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The scoop on protein powders

The scoop on protein powders

By Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D.N., EatingWell

Stroll through the grocery store and you’ll see a flurry of food products proudly touting their protein content, whether it’s naturally occurring or added to foods like cereals and breads. It makes sense; protein is a powerhouse nutrient. So while it’s better to get protein from real food, it’s not surprising that food companies are adding protein at every turn, or that people are using powders in smoothies, baked goods and more. If you fall into the latter category, you’ve probably wondered which protein powder to choose from the dozens of protein powders on offer.

Here’s a closer look at the ones most commonly added by food manufacturers:

Soy (soy protein isolate, soy protein powder, hydrolyzed soy protein)

Origin: Soybeans. This powerful plant protein can hold its own compared with animal protein. Research has shown that soy protein increases muscle mass and improves strength during and after exercise just as well as beef protein. Soy protein is unique in that it contains naturally occurring antioxidants called isoflavones, which can help reduce muscle damage during and after exercise.

Bonus: Helps muscles, boosts iron.

Whey (whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, hydrolyzed whey protein)

Origin: Cow’s milk. Whey protein is composed mostly of an amino acid called leucine, which is the most potent for building muscles. Whey may also be good for your waistline. When researchers gave people a whey protein drink, they lost about four pounds more and about an inch more from their waists over six months and felt less hungry than people given a carbohydrate shake instead.

Bonus: Helps muscles; boosts calcium; slims you down.

Pea (pea protein powder, pea protein isolate)

Origin: Yellow peas. Unlike soy and whey, pea protein is free of common allergens. This plant protein is particularly high in the amino acid arginine, a precursor to creatine, which delivers energy to muscles. Recent research also revealed that pea protein might build muscle mass as well as whey protein does. Plus, preliminary research suggests it may have more appetite-curbing power than whey protein.

Bonus: Helps muscles; boosts iron; keeps you satiated.

Pick a better protein powder

If you’re planning to add protein powder to smoothies or baked goods, look for one with a simple ingredient list (made with just one or two ingredients). Many protein powders contain add-ins like sweeteners, oil, salt, thickeners and artificial colors.

One tablespoon of protein powder adds about 4 grams of protein. Women need about 46 grams daily; men should aim for 56 grams of protein. But don’t rely on protein powders to provide enough protein to power you through the day; other foods high in protein include meat, fish, beans, dairy, nuts and eggs.

Protein can help you reach weight-loss goals

Higher-protein diets are linked with lower BMIs and smaller waists. Protein also helps satisfy your appetite long after you’ve eaten, fuels your active lifestyle as it maintains and builds muscle, and even slightly revs metabolism (it requires more energy to burn compared to carbs and fat).

(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at


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