A Quick Guide to Choosing the Perfect Protein Powder
Go into any gym and you will hear the rattling of a shaker bottle mixing someone’s protein shake. Protein powders are extremely popular now – and not just for athletes looking to gain a competitive edge.
Vegetarians are using them to supplement their diet. Others are looking for a quick breakfast fix, because a protein powder can provide a quick and nutritious meal on the run.
With all the recent buzz about protein, however, you should remember that protein powder supplements are not created equal.
Navigating the protein world is daunting, no doubt. There are different proteins, blends, and ingredients to consider. But choosing an ideal protein powder isn’t as hard as it might appear. Start by asking the basics.
What is protein?
Protein is essential for life, and along with carbohydrates and fat, protein rounds out the three major macronutrients that provide the fuel and energy for our bodies to survive.
Protein contains the raw materials that help build our muscles, bones, connective tissues, skin, hair, and nails; protein helps control satiety; and protein plays a crucial role in many chemical reactions going on in our bodies.
Although each amino acid plays an important and specific role, when it comes to muscle protein growth and repair, one amino acid stands above them all.
During times of physical activity, illness, injury, or undernourishment, the body goes into the state called catabolism, in which the body breaks down internal stores to fuel itself.
This process continues until specific nutrients are introduced. It is the essential amino acid leucine that initiates anabolism, the state of creation or building. Research suggests that leucine in the amount of 2.3-2.5 grams at a given time is needed to stimulate the recovery and growth process.1
How much protein do I need?
As with all advice on nutrient intake, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. Trusted associations have created position guidelines to help you find your own one-size-fits-one answer.
The most quoted guideline for daily protein intake comes from the Institutes of Medicine’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.2
RDAs are designed to prevent deficiency in a majority of the population, which is why the growing consensus among practitioners and scientists is that the current RDA does not adequately promote optimal health. RDAs do not account for metabolic conditions such as illness, physical activity, injury, or aging, which all increase a person’s daily demand for protein.
The average U.S. adult tends to consume about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight per day.3
These recommendations are calculated using total body weight. However, athletes and those seeking optimal health should work with a health-care practitioner or a sports science expert to individualize recommended protein intake based on the best lean body weight or fat-free mass for their sport, position, and overall health goals.
Although research varies slightly as to an exact protein amount for a given demographic, most researchers agree on the following ranges.
Daily Protein Recommendations4-6
Minimum: 0.8 grams (g) protein per kilogram (kg) of weight daily
Optimal health, moderate training, injury, or Illness: 1.0-1.5 g protein per kg of weight daily
Advanced training, injury, illness: 1.5-2.2 g protein per kg of weight daily*
Pregnancy: 1.6-1.8 g protein per kg of weight daily
*Note: The more intense training or an injury/illness is, the closer to the higher end of the recommended range you should aim to achieve.
How much protein is too much?
Some health-care practitioners were initially concerned that high protein diets might put a strain on the kidneys, because the kidneys eliminate the waste products of protein digestion.
A recent review of the literature in the Journal of Nutrition, however, concluded that higher protein diets – defined as greater than 1.5 g protein per kg of weight per day – do not adversely impact kidney function in sedentary, middle-aged, overweight, but otherwise healthy adults.7 There are certain instances when clinicians would recommend short-term, very high-protein intake.
How can I optimize protein intake for muscle protein synthesis?
Unlike carbohydrates and fat, the body has a relatively limited capacity to store protein for later use. Simply consuming “enough” protein does not mean our bodies will use that protein optimally. Although some diet plans have a shorter fueling window, the majority of us follow a diet plan that consists of 3-4 meals throughout the day.
Many adults tend to backload protein intake to the evening meal.2
Studies suggest 40 g of protein per meal, especially in younger-trained individuals, is beneficial for protein synthesis; in most cases, more than 40 g will have minimal impact.5
Elderly adults can benefit from 40 g or more in a single meal because of inefficient digestion, absorption, and utilization, while in some cases, other adults can benefit from 70 g or more in a single meal.5
A minimum of 20 grams and a maximum of 40 grams of protein should be consumed at each meal by the average adult.5
Between 20-35 g of high-quality protein is likely to contain 2.2 g of leucine, which will initiate muscle protein. Ingesting more than 40 g protein, depending on the rest of your diet, can result in inefficient conversion to sugar or fat.
What protein source is best for me?
Protein is found in a wide range of foods from both animal and plant sources. Higher quality sources have a wider variety of amino acids, and some are even considered complete foods. High-quality sources include meat, eggs, and dairy.
Plant options vary from moderate to low quality, but can be combined to provide the amino acids needed to support your system. Plant options include edamame, nuts, seeds, and beans, as well as grains and vegetables like quinoa, rice, broccoli, and peas. For many individuals, the best protein sources are a mix of the above.
Examples of 20 g protein
- 3-4 ounces of chicken, fish, pork or beef
- 1 serving whey protein isolate or plant-based protein
- 3-4 large eggs
- 1 cup almonds
- 1-1.5 cups milk or Greek yogurt
- 1.5-2 cups cooked black beans or cooked quinoa
- 5 Tbsp peanut butter
Factors such as allergies, dietary preferences, daily schedule, and access to a kitchen can make it difficult to achieve your targeted protein intake only from whole foods.
Therefore, many individuals use protein powders as a quick and convenient protein source.
There are many protein powder options on the market with varying amounts of useable protein, ingredients, and quality. At Thorne, we verify and test our protein sources and ingredients, so you don’t have to, and we have developed a comprehensive line of protein options to meet your needs.
1. Whey Protein Isolate (chocolate or vanilla flavored)
What is it: a convenient and versatile source of high-quality protein. Whey is a fast digesting protein with a high amino acid content, specifically leucine, the amino acid necessary to start protein recovery and growth.* One serving of Thorne’s Whey Protein Isolate contains the amount of leucine necessary to trigger the recovery process.* We’ve chosen whey protein isolate as our protein source because of its excellent absorbability and digestibility.
To further improve digestibility, we add digestive enzymes derived from papaya and pineapple to minimize the gastric discomfort that some individuals experience with protein powders.
Who it’s best for: Whey Protein Isolate is best for individuals who are seeking a quick, fast-digesting protein source. Because of its high leucine content, whey protein isolate is popular among athletes and active individuals. To support our professional athletes and athletes subject to drug tests, we submit our Whey Protein Isolate to a third-party organization, NSF International, to confirm our protein sources are free of more than 200 substances banned for athletic competition.
2. Vegalite (chocolate or vanilla flavored)
What is it: a dairy-free, vegan alternative to whey protein. After significant testing of multiple plant sources of protein, Thorne settled on a unique blend of rice protein and pea protein. Vegalite is designed to closely resemble the amino acid profile of our whey isolate. The leucine content of one serving of Vegalite is just below the leucine amount needed to trigger muscle repair and growth.
Who it’s best for: Vegans, vegetarians, or anyone who avoids dairy or is looking to diversify their protein sources.
3. RecoveryPro® (containing alpha-Lactalbumin)
What is it: a protein fraction of whey protein that has the benefits of whey but is particularly high in the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is essential to the synthesis of the hormone serotonin, which in turn supports the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for telling the body it’s time to go to sleep.
Alpha-lactalbumin’s generous tryptophan content makes it the ideal protein source in the RecoveryPro formula, a unique blend of alpha-lactalbumin, magnesium, and PharmaGABA (a calming neurotransmitter) that supports restful sleep and optimizes nighttime muscle recovery.*
Who it’s best for: Active individuals who want to maximize nighttime recovery or individuals with disrupted sleep patterns due to travel, shift work, or stress.*
4. MediPro® Vegan (chocolate or vanilla flavored)
What is it: a complete multi-vitamin/mineral complex in a plant-based protein powder that combines pea, chia, and chlorella (green algae) to provide 22 grams of protein per serving. Medipro Vegan also contains a blend of fruits and vegetables that deliver a low-sugar source of carbohydrates to complement the protein. There are added probiotics and digestive enzymes that support normal digestion and an optimal balance of gut flora.*
Who it’s best for: Anyone desiring a protein supplement that combines a multi-vitamin/mineral complex with probiotics and digestive enzymes. It is designed to be safe for children and for aging adults.
5. MediBolic® (vanilla-cinnamon flavored)
What is it: the foundation of Thorne’s weight management program and metabolic syndrome program. MediBolic is a blend of rice protein and pea protein combined with a complete multi-vitamin/mineral complex. Soluble fiber and specific botanicals and other nutrients are added to promote a feeling of fullness, support healthy blood sugar, promote lean muscle mass, support blood vessel flexibility, and enhance fat burning.*
6. MediClear Suite
The MediClear suite of products rounds out Thorne’s protein offerings with four options designed to support detoxification and the health of the liver and GI tract.* MediClear combines plant-based proteins and a multi-vitamin/mineral complex with specific ingredients that support the liver’s elimination of environmental and dietary toxins.* Combining MediClear with a specific allergy elimination diet is the cornerstone of Thorne’s 10-Day Detox Protocol and Thorne’s MediClear Detox and Allergy Elimination Program (21-day program).
- MediClear® combines rice protein and pea protein with a multi-vitamin/mineral complex and liver-specific botanicals, such as green tea and milk thistle. It is lightly sweetened and flavored.
- MediClear Plus® is the unsweetened, unflavored member of the MediClear suite that includes the essential detox nutrients and botanicals found in MediClear and then adds Thorne’s well-absorbed curcumin phytosome (Meriva®) and grape seed phytosome to provide additional support for the body’s normal inflammatory response to toxic insults.*
- MediClear-SGS®, the most robust formula in the MediClear suite, contains all the ingredients in the other formulas, but adds sulforaphane glucosinate (SGS), a naturally occurring substance found in broccoli seeds and sprouts. SGS is known to promote the liver’s detoxification capabilities, plus it serves as an indirect antioxidant that protects cells from free-radical damage.* MediClear-SGS is available in delicious chocolate or vanilla flavors.
Who it’s best for: Anyone who is looking to support a detoxification program and/or an allergy elimination diet.*
7. Amino Complex (lemon or berry flavored)
What is it: Not a protein source, but a source of amino acids – the building blocks of protein. Thorne’s comprehensive blend of essential amino acids. By isolating the specific amino acids the body needs most, the first stages of digestion can be skipped, which allows the amino acids to get into the bloodstream faster than a whole protein source.*
Two scoops of Amino Complex provides the amount of leucine necessary to initiate muscle protein synthesis.*
While leucine is essential to recovery, research suggests that delivering the complete mix of essential amino acids at the same time as leucine is vital to promote optimal recovery.* Unlike our protein offerings, Amino Complex does not contribute significant calories. Amino Complex is also submitted to NSF International for external testing of more than 200 substances banned for athletic competition.
Who it’s best for: Individuals managing calories and anyone who has difficulty consuming whole foods or protein powders, particularly after heavy exercise.
- Churchward-Venne T, Burd N, Mitchell C, et al. Supplementation of a suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effects on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men. J Physiol 2012;590(11):2751-2765.
- Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. 2005. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. http://doi.org/10.17226/1049 [Accessed Dec. 6, 2018]
- USDA Agricultural Research Service. Energy intakes: percentages of energy from protein, carbohydrate, fat, and alcohol, by gender and age; what we eat in America, NHANES 2009–2010. 2012. Available from: www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/fsrg [Accessed Dec. 6, 2018]
- Thomas D, Erdman K, Burke L. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2016;48(3):543-568.
- Jäger R, Kerksick C, Campbell B, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2017;14:20.
- Wooding D, Packer J, Kato H, et al. Increased protein requirements in female athletes after variable-intensity exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2017;49(11):2297-2304.
- Devries M, Sithamparapillai A, Brimble K, et al. Changes in kidney function do not differ between healthy adults consuming higher- compared with lower- or normal-protein diets: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Nutr 2018;148(11):1760-1775.