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Protein Shakes: Which Main Ingredient Is Right for You?

By Fitoru | 23 February 2019
light brown protein shake

There are many different protein shakes and ready-to-mix powders on the market, but which one should you choose? You know you want more protein in your diet, and that studies show adding more protein to your diet (especially at breakfast) can help curb your appetite throughout the day, but with so many options, where do you start?

Explore the main ingredients in protein shakes.Before choosing a protein shake for weight loss, muscle building, or just to save some time in the mornings, you have to first ask yourself which protein source is right for you. Do you have an allergy to milk? To soy? Are you vegetarian or vegan? Moreover, you might also want to ask yourself what more you want from a shake, extra vitamins for instance, or which one will give you most energy at the gym?

Here are the types of proteins found in protein shakes and powders, and what they can provide for you.

Whey Protein

Whey comes from milk, specifically the watery part of milk that remains after curds form during the cheese-making process.

The Good

Whey protein is considered by many to be an excellent form of protein. Valued particularly for its high amino acid content, whey contains all the essential amino acids that we have to eat or otherwise consume to stay healthy. More than that, whey protein also absorbs quickly, so there’s no delay in getting the energy you seek when including whey in a protein shake.

The Drawbacks

Whey is dairy-based, so if you have lactose intolerance or sensitivity, milk-based products may have to be avoided entirely. While whey protein is so reduced from the milk itself that it contains less than 1% lactose by the time it reaches your stomach, depending on how even the smallest amount of lactose may affect you, this product might not work. If your sensitivity to milk is mild, it’s possible you could use whey protein without discomfort, however with so many other protein shake options on the market, you may want to save what little lactose you can tolerate for something more enjoyable (like a dish of ice cream).

Soy Protein

Made from dehulled and defatted soybeans, soy protein is a high-protein product that contains all nine essential amino acids, as well as soy isoflavones, which may help relieve menopausal symptoms and protect against breast cancer and heart disease.

The Good

Beyond the possible health benefits from soy, soy protein is both lactose- and gluten-free. It’s easily digestible and has a smooth consistency for greater ease and enjoyment when mixing with foods and shakes.

The Drawbacks

If you’re allergic to soy, you’ll have to give this one a hard pass, for obvious reasons. Don’t worry: there are plenty of alternative options.

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein powder is made by grinding hemp seeds into a fine powder.

The Good

Hemp protein is a vegan protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, healthy fats, minerals, and dietary fiber, and is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Hemp seeds and hemp protein are rarely known to cause an allergic reaction in humans, and in fact, they’re one of the most allergen-free nut/seed food products you can find.

The Drawbacks

There don’t seem to be any, short of the fact that hemp protein does contain some THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), though rest assured that it’s in very trace amounts, usually less than 0.3%.

Casein Protein

Casein is the other milk protein, derived from milk curds and found in cheese.

The Good

The most abundant protein in milk, casein has a slower digestion rate than whey, providing a slow, steady release of amino acids. In one study, researchers gave subjects 30 grams of either whey protein or casein protein and monitored the anabolic and catabolic effects for 7 hours after the meal. While whey protein resulted in a rapid increase in blood amino acids and protein synthesis, it was short-lived. With casein, the increase in blood amino acids was prolonged and resulted in a 34% reduction in protein breakdown.

The Drawbacks

Slowly absorbed and dairy-based, while it might be a great option if you’re a lacto-vegetarian, it might have to be avoided completely if you have lactose intolerance or lactose sensitivity.

Egg Protein

Egg protein powder comes from dried egg whites. Fresh egg whites from non-GMO chickens are processed into a powder as quickly as possible to retain the highest nutritional value.

The Good

Egg white protein powder is good for making protein shakes on a keto diet, a paleo diet, and for any ovo-vegetarian diet.

The Drawbacks

As eggs are an animal product, egg protein powder along with the milk-based protein powders on this list would not be a feasible option for protein shakes on a vegan diet.

Pea Protein

Pea protein is specifically pea protein isolate, made by grinding dried peas into a powder and removing the starch and fiber.

The Good

If you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to soy, pea protein is an alternative option for including in protein shakes. There are studies that suggest it can prevent hypertension and kidney disease.

The Drawbacks

A pea protein powder isn’t going to contain all the essential amino acids you need. It’s also low in the nonessential amino acids cysteine and methionine, and it may cause calcium to leak from the bones due to its effect on uric acid levels. However, since no single protein shake can serve as a total meal replacement indefinitely, it’s still a fair option if used moderately for those with allergies to milk and soy—just be sure to balance it with healthy eating habits.

Rice protein

Rice protein is a vegetarian protein isolate from brown rice, which is treated with enzymes that cause the rice’s carbohydrates to separate from its proteins.

The Good

Another great alternative for those with allergies, both rice and pea protein contain between 15-22 grams of protein per serving, are both low in carbohydrates, and are gluten free for those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

The Drawbacks

Since rice protein is low in the essential amino acid lysine, some suggest that taking pea and rice protein together gets you the benefits of each and makes sure you’re taken care of in the essential nutrients department.

Mixed Proteins

Not only can you self-mix protein supplements and powders for use in a shake or perhaps stirred in with Greek yogurt, but also there are options in shake and powder form that already come pre-mixed. If you’re trying to build muscle or are fastidious in the way you meal plan, it’s not enough to just drink some protein; you want the right amount so that you know you’re getting enough protein to achieve your fitness goals and/or curb your appetite.

The Good

Whether you want a protein shake for meal replacement at breakfast or lunch, or for post-workout energy, a good protein blend and a mix-it-up approach to your diet can really round out your total protein intake.

The Drawbacks

It’s the allergies every time: if you’re not checking the labels thoroughly, protein drinks or powder mixtures with a plant-based main ingredient might have an added ingredient that you can’t digest somewhere in the fine print. The combination of whey or casein proteins in with what you assumed, based on the package labeling, was solely plant-based could cause discomfort or even an allergic reaction if not spotted in time.

Give Protein Shakes a Fair Shake

Whether you’re in the market for a ready-to-drink shake or are looking for a protein powder you can include with a homemade smoothie to get your daily protein requirements, there’s a great variety to choose from. You can even choose between different flavors, and with powders and mixes, you can also add more good ingredients to your shakes. For example a chocolate-flavored protein powder mixed with banana, peanut butter, and soy or coconut or almond milk? That’s something you might make just for a treat, but now you know you’re adding a filling protein content to what might otherwise leave you feeling hungry again an hour or two later.

As far as the best protein shake for diet or weight loss, since the important part of losing weight is more protein and fewer sugars and calories, any of the above protein sources are a good option, so long as you choose a ready-made shake without too many artificial sweeteners, or stick to healthy ingredients when mixing your shakes at home. With so many protein shake recipes around, you could have a different flavor every day of the week! The more you know about their ingredients, the more you can drink protein shakes with confidence.


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