As we age, our bodies naturally lose muscle and our metabolism slows. For those reasons, getting plenty of protein in our diets becomes even more important.
Though most nutritionists recommend getting nutrients from food first, protein powders can help in a pinch, after a tough workout when you’re rushing to a big meeting, for instance, when sipping a smoothie is the easiest option. But what are the best protein powders, and how do you figure out which one is right for you?
“How you tolerate it is paramount,” says Foodtrainers nutritionist Lauren Slayton, MS, RD. “If something looks great on paper or on the label but makes you feel terrible, it’s not a keeper.” She recommends taking powders for a test drive to see which works best for you, but before you do that, consider these simple facts on the most popular choices on the market today.
Whey is derived from milk, and whey powder is the most popular among fitness enthusiasts and athletes. “It digests quickly and is good for increasing muscle mass,” Slayton says, although she cautions that for some it can cause bloating or acne. Casein, the other protein found in milk, used to be more popular, but there’s really no reason to opt for it over whey, since it can be harder to digest and has been linked to cancer risk in some research.
Collagen, a protein that’s recently surged in popularity, has many, many benefits, Slayton says, from increasing elasticity in the skin and strengthening hair and nails to protecting the lining of the GI tract and joints and connective tissue. “As you age and collagen in the joints is lost, stiffness sets in, and that leads to joint pain and swelling over time,” she explains. “Ingesting extra collagen can help joints move better, reduce pain, and reduce the risk of further deterioration.”
Whichever of the these you reach for, look for brands that list few extra ingredients other than the protein powder itself (i.e., no additives and preservatives) and ideally source from grass-fed cows.
If you eschew eating animals, soy is one option. It used to be the best option, but it has fallen out of favor among health experts. That’s mainly because it tends to be overprocessed, and the vast majority is genetically modified to withstand large doses of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer and other diseases. There’s also debate over how soy’s estrogenic properties may affect women, and though the science isn’t completely clear, Slayton recommends skipping it for other sources.
Hemp, for example, is a great source of protein and contains vital fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s, plus minerals like magnesium. “Many consider it the (non-dairy) crème de la crème of vegan protein powders,” she says.
Pea protein is also gaining popularity, thanks to the fact that it’s easily digested, hypoallergenic, and has a neutral taste.
When choosing a brand, the same “fewest ingredients” rule applies here, except in the case of blends, which are common in the vegan powder realm. Both Aloha and Vega have high-quality protein powders that combine pea with hemp and pumpkin seed protein as well as other clean, healthy ingredients, like cinnamon, for flavor. That’ll make sipping your smoothie a happier (and therefore healthier!) experience too.