Which Protein Is Right For You?


Protein powders are all the rage right now, and for good reason. Here are numerous reasons just off the top of my head:

1) A quick and easy protein source when you don’t have time to prepare a protein-rich meal or snack.

2) Many protein powders either don’t contain or are low in fat and cholesterol.

3) A way for vegetarians and vegans to ensure they eat enough protein.

4) After intense exercise, drinking a protein shake may be better tolerated and tasting than sitting down to a chicken breast.

5) Did I mention EASY?

6) Now days, you can buy some pretty tasty protein powders that make some really tasty protein drinks--they remind me of dessert, but packed with nutrition.

If you've ever spent time looking to purchase a protein powder, you probably noticed there are so many different protein sources to choose from. Here's some information I hope makes the decision a little easier.

Complete and Incomplete Protein

To ensure we’re on the same page with terminology, a complete protein contains the nine essential amino acids. They are: phenylalanine, methionine, lysine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, histidine, valine and tryptophan. A tenth amino acid, arginine, is essential during times of rapid growth – for example, during childhood – because, although your body can synthesize it, you can’t always produce enough of it. Your body can immediately use a complete protein. An incomplete protein is missing one of the nine essential amino acids and your body is unable to use it until a complete protein is made.

Complete Protein Food Sources

Animal products, including meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, contain all the essential amino acids, while most plant foods are lacking in one or more of these essential amino acids. However, eating a variety of different plant foods throughout the day will give you sufficient amounts of all the amino acids. This explains why most plant-based protein powders contain more than one protein source, such as a combination of pea, hemp, and rice protein.

What Is The Difference Between The Protein Sources? 

Pea Protein:

It's an incomplete protein source (it doesn't contain all 9 amino acids), but it's rich in isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine, arginine, methionine, and lysine. Since it's plant-based, it's appropriate for vegetarians. When purchasing pea protein, seek out organic, non-GMO peas.

Soy Protein:

Soy protein is a plant-based protein source made from soybeans. Soy and hemp are unique among vegetable protein sources because they are a complete protein. Most vegetable proteins lack one or more amino acids. 

One red flag for me is soy protein contains phytoestrogens, which bind to estrogen receptors in the body. After scouring research, I personally do not recommend eating processed soy, such as soy protein powder.

If you do choose to eat soy, I highly recommend purchasing organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) soy. Look for the Non-GMO Project label on the container. About 90% of soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, meaning it is grown to withstand glyphosate, a pesticide. 

Hemp Protein:

Hemp seeds are a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. It’s also a good source of essential fatty acids, including Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA). Hemp is free of glucose, lactose and dairy. It’s appropriate for vegetarians and has a nutty flavor I personally enjoy.

Whey Protein:

Whey protein comes from milk, so it's not only a complete protein, but also one of nature’s richest source of biologically active protein. It is fast-absorbing so it’s in your blood stream and stomach for a shorter time. It is a good supplement after intense exercise.

Ideally, look for a protein that comes from milking cows that graze in pesticide-free, chemical-free, natural grass pastures. Milk from grass-fed cows have higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid. Also, look for milking cows never fed grain or subjected to any growth hormone treatment, chemicals, antibiotics, or GMO.


Rice Protein:

Rice protein is often combined with pea protein to achieve a superior amino acid profile than either protein alone. Rice protein is deficient in lysine but has high levels of both cysteine and methionine. It is often well-tolerated and a low allergen food. It’s appropriate for vegetarians. When purchasing rice protein, seek out organic rice.

Which Types of Protein Are Best For Post-Exercise? 

Any protein high in the amino acid, leucine, such as whey protein, and is easily digested. Here's why including protein is important for recovery.

How Much Protein DoYou Need?

The Institute of Medicine recommends consuming at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight to meet your daily amino acid needs. If you're an athlete or regularly engage in physical activity, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends getting 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This amount of protein helps to maintain and build lean muscle mass.

I would love to hear about your experience using any of the protein powders discussed!

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods


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