How to choose a good protein powder or protein bar
You’ve probably heard by now, or read somewhere, how important protein is for building lean muscle and burning fat. I’ll briefly summarise why, as a reminder:
- It makes you feel fuller for longer
- Protein provides the amino acids you need to build muscle
- Your body burns more calories processing protein than other macronutrients like carbs or fat
- Protein doesn’t cause insulin spikes and therefore is good for blood glucose levels
So we’re clear that protein is an essential part of your diet – particularly if you’re trying to cut fat and build muscle, and/or if, like me, you struggle with dodgy blood sugar. A good rule to follow is to include a source of lean protein (like chicken, eggs or nuts) with every meal. The current daily recommended intake in Australia is
- 0.75 g/kg for adult women
- 0.84 g/kg for adult men
- Around 1 g/kg for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and for men and women over 70 years (see Better Health
For me at my current weight of 63kg (138 pounds), this equates to 47g (1.6 oz) per day. There are a number of sources online where you can find out how many grams of protein are in various foods. For example sites like Calorie King show us that in a 150gm chicken breast, there are approximately 21gm of protein and a 50gm egg contains approx. 5.5gm protein.
If you’re trying to lose fat and gain muscle, you need to eat even more protein than the recommended daily intake. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, quoted here advise this could be as high as 2gm protein per kg of body weight, if you’re someone who is particularly active and/or does a lot of strength training
Here’s where it gets tricky, and it may not be long before you find yourself heartily sick of chicken and egg whites. Protein powders and protein bars can be a good, handy source of extra protein, and well worth considering incorporating into your day if time and convenience is a factor for you.
How to choose a good protein powder
There are two basic forms of protein powder: vegetable source proteins, and animal source proteins. Vegetable source proteins are likely to be derived from soy, and some people find the flavour of soy off-putting. Animal source proteins therefore tend to be more popular and these come in three main forms: whey protein (derived from milk), casein protein (also derived from milk) and egg-white protein (surprise surprise, derived from eggs). I’ve experimented recently with egg white protein and by mistake, bought one that was vanilla flavoured. What I found was that the egg white flavour was quite strong, so it was difficult to incorporate easily into sweet foods, but the vanilla flavour precluded mixing it easily into scrambled eggs. I think in future I’ll stick to whey protein.
This Nutrition Express article does a good job of explain whey protein powders:
“Whey protein comes in two varieties, whey concentrate and whey isolate. The advantages of each are:
· Whey Concentrate: Whey concentrate is more economical per gram of protein. It has a low lactose level that is well tolerated by most lactose-sensitive people. It has trivial amounts of fat and carbs relative to your overall nutrient intake. Whey concentrate is typically the best-selling category of whey.
· Whey Isolate: Whey isolate is virtually fat-free for those wishing to eliminate as much fat from their diet as possible. It is typically lactose free for those few individuals who are very sensitive to the low-lactose levels found in whey concentrate. Whey isolate tends to taste slightly better than whey concentrate too, yet its consistency is a little thinner, without the fat”.
Based on the above advice, whey isolate tends to be the pick of the bunch.
You can buy protein powders flavoured or unflavoured – personally I would avoid the flavouring so you can then easily use it in sweet or savoury foods. Some ideas for how to actually use the protein powder, to boost the amount of protein you’re eating each day include:
- Mix it into smoothies with fruit, yoghurt or milk.
- Mix into anything egg-based, like scrambled eggs or a quiche or a frittata.
- Mix into porridge at breakfast time
- Mix with cooked rice or quinoa and enough coconut milk or water to turn it into a high-protein version of rice pudding.
My personal view is that protein powders are best used either to boost your breakfast or to make protein shakes with. Where possible, your protein should be coming from real food, because of the host of other nutritional benefits you’ll get from those foods. However I’m also a realist, and know first-hand how easy it is to get bored and therefore discouraged. For a while there I thought I would never be able to eat a boiled egg again 🙂
How to choose a good protein bar
Another handy, and often delicious, way to boost your protein intake is with protein bars. These can often also take the psychologically-beneficial form of resembling chocolate/snack bars, but with half the calories and half the guilt. A quick visit to the health food aisle of any supermarket or a health food/sports nutrition store will show you that there are dozens of protein bars on the market. My advice is to read the labels carefully, with an eye for:
- Overall percentage of protein (I look for bars that are at least 25% protein)
- Overall calorie count
- Nutritional value of other ingredients – are there seeds in there that might also be high in omega 3 or other goodies?
- Sugar content, and/or what form of sweetener is being used. Some of the sugar replacements like maltitol, for example, can be really hard on your stomach so be mindful of this. If possible choose a protein bar that uses sugar replacements in only small doses, or opts for natural sweeteners like stevia or honey.
My personal favourite of the protein bars are the Quest bars. There are dozens of flavours available, and the average bar has between 160 and 200 calories, is 30% protein and lower in carbs than most alternatives. They also prioritise natural ingredients. Be warned though – these things are like crack. They taste SO good that if like me, moderation doesn’t come naturally to you, buying in bulk might be problematic for you. It’s the cheapest way though, and I recommend iherb.com for bulk Quest (or any other) purchases.