12 Best Protein Powders – Protein Powder for Women, Vegans, and Weight Loss
Real talk: Generally healthy adults don’t need protein powder. Protein is a nutrient, and nutrients comprise food. Eating real, whole ingredients to up your protein intake (particularly: eggs, seafood, beef, poultry, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products, and pork) is always the gold standard, no matter what.
That said, there are specific situations — based on health status, life stage, or training programs — when having a protein powder on-hand can help you meet your nutrient needs. If you’re using a protein powder for a medical reason or taking any medications, it’s always best to check with your doctor before starting a supplement regimen. Learn more about how to pick protein powders based on your needs and get our top 12 picks below.
What is protein?
Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are essentially the building blocks that exist in your body and in food. You need these amino acids to build new tissue, whether it’s red blood cells or muscle cells. Protein is also responsible for many other functions in your body, including: transport, immune function, fluid-electrolyte balance, blood clotting, and energy (since it provides 4 calories per gram). Our bodies use protein stores to make glucose when there isn’t enough elsewhere (i.e., from stored carbs or fat) to provide the energy you need.
When would I need a protein powder?
Protein powder can provide these building-block nutrients, add calories to food without increasing volume, and often digests more easily than just carbs or fat alone. It can help in situations like:
• If you’re on a hardcore training regimen for an athletic event
• If you’ve recently had surgery or undergone any form of health-related trauma
• If your nutrient needs are higher due to specific medical conditions, like certain cancers, organ failure, or wounds
• If you’ve recently had any oral surgery or a treatment in which swallowing is difficult
• If you are caring for someone who’s struggling to keep their appetite up
How do I choose the best protein powder?
Carefully — since protein powders are considered dietary supplements, they’re not overseen by the FDA. That means they may contain unwanted or potentially harmful ingredients or they simply won’t provide the “life-changing!” benefits touted on the packaging. Use dietary supplements to fill in the gaps from what might be missing in your diet — not to take the place of food. Here’s what to consider before you pick a protein powder:
• Potential Dietary Restrictions: Since they aren’t FDA-regulated, there’s no real way of knowing whether these powders are acceptable for people with allergies or intolerances. They may not have any allergens in their ingredients list, but there’s still potential for cross-contamination in the manufacturing process.
• Other Ingredients: Added sugar and fast can up the calorie content in protein powder. Choose unflavored versions made with only with a protein isolate for keeping calories in check. (You should be able to multiply the grams of protein by four and get the same number as total calories.)
• Serving Size: Most protein powders recommend define “scoop” differently. Make sure you know how much to use to get the best bang for your buck.
• Sodium: While it’s less of a concern for endurance athletes, you may want to double check the sodium per scoop. The amount especially soars in chocolate-flavored products.
• Calories: If you’re looking to optimize weight gain, look for the most calories and grams of protein per scoop. The reverse holds for weight loss or general use in smoothies: Look for powders with the lowest total calories for around 20 grams protein per scoop.
• Other Nutrients: They may (or may not) be desirable based on what you’re using it for. For example, if you know you’re not getting enough iron in your day to day (a key nutrient for athletes!) you may want to choose versions with a higher iron content.
Remember: Eat food, first. Load up on the veggies, fruit, unsweetened dairy products, 100% whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and legumes (plus plant-based oils for cooking). Nut butter is a great food alternative to protein powder, but check labels for sneaky added sugar.
How We Picked This List
The products that met our rigorous standards were all (save for Vital Proteins) verified by a third-party lab for safety of ingredients. We cross-referenced with the ConsumerLab.com database to ensure our top picks were accurately sourced, labeled, and backed by lab analysis. This helps ensure that there’s no harmful material (like lead, which has been found in supplements) in the products themselves, and also verifies that what’s in the bottle is what it claims to be (e.g., actual protein versus Splenda).