Everything You Need to Know About Protein Powders to Build More Muscle

There are tons of think-pieces about how Americans don’t get enough protein — or maybe they get too much. We know protein is essential to the human diet, but that leaves us with questions about exactly how much we need and where we should get it from. In the world of protein powders, bars, and pre-made shakes, what’s our ideal protein intake?

To find out, we talked to Tali Sedgwick, a registered dietitian and the brains behind Food NE/RD — a San Francisco-based nutrition counseling center that focuses on individualized health plans — about all things protein.

What’s the Deal With Protein? How Much Do I Need?

raw beef protein powders

“Your muscles are made of protein,” says Sedgwick. “So whether you’re sedentary or an endurance athlete, you need it to function.” But there’s an optimal amount of protein intake — not too much and not too little.

  • For a sedentary individual, Sedgwick recommends 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, which meets a person’s very basic needs. Since 1 kilogram is roughly 2.2 pounds, a sedentary, 160-pound man would want to take in about 58 grams of protein per day.
  • A recreational athlete, which Sedgwick defines as someone who works out for a half-hour four to five times a week, needs about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160-pound man who has a moderate exercise regimen would want to ingest about 72 grams of protein per day.
  • For an endurance athlete — you need to be working out for 45 to 60 minutes four or five times a week — the goal is about 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160-pound man with this kind of exercise routine should aim for 87 grams of protein per day.

Timing is Everything

The timing of your protein intake largely depends on your own needs as an individual, but the general recommendation is to eat every three to five hours. Sedgwick warns against protein-loading at all costs.

“Your body has a threshold where it becomes saturated at a certain point, so if you take in all your protein at once, you won’t absorb as much as you would if you staggered your intake,” she says.

beginners guide best protein powders for men eating chicken

Protein-loading can also aggravate digestion problems if you ingest too much at once. In order to avoid these issues, Sedgwick suggests snacking; each snack should be around 15 grams of protein.

What about post-workout? It’s undoubtedly important to replenish your muscles, especially following an intense session. There are some studies that show that you can refuel within 24 hours of exercise, but Sedgwick says that the overwhelming majority of research supports repleting within a 30-minute to two-hour window after a workout.

When in Doubt, Go for Solid Food

“Shakes can’t replace food,” Sedgwick says. “Beverages don’t trigger satiety as much as food does.”

Snacking on solid, wholesome food is the way to go. One of Sedgwick’s favorite, high-protein snacks is a turkey and cheese roll-up. Pick up nitrate-free turkey and low-fat cheese so you get all the nutrition and flavor without as many calories. For other ideas, check out this healthy snack list we put together with Sedgwick.

Whey and Casein and Soy, Oh My!


If you’re still looking to supplement your regular diet, then protein powders for shakes are a great option. Sedgwick stresses that you shouldn’t become over-reliant on shakes, but if you’re going to use them, do so in a smart way. When you walk into a GNC or down the health-food aisle at the grocery store, the number of protein powders can be overwhelming. The three best and most frequently used protein powders are whey, casein, and soy (though that’s not to say that you couldn’t indulge in hemp protein if you wanted). Here’s a quick primer on the three biggies:

  • Whey is a milk-based protein. It’s fast-absorbing and is generally easy on the digestion. Because of its quick absorption, whey can aid in muscle gain, and is the “golden standard” of protein, according to Sedgwick.
  • Casein, the other protein that comes from milk, is slower to digest. This makes it great for a bedtime shake, although it wouldn’t be the best option for post-workout replenishment.
  • Soy protein, which is extracted from the soybean, has been much-derided over the years with rumors that it increases estrogen and decreases testosterone production in males. A reputable, science-based source — The PCRM — says that the phytoestrogens in soy have a negligible effect on hormone levels in men and boys. For those that are lactose intolerant or are searching for a plant-based protein, the fast-absorbing soy is a good alternative to whey. Bonus? Soy contains all nine amino acids and can be used for optimizing muscle growth.

Which Protein Powders are Right for You?

We put together a list of some of our favorite protein powders. For each product, we standardized our units of measurement in our takeaway details for easy comparison. In addition to supporting a healthy diet, we think these powders could be useful supplements for those of you looking for an extra protein source.

1. Best Health Protein Supplements: The Nue Co

The Nue Co protein powder, protein powders

Your body likes natural things, so that’s what we like too. The Nue Co — a company that delivers supplements made from real, organic foods — has two products that should be of interest to anyone looking to supplement their diets with a protein powder. The Plant Protein + Gut Food and Milk Protein + Gut Food provide the same amount of protein found in two eggs. The products are simple, have only a handful of organic ingredients, deliver all nine essential amino acids, and, to top it all off, feature gut-healthy probiotics and prebiotics. (Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your digestive health and prebiotics promote the growth of these beneficial microorganisms in the intestines.) The company recommends a serving size of 15 grams, or 3 tablespoons, to receive a total of 12 grams of protein. If you are anything like this author, you’ll also enjoy how the powders mix easily and have minimal taste, which allows for easy addition to any drink or smoothie. The Plant Protein + Gut Food is a personal favorite, but note though that there is a significant price tag here as quality comes with a premium.

Takeaway Details:

  • Price: $70.00 per 200 grams / $0.35 per gram
  • Per 15-gram serving of powder: 59 calories, 12 grams of protein, 0.9 grams of carbs, 0.1 grams of sugar
  • Delivers all nine essential amino acids
  • Includes a gut-healthy probiotic and prebiotic
  • Organic, gluten-free, hormone-free, non-GMO

 2. Best Whey Protein Supplement: PROMIX Grass-fed Whey Protein

PROMIX Grass-fed Whey Protein

This product is a whey concentrate filtered from the milk of grass-fed cows. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler. No hormones. No antibiotics. No GMOs. The company uses cold-processed micro-filtration to preserve the natural state of the protein. The result is a quality powder that still carries other naturally produced substances like glutathione, which is involved in building and repairing tissue. For a product that really provides a bang for your buck, PROMIX is a great option for those looking for a milk-based protein supplement. The company recommends a serving size of 30 grams, or 6 tablespoons, to receive a total of 25 grams of protein. And if you are looking for flavor, PROMIX also offers raw chocolate, vanilla, peanut butter, and chocolate peanut butter options.

Takeaway Details:

  • Price: $79.00 per 2270 grams / $0.03 per gram
  • Per 15-gram serving of powder: 60 calories, 12.5 grams of  protein, 1.5 grams of carbs, 0.5 grams of sugar
  • Quality ingredients, cold-processed
  • Gluten-free, soy-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, non-GMO

3. Best Plant-Based Protein Supplement: Vega One All-In-One

Vega One All-In-One

The Vega One All-In-One shake mix boasts high quality plant ingredients “you’d choose yourself if you had the time”, almost all of which are from various fruits and vegetables. While some people prefer simpler products, the powder’s strength comes from numerous resources to provide probiotics, antioxidants, fiber, Omega-3 ALA, and other vitamins and minerals. With all of that good stuff mixed in, you will see the amount of protein is less per gram than other formulas. To get the recommended dose of protein, Vega suggests a serving size of 39 grams,  or 7.8 tablespoons, to receive a total of 20 grams of protein. The company also offers a number of different flavor options, but it’s worth noting that only the unsweetened natural flavor does not contain stevia, a sugar-free sweetener. If you want a lot of things in one place for a reasonable price, check out the Vega One All-In-One. Vega also has other protein-specific products for your review.

Takeaway Details:

  • Price: $50.00 per 876 grams / $0.06 per gram
  • Per 15-gram serving of powder: 58 calories, 7.7 grams of protein, 4.2 grams of carbs, 0.4 grams of sugar
  • Quality ingredients, cold-processed
  • Gluten-free, soy-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, non-GMO

It’s Time for a Drink

protein shake

If you’re going to supplement your protein intake, do so smartly. While pre-made shakes and bars are okay in a pinch, they often have ingredients with complex names, which is never a good sign. Instead, we’ll throw a couple of natural smoothie recipes your way so you can make your own tasty beverage. We’ve got one for the fruit lovers and one for the nut lovers. Yes, that sounds weird, but so is life. Enjoy and be well!

The Tropical Vacation

  • 1 serving of protein powder
  • 1 ½ cups coconut water
  • 1 banana
  • 1 tbsp greek yogurt

The Nutty Professor

  • 1 serving of protein powder
  • 2 tbsp sliced almonds
  • 1 ½ cups almond milk
  • 1 tbsp peanut butter

As always, if you’re going to start a new diet or exercise regimen, consult your doctor and/or a registered dietitian.