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The lowdown on protein powders

It is recommended that adults consume at least 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day (ie for a 70kg person: 0.8 x 70 = 56g protein/day) to maintain normal body functions. We need protein for building muscles, retaining strength and making enzymes for important body functions. Protein requirements vary depending on an individual’s health status and body size, among other factors. It is best to distribute protein intake throughout the day with 20g each meal for better appetite control.

In recent years, protein powders have become increasingly popular among physically active individuals. As a general rule, we recommend opting for protein from whole foods before using supplements like protein powders. Some great whole food sources of protein include lean meats, eggs or egg whites, soy beans and tofu, lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, pumpkin seeds, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese. Meeting your protein requirement through a variety of whole foods helps ensure that you are getting the essential vitamins, minerals and fibre that may not be present in supplements.

Recent consumer reports have warned consumers of the potential risk of heavy-metal contamination in commercial protein powders. An examination of chemical residues in nutritional supplements including protein powders by Health Canada in 2012-2013 did identify slightly higher heavy metal levels in these products, however did not identify concerns for human health. Indeed, traces of heavy metals are present in our foods and these contaminants accumulate in humans because we are at the top of the food chain. Heavy metal levels in foods are regularly monitored and foods are recalled if the tolerable amounts are exceeded. To minimize the potential risk of exposure to heavy metals contaminants through multiple doses of supplements, it is advisable to meet your protein requirement from foods first.

Protein powders can be a convenient way to bolster protein intake when you aren't getting enough protein from foods to meet your needs or training goals. It is important to note that protein powders aren’t more likely than protein from foods to build muscle, but it can be more convenient. When choosing protein powders, consider the following: 


Plant based protein vs animal based: 

  • Animal-based protein powders usually come from milk-derived whey or casein isolates. Their protein qualities are high in that they contain all essential amino acids. Isolates have minimal amount of carbohydrates and fat whereas concentrates provide all three macronutrients. These types of protein powders are not suitable for lactose-intolerant individuals or vegans.
  • Plant-based proteins from a single source generally have low quality due to its incomplete amino acids content, except for soy-based protein isolates. Soy protein isolates and plant-protein blends contain all essential amino acids. Strict vegans may benefit from a plant-based protein blend for a fuller spectrum of amino acids.


Whey vs casein:

  • Whey isolates and casein are both high quality proteins, but casein takes longer to digest and is usually found in “slow-release” protein supplements. Combination of both may also be found in some supplements.
  • Whey isolates may provide an advantage by quickly supplying proteins for muscle recovery and building after a resistance training session.
  • Some individuals use casein before a fast to prevent muscle catabolism and for satiety.
  • But also consider that muscle protein synthesis is stimulated up to 24h after a bout of resistance training… so resistance training and the presence of protein within the 24h-window are more important factors to consider.


BCAA’s (branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine):

  • Functions: BCAAs stimulate muscle protein synthesis by delaying rate of muscle breakdown, increasing rate of synthesis or both; maintain glycogen store in prolonged aerobic sports; delay onset of fatigue
  • Recommended Daily Intake: At least 45mg/kg/day for leucine
  • Most protein supplements are made up of 25% BCAA, which is sufficient to meet the needs of an average built person and a separate BCAA supplement is not necessary.
  • Important to obtain a blend of essential amino acids along with BCAAs, especially from foods, to maximize muscle building capacity.


Protein powder overview guide:







Plant-based protein powders

Soy protein

Higher quality complete protein. Dairy free



Pea protein


Lower quality protein. Incomplete essential amino acids profile.

Soy free.

Dairy free.

Mix with smoothie or foods; does not mix well in just water.



Brown rice protein



Pumpkin seed protein



Plant-based Protein Blend

Blended to produce higher quality than single source protein. Usually blended with pea, seed, hemp proteins.



Animal-based protein powder

Whey protein isolates

Higher quality complete protein. Minimal amount of carbohydrates and fat. Digestive enzymes or hydrolyzed proteins may be included to speed up digestion and absorption.



Whey protein concentrates

Higher quality complete protein. Contains carbohydrates and fat to promote muscle growth and extra nutrients.



Casein (time-released) or

Whey & casein blend

Higher quality complete protein. Combination of fast and slow absorbing protein.






  • Quality of protein is generally determined by the completeness of amino acid profile, digestibility and extent of muscle protein synthesis