protein with less energy.
However, it’s important to remember that most people don’t need to increase their protein intake much. Instead, they usually need to focus on prioritising protein while dialling back energy from carbs and fat.
For more on a higher protein %, check out The Protein Leverage Hypothesis.
Whey protein is highly bioavailable and provides all the amino acids in the right ratios your body needs. It also contains some vitamins and minerals, depending on the brand.
Protein powders are essentially pre-digested. Protein powders are designed for expedient emulsification and absorption to get protein into your muscles NOW after a workout.
So protein powders are great if you’re REALLY hungry and need a quick snack, or your digestive system needs an easily absorbable dose of protein.
As with other foods, people usually eat and buy more foods that appeal to their palate and taste great. Thus, many protein powders compete for ‘stomach share’ by increasing taste and palatability.
Thousands of protein powder-based desserts now appeal to your senses and contribute to your protein intake.
Before bodybuilders discovered protein powders in the 1980s, whey was discarded as a waste product from the cheesemaking process. This ‘trash’ has become a high-profit treasure and a $21.5 billion industry as of 2022.
While companies are surely making a killing off protein powders, they’re relatively economical compared to some whole food options like salmon or steak—especially if you prefer filet mignon.
Cons of Protein Powders
While protein powders certainly come with many benefits, there are several disbenefits we must be aware of before ditching our steak and eggs for good in favour of protein pancakes!
Incomplete Amino Acid Profile
Not all protein powders are created equal. While we often look at the ‘protein’ quantity per serve, there’s more than meets the eye!
For every gram of protein shown on a nutrition label, a slew of essential and non-essential amino acids contribute to that cumulative protein number. Whey, casein, and egg protein powders tend to provide all the essential amino acids in reasonably balanced ratios.
The essential amino acids include:
- Isoleucine. Isoleucine is one of three branch-chain amino acids (BCAA) necessary for maintaining skeletal muscle. We also need it to transport glucose and maintain our immunity.
- Leucine. Leucine is another essential amino acid that falls into the BCAA category. It’s critical for synthesising muscle protein and maintaining this vital tissue, especially after injury or trauma.
- Histidine. Although most people aren’t a fan of histidine because it converts into histamine, we need it for blood cell synthesis, repairing damaged tissues, and synthesising the neurotransmitter histamine. Histamine, after all, regulates our sleep-wake cycle.
- Methionine.* Methionine is the only essential amino acid with sulphur in it. Which is critical for detoxification, the processes of sulfation—which activates many hormones—and methylation, muscle tissue repair, and histamine metabolism.
- Phenylalanine. We require phenylalanine to produce tyrosine—an inessential amino acid—which is used to make dopamine.
- Threonine. We require adequate amounts of threonine for intestinal health, building new tissues, and body repair.
- Tryptophan.* Tryptophan converts to the neurotransmitters serotonin and, eventually, melatonin. The former is essential for mood, and the latter for sleep.
- Valine. We need valine to remain emotionally calm, mentally focused, and coordinate our muscles.
The essential amino acids with an asterisk tend to be those that aren’t readily found in every protein powder. Plant proteins, collagen, gelatin, and pure beef protein powders are often the most unbalanced.
For more information on amino acids, their roles, and where to find them, check out Optimal Amino Acid Intakes for Weight Loss, Satiety, and Health.
If you already consume a particular protein powder or are interested in one but don’t know its amino acid profile, you can scour the manufacturer’s website. Email them if you can’t find it there and ask for ‘the complete amino acid profile of XYZ protein powder.’ By law, they have to provide it.
Incomplete Vitamin and Mineral Profile
Meat, fish, poultry, and whole-food dairy products contain protein and a complete array of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. These foods allow you to simultaneously make leaps and bounds towards your macro and micro goals.
While amino acids in protein powders may or may not be in unbalanced ratios, many lack the vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids that their whole-food counterparts tend to provide. These foods thus offer little in the way of satiety and benefit you minimally with regard to your nutrient needs.
While some do contain them, they can be synthetic and thus in the wrong forms and ratios for your body. Additionally, synthetic nutrients tend to play on our desire for whole-food vitamins and minerals and can elicit cravings for foods that aren’t that good for us. Subsequently, we might be inclined to overeat these foods or foods containing them.
Our satiety analysis shows a net disbenefit when we overconsume vitamins and minerals in supraphysiological amounts that can only come from fortification or supplementation. Protein powders are no exception!
For more on the roles of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3s in satiety, check out Best Vitamins for Weight Loss and Satiety (and How Much You Need of Each), The Effect of Minerals on Appetite, Hunger, and Satiety, and Omega-3 Foods and Recipes.
It’s pretty hard to mirror and fabricate the natural balance of nutrients in real, whole foods. Protein powders are no exception! While they may contain some synthetic nutrients like vitamins that are often smaller in size, they tend to lack other nutrients.
Nutrients never work by themselves; instead, they each have synergistic (think teamwork) and antagonistic (think opposing) roles to one another. So, getting one or a few megadoses from your protein powder can deplete or cause other imbalances.
For more on nutrient balance ratios and which ones are important, check out Nutrient Balance Ratios: Do They Matter, and How Can I Manage Them?
If you’re coming from a nutrient-poor, ultra-processed diet, consuming protein from protein powders can help you improve your satiety game. As you transition from a hyper-palatable diet to one centred around whole foods, it can take some time for the taste buds to adjust. Thus, protein powders can serve as a bridge to your end goal.
But as time passes, your body will be looking for more nutrients in the forms and ratios it recognises, along with protein from whole, unprocessed foods that digests more slowly. Hence, protein powders might not provide the same satisfaction as they once did, and your palate might not stop until it gets protein from whole foods.
To learn about satiety in-depth, check out Satiety: How to Lose Weight with Less Hunger.
A tasty, hyper-palatable protein powder will be a great option if your only goal is to grow and get bigger. But if you’re looking for a protein powder to increase satiety and lose weight, you must find something that you enjoy while avoiding options that are hyper-palatable, more expensive and often contain less protein!
For everything on hyper-palatable foods, check out Ultra-Processed Foods: What’s the Problem and How to Avoid Them.
For example, I’ve purchased the Masashi Jam Donut protein powder several times when it’s been on super special.
This stuff tastes AMAZING and is basically like a milkshake, especially mixed with full cream! But the problem is, I find myself returning for more and more of it. This is great if I’m doing a lot of high-volume lifting and need to grow and recover, but it’s not the best choice when I’m not as active or don’t want to gain weight.
You could say the choice is yours in whether you wander down the path of hyper-palatable protein powders. Usually, I opt for the vanilla-flavoured protein powder from Pure Product. It’s great for a tasty snack but not hyperpalatable.
Depending on where you live in the world, what brand of protein you go for, and how much of it you’re consuming, it can come at a hefty cost. Let’s look back at the Musashi product, which came in at just about AUD$50/900 grams (USD $33/900 grams), which comes out to just under $2/AUD per serving.
Other brands with fewer ingredients can cost more or less, depending on your location and what you need. For example, the Mt Capra brand makes goat whey protein powders, which are better tolerated by those with sensitive systems. It also contains very little in the way of additives, and it even includes probiotics. However, it comes at a higher price of $76 USD, or almost AUD$117 on iHerb for a similar amount (907 grams).
If you’re consuming this regularly and making it a staple, it might quickly drain your bank account! While it provides you with protein, it might not contain the same vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids you’d get if you’d allocate that money to whole foods.
Unless you have to, finding a quality and affordable product might be better. It might not have all the bells and whistles (i.e., probiotics) or the crazy good flavour, but it’ll give you what you’re looking for—protein.
I’ll usually order the vanilla-flavoured protein powder from Pure Product. While it costs me $30AUD/kilo, it lasts me forever and still holds up in quality. Like the Masashi, it’s based on Fonterra protein powder from New Zealand, where the cows are happy on luscious green grass.
While the cheaper protein powder option still tastes great, it’s not so AMAZING that I’m going back for seconds and thirds. It also doesn’t drain my bank account! The unflavoured protein powder also tastes great, particularly when mixed with high-protein yogurt or coconut water. It’s also more versatile and can be used in different recipes.
Additives and Ingredients
The ingredient list for the Pure Product powder is simple: whey protein, lecithin (to prevent clumping), and flavouring (optional).
The Mt Capra goat whey protein is similar, although it uses gum as an emulsifier, some stevia as a zero-calorie sweetener, and probiotics.
Meanwhile, as shown below, the Masashi Jam Donut protein powder’s ingredient list is much longer. It includes MCT powder to make it smoother and palatable and adds extra fat, which I don’t really need in my protein powder. It also contains sucralose—a sweetener—which adds energy and palatability I don’t need or want.
These extra ingredients dilute the protein to 81% protein in the basic protein powder to 55% for the Masashi Jam Donut powder. Interestingly, this correlates with flavour and palatability, as the first powder I can control myself with, and the last powder tastes like an amazing milkshake that I have little self-control over. So not only do I eat more of it, but as you’ll see later, I also get less protein per calorie and per dollar!
While the first two products are relatively clean, adding extra ingredients makes any protein more palatable by adding fat and carbs to spike dopamine. Thus, it brings it closer to the kryptonite foods discussed in this recent article.
To cut to the chase, choose a protein powder with the shortest ingredients list you enjoy. The most expensive options with flashy labels can dilute the protein and make it hyperpalatable, so you’ll eat and buy more.
Types of Protein Powders
Choosing a protein powder can be confusing. In this section, we’ll explore the different types of protein powders, what they contain, and what they provide for you.
Whey Protein Isolate vs Whey Protein Concentrate
Whey is a cow milk derivative that’s a cheese production byproduct.
If you’ve ever looked at the label of a whey protein powder, they often come as whey protein isolate (WPI), whey protein concentrate (WPC), or a blend of both. The naming here is counterintuitive because whey protein isolate is more processed to remove fat and carbs. This makes the protein more concentrated at 90% protein by weight.
Whey protein also contains more branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) we mentioned above, which are the critical drivers of muscle protein synthesis. Thus, whey might be worth considering if you’re consuming protein to jumpstart muscle growth or body repair.
If you’re intolerant to lactose, WPI can be a good option because the manufacturing process removes it. Whey protein isolate is thus also great for fast absorption after a workout; studies have shown it can take as little as 20 minutes to make it into your system. In contrast, whey protein concentrate is less processed, meaning it contains more vitamins and minerals but has a lower protein %.
Both forms of whey raise serum levels of amino acid levels more quickly and higher than any other form of protein; this gives whey the competitive edge over other proteins if your goal is to make gains in the gym.
Aside from vitamins and minerals, whey is unique to other milk protein powder derivatives because it contains immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are critical components of the immune system that can help strengthen your immunity by killing bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other taxing microbes.
Ultimately, if you have a larger energy budget, aren’t looking for straight protein, and (or) are lactose intolerant, start with whey protein isolate. But whey protein concentrate might be a better choice if you need or are indifferent to a little more energy, are more concerned with nutrient density, and don’t have as many dietary restrictions.
Casein powder is another dairy-based option that’s similarly a byproduct of cheese making. While it might not be the best option for someone who is lactose intolerant, it digests more slowly than whey protein, keeping you fuller for a little longer than whey protein.
While whey protein powder is excellent for quickly getting amino acids into the bloodstream, casein may be better if you want a slow-release option. Studies show it increases blood concentrations of amino acids in the four to five hours of consumption vs. the 20-90 minutes it takes whey. Thus, if you’re someone who finds their blood sugar drops in the night or ravenous in between meals, you might consider casein before bed or as a snack.
In the past, bodybuilders used to be concerned about slamming a whey protein shake immediately after a workout to maximise their gains. However, we’ve since learned that the anabolic window is quite long (Phillips, 2014). Hence, you’ll have plenty of amino acids to recover from exercise if you get a couple of protein-focused meals each day.
Aside from the benefits of the protein and the rate at which casein is absorbed and assimilated into the body, it also contains some uniquely beneficial compounds, similar to whey protein. However, instead of immunoglobulins, casein provides specific peptides.
But if you want a slower-release source of protein to keep you fuller for longer, whole-food-sourced protein is ideal.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine — that the body cannot make. While these are often sold separately in supplement form, you’re likely wasting your money if you already get plenty of protein from an omnivorous diet.
Dr Donald Layman emphasises getting at least three grams of leucine to trigger muscle protein synthesis. But in practical terms, most people won’t need to worry about the precise amount of each amino acid if they get at least 30-40 g of protein twice daily.
Goat Whey and Casein
If you don’t do well with cow dairy, you may venture down the path of goat dairy products. Most beef-based proteins are made from conventional dairy cows, which produce proteins of the A1 family. However, it’s coming to light that many people with ‘dairy intolerance’ are intolerant to this harder-to-digest protein. Hence, goat milk protein—an A2-family protein—is often better tolerated. This family also includes sheep, camel, and some forms of specifically designated A2 cows milk.
Both goat whey and goat casein are produced similarly to their cow counterparts. Their individual absorption and uptake rates are also similar. Hence, if you’re looking for faster absorption, goat whey would be your preferred go-to and goat casein if it’s longer satiation.
Aside from whether or not cow products negatively influence your stomach, some people also notice ‘dairy’ affects inflammatory conditions like autoimmunity, hormone dysfunction, and mood imbalances.
Egg Protein Powders
If you’re intolerant to all types of dairy and want to keep it animal-based, egg protein powders are a great option. They provide a complete array of essential amino acids in relatively balanced quantities. Egg protein is also essentially fat-free.
Like whey protein, egg protein is easily absorbed and emulsified into the body. While it might not be as expedient as whey protein isolate, studies have shown that egg whites have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of any other whole food. This is the measurement of how well food is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Many protein powders are notorious for GI distress. However, egg white protein is renowned for being low in FODMAPs—food components are known to cause bloating and GI discomfort in someone with IBS and IBD—and well-tolerated. Egg white protein powders with a ton of additives, though, might not have the same outcome.
While it might be a no-brainer, egg white protein might not be the best option for you if you have an allergy or intolerance to eggs. If this is the case, there are still plenty of other choices!
Collagen and Gelatin
Collagen and gelatin are unique sets of amino acids that make up the connective tissue matrix. Your connective tissue includes skin, bones, joints, hair, nails, and even blood.
While collagen is 100% protein, it is not a ‘complete protein’. In other words, it does not contain the complete spectrum of essential amino acids in balanced amounts. The Cronometer snip below shows the amino acid content of a typical 30-gram serving (weight) of collagen.
As we can see, it contains no tryptophan—an essential amino acid—and limited amounts of the non-essential or conditionally essential amino acids tyrosine and cysteine. While it provides some methionine—0.2 mg per serving when the population average is 2.9 grams per day, and the ONI is 4.8 grams per day—it provides far less methionine in relation to other amino acids than competing forms of protein.
In contrast, the following snippet shows a similar 30-gram serving of gelatin. As we can see, it also provides next to nil tryptophan, cysteine, and tyrosine and has limited amounts of methionine. Although you might think, ‘But that’s just one essential amino acid,’ tryptophan is a necessary precursor to serotonin. This neurotransmitter makes us happy, content, and less susceptible to addiction. It’s also a precursor to melatonin, which helps us sleep.
While egg, whey, and casein proteins contain protein and some nutrients—although some are less than others—collagen contains no other vitamins, minerals, or essential fatty acids. Thus, if you’re sustaining yourself on collagen alone like the followers of The Last Chance Diet—a diet that ended in the deaths of several people—there’s little chance you’re getting the nutrients you need.
You can read about The Last Chance Diet and a better alternative to it in Secrets of a Nutrient-Dense Protein-Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF).
Bodily processes like connective tissue synthesis (i.e., synthesis and repair of body collagen, skin, muscles, joints, and tissues) require the amino acids from protein and nutrient cofactors like vitamin C, zinc, iron, and copper, amongst other nutrients. Thus, collagen won’t ‘do all’ for you and give you everything you need for healthy hair, skin, and nails.
If you’re a big fan of collagen powder or you realise you’re relying heavily on it, it may be worth tracking your food for several days to ensure you’re getting adequate tryptophan, tyrosine, methionine, and cystine from the rest of your diet. Usually, you needn’t worry about getting enough individual amino acids if you get adequate protein from an omnivorous diet. This is because they come packaged in animal foods in the ratios we require.
If you’re using collagen or collagen protein powders as an adjunct on top of an adequate whole-food protein intake, feel free to continue if it’s within your energy budget. However, if you’re relying on collagen as your primary protein source, it might be wise to reconsider what type of protein powder you’re consuming or—better yet!—to prioritise nutrient-dense foods and meals that contain plenty of protein.
If dairy doesn’t work for your body or fit into your preferences, but you still eat animal based, you may have come across beef-based protein, which is currently all the rage within the keto and carnivore communities. Although it can be appealing, beef-based proteins often aren’t what you’d think they are. While you might think they’re made from some beef cut, they’re just overmarketed versions of collagen or gelatin.
Below, I included the amino acid breakdown for the popular beef-based protein Equip. While it contains many essential amino acids, its cysteine, tryptophan, tyrosine, and methionine levels lag or lack compared to other protein sources.
Beef protein is also relatively expensive in comparison to other protein powders, so you’re paying a lot more for an incomplete protein.
Plant-Based Protein Powders
Plant-based protein powders can also be made from peas, rice, hemp, soy, or pumpkin seed.
While these are good protein sources, the protein concentration may be lower. In other words, the per cent of total calories of one serving or cup of protein might be lower than an animal-based protein. The table below shows how plant proteins stack up compared to their animal counterparts.
|Protein Source||Protein Content (per 100 grams)|
|Whey protein isolate||90 g or more|
|Whey protein concentrate||25 to 89 g|
|Goat whey protein||80 g|
|Goat casein protein||65 g|
|Pea protein||80 g|
|Brown rice protein||70 g|
|Rice + pea protein||66 g|
|Hemp protein||65 g|
|Soy protein||60 g|
|Chia seed protein||50 g|
|Pumpkin seed protein||40 g|
If you’re trying to boost your protein % to increase your satiety with less energy, look for a protein powder with the most protein per 100-gram serving. The closer to 90 grams of protein per 100 grams (weight) of protein powder (i.e., 90% protein by mass), the better.
While plants can provide a lot of protein, their amino acid ratios tend to be unbalanced. Plant proteins lack or provide less methionine, tryptophan, cysteine, and tyrosine than their animal food counterparts. However, they tend to contain more vitamins and minerals, which you will see below.
Below, we included the detailed amino acid profiles of pea, brown rice, pea and brown rice combo, soy protein isolate, hemp seed protein, and chia seed protein powders.
The following snippet is of the nutrition facts and amino acid profile of Nuzest’s pea protein. While it lacks or contains lower amounts of methionine, tryptophan, cysteine, and histidine, it provides more vitamins and minerals than other proteins like gelatin and collagen.
Now! Brand’s brown rice protein is shown below. If we were to compute this for a normal 30-gram serving, we would see around 24 grams of protein with the amino acid profile breakdown to the right.
While brown rice protein contains relatively fewer of each amino acid found in the pea protein, it does provide more methionine than pea. Thus, some protein powders combine the two to get a more complementary amino acid profile, as shown in the protein powder below.
Pea and Rice
This next protein powder is Garden of Life’s Vanilla Chai protein, a combination of pea and brown rice. It’s still relatively lower in methionine, cysteine, and tryptophan but contains other nutrients, like fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
This is perhaps one of the better-tasting and more easily digestible plant proteins. It also tastes great for a plant protein powder!
Pumpkin Seed, Pea, and Sunflower Seed Blend
Vega Sport combines pumpkin seed, pea, and sunflower seed proteins to get the following profile.
Again, we see similar tryptophan and methionine levels but for fewer calories than some of the other protein powders. We also see impressive vitamin and mineral levels. However, this one has been known to cause GI distress!
Soy Protein Isolate
Soy protein isolate has the most balanced amino acid profile of plant-based powders. Below, we can see how methionine and tryptophan levels are lower, but they’ve come up quite a bit per gram of protein.
Unfortunately, though, many people have allergies to soy protein. It’s also a source of phytoestrogens, which can cause problems for people with pre-existing hormone imbalances.
Next, we have hemp protein powder. This one is growing in popularity, and it has a better amino acid profile than others. However, its protein content (13 grams per 120 calories, or 43%) is relatively low.
Aside from containing variable amino acid profiles, plant-based proteins can also have a ‘different’ taste and texture, a bit like sawdust.
Because plant compounds are concentrated in plant protein powders, they are also more prone to causing digestive upset. Often, some people report a laxative-like effect after consuming them, although some are better than others.
Whey or casein protein powders are likely safer bets unless you are specifically looking for a plant-based protein powder or have a certain allergy or intolerance.
Protein powders provide the amino acids that makeup protein. However, they are relatively lower in essential minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids like omega-3s. In this section, we’ll peak at the nutrient density of some of the protein powders mentioned above.
Whey Protein Concentrate
The Cronometer screenshot below shows my favourite protein powder’s nutrients in 2000 calories (505 grams). Note how sparse the vitamins and minerals are per 2000 calories.
Although it’s an animal-based food, gelatin doesn’t provide much in the way of vitamins, minerals, or essential fatty acids. Because collagen and beef-based proteins are so similar, they don’t really, either.
Egg White Protein
While we know egg white is a complete protein source—or a food that provides all the essential amino acids—its vitamin, mineral, and essential fatty acid content is unknown or negligible.
While egg whites are almost the purest source of natural animal protein, this also means the vitamins and minerals alongside it might be a bit sparse.
Aside from supplying all the essential amino acids, pea protein contains a hefty dose of a few minerals. However, the profile is not very balanced, and there are a lot of gaps.
There are obviously many gaps in the nutrients measured for many protein powders, including this one. However, this should not be overestimated, and it should be assumed that these quantities are less than more.
Garden of Life Pea and Brown Rice Blend
Garden of Life does a great job of sprucing up the nutrient profiles of its plant-based protein powders by adding a few whole-food ingredients. However, there are still a substantial amount of gaps in essential nutrients.
For comparison, the screenshot below shows the nutrient profile for 1.25 kilograms (2000 calories) of flank steak with the fat trimmed. Notice how we get a better mineral and vitamin profile than the protein powder with nearly as much protein.
It also takes more energy and time to digest the complete matrix that makes up steak, and meat itself occupies a greater volume in your stomach. Hence, it keeps you fuller for longer.
While salmon contains more fat, it also provides many other micronutrients—especially omega-3 fatty acids.
And much like the steak with the fat trimmed, it also provides substantial volume and mass. Subsequently, your body must work harder to get the energy it requires, which keeps you fuller for longer.
Unfortunately, protein tends to be the most expensive macronutrient. So, food manufacturers like to maximise profit by skimping protein and adding energy from sugar, starch, and industrial seed oils, which are incredibly cheap and nutrient-poor.
To help you get more protein bang for your buck, the table below compares the cost of some protein sources. The table is sorted by cost per kilo of protein. Note that the cheaper plain protein powder is in the same ballpark as ground beef or steak. Meanwhile, you’ll be paying nearly ten times more for some of the fancier protein powders to get your protein!
|Protein Source||Cost (AUD$/kg)||% Protein||Protein (g/100 g)||AUD$/kg Protein||Weight (g/2000 calories)|
|Ground beef (85%)||$11||46%||26||$24||1150|
|Pure Product powder||$32||80%||80||$39||505|
|Flank steak (fat trimmed)||$35||75%||30||$47||1250|
|Soy protein isolate||$71||88%||80||$81||533|
|Brown rice protein||$67||80%||80||$83||667|
|Egg white protein||$90||73%||66||$123||545|
|Nuzest pea protein||$110||80%||80||$137||500|
|Equip beef protein||$134||84%||84||$160||514|
|Hemp seed protein||$61||33%||33||$184||500|
|Garden of Life rice + pea||$133||68%||70||$195||477|
|Mt Capra goat casein||$148||65%||65||$228||500|
|Mt Capra goat whey||$186||80%||75||$233||500|
In addition to cost, ground beef and steak also have lower energy densities—the energy per gram of weight—making them much harder to overeat than powders. In addition to filling you up more per calorie, the whole food protein sources will take longer to digest, so you’ll likely stay fuller for longer before your next meal.
So, Protein Powders: Smash or Pass?
Now that we’ve explored some of the pros and cons of protein powders, you may have some idea how protein powder could (or couldn’t) fit your context and goals. If you’re still lost about whether or not you should hop on the bandwagon, here are a few points that should be considered before buying it.
- What am I using it for? Nutrient-dense whole foods contain protein and provide the vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids that keep your body running. They also don’t just have protein, but they offer the complete array of all amino acids your body needs to thrive in balanced ratios. Hence, there isn’t much comparison between protein powders and whole foods!
- Will it take away from my budget for nutrient-dense foods? Protein powders come with a monetary (financial) and energy cost (calories), just like nutrient-dense whole foods. If you have to choose whether or not to buy a protein powder or meat, poultry, fish, or dairy (i.e., nutrient-dense whole foods), the latter will provide you with more nutrients and satiety. Similarly, if your nutrient-to-calorie ratio (i.e., nutrient:calorie or nutrient density) is suboptimal, whole foods will provide more vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids for their energy cost.
- Would I be able to control myself around it? While most protein powders contain fewer calories, some—like meal replacement shakes—contain more. While both can taste really good, they can be hard to resist, making it easy to exceed your calorie budget and eat more than you should.
- Does it give me what I need, or is it wasting my time? Are you looking for fast-digesting protein to keep your muscles in anabolism or a fast-acting or long-acting snack to give you protein in an easily digested format? Do you need more protein to support a body that struggles to absorb or digest normal foods, or do you need more protein to recover and rebuild? Or are you looking for the easy way out to hit your protein goal? If it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider a powder.
- Is this product an adjunct or a staple? Protein powders are not meant to be a diet staple, although the industries selling them might have you believe they’re worthy ‘meal replacements’. While this can be okay occasionally or until you adjust to a higher-protein diet, protein powders are no substitute for a diet based on nutrient-poor, fat-and-carb combo foods.
While a protein powder might seem like an easy escape, you might not need it. In fact, it could inhibit your progress if your goal is optimised nutrient density and better satiety.
Although getting adequate protein is the foundation of any healthy diet, it’s only the first step. Other essential nutrients—particularly calcium, potassium, and iron—are also critical for satiety.
The Cronometer screenshot below shows the nutrient profile of a few of our most nutrient-dense NutriBooster recipes. Not only do we get 52% protein—a considerably impressive amount for almost everyone—we also exceed the Optimal Nutrient Intake for nearly all the minerals and vitamins!
In our Micros Masterclass, Optimisers work to pack in more nutrients per calorie. Hence, protein powders and other processed foods don’t tend to make the cut if you’re gunning for a higher Diet Quality Score at the top of the leaderboard.
If you want to see which nutrients you’re not getting enough of and the food and meals that could help you fill those gaps, you can check out our free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge.
How to Use Protein Powder
While whole food is optimal, protein powders can be an adjunct to conveniently boost your protein intake, get protein into your muscles quickly after a workout, and crush your cravings as a more optimal snack option.
It’s hard to gain fat from overeating protein. A 2014 study, The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals, tried to get resistance-training participants to eat an impressive 4.4 gram of protein/kilogram of body weight/day of protein powder. At an average of 307 grams of protein per day, that’s nearly 5.5 times the recommended minimum of 0.8 grams/kilo/day!
Despite being in an energy excess and not changing their workout regimen, people eating this much protein lost fat and gained fat-free mass. The main observation was the dropout rate, as few people could choke down that much protein powder!
So, how do you consume that much protein powder without holding your nose and drinking like there’s no tomorrow?
I’ll often mix protein powder into high-protein yogurt for a quick and easy breakfast when I get hungry. I might even add it to some milk if I need to recover after a lot of exercise and my body is craving energy.
Protein powder is also surprisingly good in coconut water, which adds sweetness and potassium (see recipe here). Mixing them with some cottage cheese, egg whites, and oats also makes for some pretty good pancakes, which gives you a nutrient-dense treat.
There’s also the PSMF Flan recipe, which has been super popular!
Most of our recipes use whole food—even with protein powder—which provides greater satiety and a better micronutrient profile than regular old protein powder by itself. It’s also much more palatable!
While protein powders can be a convenient way to supplement your protein intake, whole food is usually a better option.
In our Macros Masterclass, we guide Optimisers first to ensure they are getting adequate protein. As you can see, foods towards the right of the chart below provide more protein in the typical serving sizes we eat them.
Once you have adequate protein, you might consider redirecting your priority to dialling back energy from fat and carbs while still getting the protein you need. Thus, you must prioritise more foods at the top of this chart.
To learn more about how you can get more protein from whole food sources, you can dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart here (on your computer) or download printable higher protein food lists here.
The image below shows 1400+ of our NutriBooster recipes in terms of nutrient density vs protein % vs satiety index score. The recipes with a higher protein % are towards the top. Notice that the smoothies and other recipes created with protein powder towards the left tend to have a lower nutrient density, while the meals made with whole-food ingredients have a higher nutrient density.
To explore these recipes, click here to open this interactive chart in Tableau. It’s best to open it on your computer. If you mouse over the recipes, you’ll see a popup showing more details about each recipe and a link to open a picture.
- We all live busy lives and constantly look for time-saving hacks in the real world. Hence, protein powders can be a helpful and tasty option to supplement your nutritious meals to increase your protein %.
- Some protein powders are processed and energy-dense, so they digest quickly and thus provide less satiety than the intact protein from whole food sources.
- While many fancy, hyper-palatable and expensive protein powder options are available, the simpler one may be better for your waistline and wallet.
- Protein powders can be used to should be used as adjuncts to an already nutrient-dense diet or as a supplemental protein source until your body can adapt to a higher protein intake. Protein powders should NOT be used as a replacement for high-protein whole foods like meat, poultry, or fish.