As athletes, we have increased protein needs (1.4 - 2.0 gm/kg) compared with non-active individuals. For meals, general recommendations are 0.25 g of a high-quality protein per kg of body weight, or an absolute dose of 20–40 g. In addition to increasing whole protein foods in our meals, protein powders can be an effective tool in helping us meet protein needs. So which protein powder is best?
If you have no preference for plant-based over animal-based, & no milk protein sensitivities or allergies - then hands down, whey protein powder is the winner. Numerous studies have established that 25 g of whey protein after exercise stimulates muscle synthesis most effectively & there is also research to suggest whey protein after exercise is associated with less soreness. Both these things = improved recovery. Here’s why: whey protein contains all the essential amino acids (EAA) which are required by our body & must be provided from an outside source (food). Whey protein also contains higher amounts of leucine, the amino acid that is responsible for triggering muscle synthesis. When compared to plant-based proteins, whey contains a higher amount of the necessary amounts of EAA including leucine in a smaller volume.
With all that being said, plant-based protein powders can meet the above needs. You will need to be mindful of the following though: (1) pick a plant-based blend that contains multiple plant protein sources to ensure EAAs are provided in adequate amounts, and (2) you will need a higher dose of the powder to get the necessary amount of leucine to stimulate muscle synthesis (could be anywhere from 30 to 40 grams of protein - this will likely require adding more than what is recommended as a serving size on the powder container). Plant-based powders can also be a great option for those who seem to have GI discomfort after using whey or milk derived protein powders, have milk protein intolerances or allergies, or prefer to eat vegan or vegetarian.
As far as brands, I recommend going to nsfsport.com for protein powders that are thoroughly tested & do not contain banned substances. Protein powders are considered supplements and can contain questionable additives, inaccurate amounts of the products listed on the label, and/or substances that are not disclosed on the label.
You can also look for the NSF Certified Sport, USP Verified, Consumer Lab Approved Quality, and the BSCG Gold Standard label as markers of more reliable products.
Jen Scott is a board-certified sports nutrition and clinical dietitian with 20 years of experience. When she's not helping people conquer their nutrition and running goals, she is hanging out with her 3 kids, 2 dogs, 2 cats and husband, or training for her next race.