Know your protein numbers
Most women need no more than 15 to 25 grams of protein in a meal, which is roughly the amount you get from a 3-ounce cooked chicken breast. If your powder has more than that per serving, use less of it. And don’t assume that if you’re using a plant-based powder, there’s less protein per scoop.
Scope out the ingredients
Analyze the ingredient label with a sharp eye. If your protein is marketed as a specific type (whey, casein, or brown rice, for example), then it should be the first ingredient on the list. Skip products with added sugars, as well as artificial flavors and sweeteners. Certain brands may also contain caffeine, so double check the amount to avoid feeling too jittery (for reference, a cup of coffee has anywhere from 95 to 200 milligrams).
Lastly, be wary of powders marketed to bodybuilders: A 2010 Consumer Reports investigation found a number of brands contained low levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and mercury. (Yikes!)
Factor in your dietary restrictions
Whey protein is derived from dairy, which means it’s not an option for anybody who’s lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet. But there are plenty of non-whey options that pack protein. You can opt for powders derived from brown rice, pumpkin, quinoa, or other plant blends that have ingredients like kale and algae.
If you prefer whey protein, choose one that’s both grass-fed and USDA-certified organic, which typically means it packs higher levels of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Our top protein-powder picks
To make your shopping even more of a cinch, we’ve rounded up five buys that fit the healthy powder profile above.
It’s the most popular, and often cheapest, type on the shelf. It’s also a fast-acting protein, which means it’s digested faster. If you’re looking to build and repair muscle, you may want to drink up a protein shake with whey shortly after your workout.Our pick: Tera’s Plain Whey Protein ($22.53 for a 12-oz. bag, amazon.com)
Like whey, casein is isolated from cow’s milk. However, it metabolizes more slowly than whey, making it a great option for those looking to stave off hunger pangs for longer.Our pick: NOW Foods Micellar Casein Protein ($28.59 for a 1.8-lb. container; amazon.com)
Hemp protein comes from grinding hemp seeds, which are packed with vitamin E, fiber, iron and essential fatty acids (fats you must eat because your body needs them but can’t produce them on its own).Our pick: Manitoba Harvest Hemp Pro 50 Protein ($12.50 for a 16-oz. container; amazon.com)
Don’t underestimate the power of this dairy-free, gluten-free option; a 2013 study in Nutrition Journal found that rice powder has just about the same benefit when it comes to post-workout recovery and exercise performance as whey.Our pick:Naked Organic Brown Rice Protein Powder ($65 for a 5-lb. bulk container; amazon.com)
Pea protein powder is a lactose- and gluten-free powder made from yellow split peas (plus, it’s Sass’s favorite!). Why is it so great? It helps control hunger: A 2011 study in Nutrition Journal showed pea protein can keep you fuller longer than an equal amount of a few other sources, including regular egg whites and whey protein. In addition to our pick below, Sass likes Whole 365 Everyday Value Organic Pea Protein, available at Whole Foods.Our pick: NOW Foods Natural Unflavored Pea Protein ($19.14 for a 2-lb. container; amazon.com)
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