How to Choose a Protein Powder – Part 1

How to Choose a Protein Powder: Whey or Vegan

Hypothetical scenario: Let’s say you’ve been working out with a personal trainer and they’ve recommended you start doing a post-workout protein drink for recovery.

Or let’s say you’ve started doing smoothies for breakfast and can tell from the fact that you’re hungry an hour later that it’s probably lacking protein (could be fat, too, but let’s go with protein here).

So off you go to the Big Carrot Wholistic Dispensary to get yourself a protein supplement, only to confronted by dozens of tubs and bags of varying sizes and colours and no real indication of which one is best for you. It can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have a good idea of what criteria you’re looking to fulfil.

What follows are a few considerations that will hopefully make your decision making a little easier.

Do you actually need a protein powder?

The first stop on your protein journey is to determine whether or not you actually NEED a protein powder (yes, this may end up being a short journey). I find lots of people who are getting plenty of protein in their diets and aren’t looking to “get ripped”, yet they’re using a protein powder out of some vague idea that they’re supposed to be consuming some sort of powdered supplement.

If you’re not looking for muscle recovery post workout but just want to do a smoothie in the morning, maybe a meal replacement powder would more suit your needs. If you’re looking more for vitamins and minerals in your smoothie, or are looking for help with a detox, maybe a greens powder is more the way to go. Over all, North Americans usually deal in a protein surplus, not deficit, so don’t assume you need to supplement protein just because you’re making a blended drink. Look at your own needs.

And remember that the best sources of protein are foods! Yes, muscle recovery after hardcore workouts are best served by an isolated protein source, but does this describe you and your goals?

Whey-based or Veggie-based?

OK, if you made it past that tough love and you’re still reading, you’ve determined that a protein supplement is indeed what you’re looking for. It’s time to make the first major decision in which protein powder is right for you – whey or veggie-based (vegan). There are a lot of varying opinions on this one, and the answer you get from experts will inevitably depend on who you’re asking (and what their particular interests are, financial and otherwise). I, being human, am not neutral either, so I’ll try to point out my bias where I’m aware of it.

So what’s the difference between whey and veggie-based proteins. Quite simply, whey protein comes from milk whereas veggie proteins come from – you guessed it – vegetable sources. This right here is often enough to inform your decision.

Whey is actually a byproduct of the cheese making industry. It’s the high protein liquid component of milk (the curds being the other component which become cheese). One advantage of whey is that, being from an animal source, it’s a complete protein, meaning it has all 9 essential amino acids present in their needed ratio. It’s also better absorbed than almost any other protein source (the best being casein, another dairy protein. Details here.)

The disadvantage of whey is that it comes from dairy, which a lot of people are not good with. Even aside from out and out sensitivities, some people just do not digest dairy products well. Although, those with a lactose intolerance can still do whey protein isolate (see Part Deux), as long as there’s no sensitivity to the protein components like whey or casein. But anyone starting on whey protein should check themselves for hidden dairy sensitivities with a proper elimination diet. A large number of those who believe they have no issues with dairy products have hidden allergies that are causing the issues they’ve been told they just have to live with.

Vegan proteins can come from any vegetable source, but generally stick to high protein sources like rice, soy, pea or hemp. All of these have their varying pros and cons, which I’ll touch on briefly in Part 3. The advantages of vegan proteins are that, there’s so much variety, you’re bound to find one that fits your particular dietary restrictions.

The disadvantages of vegan proteins are that they often come with their natural plant defenses intact that can cause issues. Things like lectins, phytoestrogens, phytates and other lovely little plant compounds can cause problems with digestion, can bind to minerals in the gut leading to deficiencies or can cause allergic reactions (sometimes quite subtle). Finding out what plant foods actually work for you is vital to being a healthy, happy, functioning human being.

In Part Deux, we’ll take a closer look at whey protein and examine the subcategories to see which will work best for you.


By Doug DiPasquale Certified Holistic Nutritionist

Part 2

Part 3