While it’s totally doable to get enough protein per day from food alone, early wakeup calls, travel, and lunchtime meetings may stand between you and your ideal eating routine. For the best performance, recovery, and muscle growth, the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend adequate high-quality protein intake throughout the day, meaning every three to five hours, including 15 to 25 grams of protein within two hours of a strenuous workout. The exact amount hinges on your personal situation. If you can’t hit that target with food alone, that’s when it’s time to look for a protein supplement. Here’s how to know which one might be right for you.
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Whey Protein Powder
Sports nutritionists consider whey, one of two proteins in milk, the gold standard when it comes to protein powders. “Whey protein is extremely digestible and contains all of the essential amino acids, including the highest concentration of branched-chain amino acids,” says Mitzi Dulan, RD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. Essential amino acids are the necessary building blocks for growing muscle. Whereas branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) comprise a trio of specific essential amino acids (meat and dairy provide plenty), which have been shown to reduce muscle soreness from exercise and promote muscle growth when consumed before and after tough workouts. Dulan’s favorite whey protein powder is Jay Robb, since it tastes great, has a good mouth feel, a “clean” ingredient list, and 25 grams of high-quality whey protein.
But it’s not just about the whey when it comes to performance. Research shows that mixing whey protein shakes with water only is not the optimal way to recover post-workout. Pairing protein powder with carbs helps with fueling and recovery, which can mean blending it into a smoothie with a frozen banana and milk.
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Vegan Protein Powder
For athletes looking for a dairy-free option, Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD, author of The Superfood Swap, recommends trying something plant-based. "One with a variety of protein sources, like pea, hemp, beans, and sprouted brown rice,” she says. That’s because most individual plant proteins are incomplete on their own, but when eaten throughout the day with other plant proteins (like beans and rice), they add up to the right balance for complete proteins. Her top-recommended brand is Garden of Life RAW Protein and Greens, which offers 20 grams of protein from peas, brown rice, chia seeds, lentils, and beans. Blatner also likes Vega ONE All-In-One Shake, which contains 20 grams of protein from peas and hemp, seven grams of fiber, and an impressive list of vitamins and minerals coming naturally from plants. While Blatner stresses food first for protein within the first 30 minutes after working out, whey-based protein is her first powder of choice for athletes (versus plant protein) since studies demonstrate whey’s advantage when it comes to muscle growth and repair.
Dulan likes Vega Sport, which contains 30 grams of protein per serving coming from peas, seeds, and alfalfa, three grams of fiber, and no added sugar.