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When it comes to improving health and nutrition, optimizing protein intake is one of the first places to start.

It not only can quickly improve how you feel and kick-start your results, but the health benefits of protein range from supporting weight management, lean tissue, and blood-sugar control to aiding detoxification, immune function, and resilience to stress.

From my experience with clients, most people are nowhere near their protein targets for optimal functioning — unless they have a purposeful and intentional plan in place to reach them. (Read more about how to determine your protein needs here: “High-Protein Diets: Health Benefits and Controversies.”)

And when it comes to bridging the gap between knowing the importance of protein intake and actually consuming more protein, protein powders can be a great option with a lot of upside.

Why use a protein powder? Isn’t that processed?

We always encourage a real-food-first mentality. No protein supplement on the market can replace the nourishment and nutrient support provided from well-sourced, high-quality meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, and fish.

That being said, it takes a lot of planning, forethought, and effort for active individuals to get enough protein in through food alone due to today’s on-the-go lifestyle. We’re all juggling multiple responsibilities, working to manage time effectively, and are unlikely to have the mental bandwidth or physical capacity to source, plan, and meal prep every ounce of protein we need to eat.

Do we want to be eating quality protein at each meal? Yes.

Can we also use protein powder to enhance our nutrition plan? Yes.

A good quality protein powder is a convenient option for those looking for portability and variety. Plus, if you’re someone who is watching calories, using a flexible dieting approach, or aiming for specific macronutrient targets, it also provides a no-frills, easy way to add protein to your day without adding too many extra carbohydrates or fat.

From a practical standpoint, I’ve also found that clients who introduce a daily protein shake habit seem to stay on track with the rest of their nutrition plan. Anecdotally, by drinking in the morning it can set a healthy tone for the day and help keep nutrition top-of-mind.

What do I want to look for in a protein powder?

From a quality standpoint, not all protein powders are sourced and created equally. When you’re consuming a product on a regular basis, it’s even more important to scrub the ingredient list.

When it comes to protein powder selection, there are a few non-negotiables to consider:

Choose this Instead of this
If sweetened: Stevia, monk fruit, erythritol, or allulose Sugar, sucralose, or acesulfame-potassium (Ace-K)
If flavored or colored: Natural flavors/colors Artificial flavors/colors

In addition to the above, any vitamin- and mineral-containing powders ought to have the most bioavailable forms of nutrients that can be readily absorbed and utilized. For example, you want any enrichment of folate to come from an active form (such as methylfolate) versus the poorly utilized folic acid form. For vitamin B12, you want it to come from methylcobalamin or acetylcobalamin instead of the cheaper cyanocobalamin form.

You can read more about supplement quality here:

5 Ways to Spot a Bad Supplement

Are Dietary Supplements Unregulated?

When is it best to use protein powder?

Here are the top ways I recommend utilizing protein powder to help get the most benefit in supporting your healthy nutrition approach:

  • Meal or snack replacement: If you’re unintentionally skipping meals or consistently making on-the-run or unhealthy choices for a given meal, using protein powder to make a shake replacement can be a healthy lifesaver.
  • Plan B: Keep a serving of protein powder in a shaker cup stowed away in your office or car to serve as a great backup plan. If you’re in a pinch, simply hit it with water and shake it up and you’re set.
  • Postworkout: In that first hour after a strenuous workout, you can opt to consume extra protein to help replenish and rebuild.
  • Enhance protein content of foods you’re eating: Adding protein powder to yogurt, oatmeal, or even coffee can give you an added boost. Check out additional ways you can use it here: “10 Genius Ways to Use Protein Powder.”

Three Questions to Ask When Choosing a Protein Powder

1. Do I tolerate dairy-sourced protein?

If you DO tolerate dairy-sourced protein, my top recommendation is whey protein. It’s been show that whey is one of the best sources of protein. If you’re looking for foundational health and immune support from your protein powder, find a quality, grass-fed whey concentrate such as this one.

Whey concentrate offers a rich source of essential and branch-chain amino acids, immune-supporting immunoglobulin proteins and lactoferrin, and higher omega-3 fatty acids than non-grass-fed whey or whey isolate.

For those who are prioritizing athletic performance, pick a low temperature processed whey isolate instead. It’s ultra-filtered with minimal carbs, low lactose, and no fat, and it is quickly absorbed.

If you do NOT tolerate dairy-sourced protein, aim to include a soy-free plant-powered vegan protein that mirrors the same amino acid profile as whey and has complimentary plant proteins, such as pea protein with rice, chlorella, or chia proteins.

When combined with strength training, plant proteins can support similar muscle gains as whey protein. Luckily, plant-based proteins have come a long way from their chalky and gritty reputation. They do, however, require a bit more liquid than whey protein to blend well.

Also note, it’s OK to use vegan protein in your routine even if you also tolerate whey. Read more here: “6 Reasons to Use Vegan Protein Powder.”

2. Am I looking for a shake-and-go option, or am I going to blend it with other ingredients?

If you want to shake-and-go or a “just add water” meal or snack replacement, it’s best to select a Whey Protein + All in One Shake mix or a Vegan Protein + All in One Shake mix.

As the name suggests, the “All-in-One” options include quality protein along with a solid dose of bioavailable vitamins and minerals. Plus, it contains added fiber to support gut health and satiety and digestive enzymes to facilitate nutrient absorption. While you can opt to blend it with other ingredients for flavor and variety, you certainly don’t need to.

As is, the All-in-One shake mix product can help simplify nutrition for those with a busy work/life schedule.

If you’re planning on blending it with other ingredients, such as fruit, nut butter, or chia or flax seeds, choose a straight up whey protein or soy-free vegan protein. These can be easy ones to use when adding to other foods and recipes to bolster their protein content.

3. When I’m eating food-sourced and animal-based protein, am I including organ meats, skin, or connective tissue on a regular basis?  

If you’re only consuming muscle meat instead of the whole animal, you might be missing out on the health benefits of collagen protein, such as its impact on skin, joints, and body composition. While collagen is not meant to replace your whey or vegan protein staples, it is a great (non-dairy) bonus to add to your routine.

As a plus, collagen blends easily into hot liquids, so it can be used to transform your coffee or tea into a more satisfying and nutritious start to your day.

Grass-Fed Whey Protein Concentrate Non-GMO Whey Protein Isolate Grass-Fed Whey Protein+ All in One Vegan Protein Vegan Protein+ All in One Shake Collagen Peptides
Meal & Snack Replacement With Vitamins, Minerals, and Fiber
Blend Into a Shake √ (add as a booster)
Athletic Performance Support
Skin, Hair & Joint Health Support

Consider Multiple Options

As you navigate a healthy lifestyle and build quality protein options into your plan, remember that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed into only one protein powder option either. In fact, if you tolerate both plant- and dairy-based options, rotating through both can keep your routine fresh.

I personally love having an All-in-One protein option at my desk for a quick lunch or mid-afternoon snack, but when I’m at home, I use straight up whey or vegan protein to blend up a shake with berries, coconut milk, and almond butter. Still more, our vanilla Collagen Peptides is a staple in my morning coffee routine.

The selection of protein powders on the market can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. If you know how and when you’re going to use it, working through the questions above can help you simplify your options to select the best protein powder strategy for you.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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