Protein supplements are the best way to ensure that your daily protein requirements are met and that you avoid making the wrong picks when hunger strikes while you’re on the go. One of the most common questions I receive from customers is “Is this product good for me?” In this blog, I will provide all the information you need to make the best choices. Your options include protein powders, meal replacements, and protein bars.
Protein supplements are comprised primarily of protein and are best suited for use in smoothie recipes or in a shaker cup as an on-the-go option that does not require blending. Since most smoothie recipes have other ingredients as sources of fat and carbohydrates, such as avocado or nut butters and fruit respectively, using a protein powder as your protein source avoids adding more fat or carbs to the recipe. Powders can also be used to increase the protein content of recipes for pancakes, muffins, yogurt and fruit bowls, and so forth. You can choose whey, casein, egg or beef protein as animal-based options. Pea, hemp, rice, soy or pumpkin are common plant-based selections.
You should consider the following points when purchasing a protein powder:
• It should be free of artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame potassium.
• Look at the amount of protein per scoop. If it offers 20 grams of protein per 25 gram scoop, it’s much richer in protein than a product that provides 33 grams per 65 gram scoop. There are other ingredients in that latter that you may not need.
• If you regularly eat soy, rice or eggs, I recommend choosing supplements from alternate protein sources so that you can vary your dietary intake and reduce the risk of food sensitivities.
• Pay attention to how you feel if you consume products with gluten or added fibre. If you experience digestive issues or bloating, you may need to avoid these selections and consider the Three-Step Digestive Reset.
• Use a whey isolate rather than a whey concentrate if you are lactose-intolerant.
• When opting for plant-based proteins such as pea, rice, or soy, use a blend of pea and rice (or an organic, fermented, non-GMO soy) to obtain a complete source of protein that will be similar to whey for an anabolic effect.
• To increase muscle mass, casein, soy, and whey have been shown in studies to offer the most favourable results.
• If you’re sensitive to, or intolerant of, certain dairy products, you may find that you can tolerate whey (in isolate or concentrate form) but not casein, or vice versa. Do a test. Try each of these three on a different day and pay attention to how you feel after consuming the drink—and the on rising the next morning as well. These are the two times that food sensitivity reactions are most noticeable.
• Avoid protein powders with added BCAAs if you are not looking to build muscle or exercising often. They may increase weight gain, and some studies show a link between increased intake of these supplements and metabolic syndrome. If you do add BCAA’s, you should consume do so with a source of 5 grams of creatine as well.
• Select a protein powder that is low in carbs (less than 5 grams of carbs or sugar per serving) and consider the best form to meet your goals:
• Concentrates. To make concentrates, protein is extracted from animal- or plant-based foods by using high heat and acid or enzymes. This is the least processed form of protein and will typically contain between 25 and 89 percent protein, with the rest being made up of carbohydrates and fats. If you are looking for fat loss, this may not be the best type for you.
• Isolates. Protein isolates go through an additional filtration process that reduces the amount of fat and carbohydrates, leaving 90 percent or more protein by weight. Much of the lactose is removed from whey through this method of production. It is digested more quickly and is helpful when fat loss is your goal.
• Protein hydrolysates. When these are manufactured, the protein undergoes extra processing with heat, enzymes, or acid to further break the protein chains down into shorter peptides, making them more easily digested and absorbed. With such rapid absorption, these are often the best choice for post-workout muscle repair. One issue with this type is the cost.
• Casein is the best slow-release protein for the support of muscle hypertrophy, but avoid it if you are sensitive to dairy. You can also look for a combination of casein and whey protein to enjoy the benefits of both.
• Some protein powders include added supplements, such as creatine, extra BCAAs, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and probiotics. How well these products work in conjunction with the protein powder is not known, and typically the amounts present are not enough to show a clinical effect. For instance, consider creatine. If there are fewer than 5 grams of it in the protein powder, you’ll need to opt for a creatine supplement instead if you wish to achieve the energy and performance benefits that have been shown in studies.
• Grass-fed products may still be treated with growth hormone and antibiotics, so a certified organic protein powder could be a better option if you would like to avoid exposure to these compounds. Look for whey proteins that say they are hormone-free on the label.
• Dream Protein—a mix of concentrate and an isolate
• Clear Medicine Clear Pea Protein—Vanilla or Unflavoured
Is a Meal Replacement the Same as a Protein Powder?
The simple answer is no. A meal replacement contains protein, but also contains additional ingredients to make it a complete meal. Unlike protein powders, which are fat-free and usually contain fewer than 5 grams of carbs, a meal replacement provides a whole feast in a glass—including protein, a higher carb count, fats, fibre and possibly a multivitamin. The characteristics of a good meal replacement are similar to those of the protein supplements listed above. In addition, your best choices should meet this nutrition profile per serving, mixed in water or low-carb milks (almond, coconut or cashew) so as to avoid additional carbs or fats:
• protein: 12–16 grams (which could be pea, rice, soy or whey-based)
• carbs: 15 grams or less
• fibre: 6–8 grams or more
• fat: 8 grams or less
• multivitamin: useful if you are not taking one already (I do not recommend a meal replacement containing a multivitamin during pregnancy—in this case, your prenatal multivitamin is enough)
To improve the effectiveness of your meal replacement options, you can add an additional scoop of protein or 15 grams of collagen supplement that contains vitamin C to meet your protein needs. Do this unless, of course, you are consuming a food source of protein on the side or plan to top up your protein intake with a scoop of protein powder at bedtime.
• Clear Medicine Clear Complete—vegan or whey protein-based formulas, available with or without a multivitamin
• Clear Vegan-Protein Complete Cleanse Natural Berry-Vanilla—excellent choice for added liver, antioxidant and metabolic support
• Clear Vegan D-tox Shake Vanilla Delight—medically formulated meal replacement formula to support the liver detoxification pathways and hormone metabolism
When determining whether a protein bar is good for you, you need to consider the protein source, the amount of protein and what other nutrients it’s paired with. Many protein bars are far too low in protein and fibre, and high in carbohydrate or fat. So, not just any protein bar will make the cut.
I based my choices on the bar ingredients and nutrition profiles. With respect to ingredients, a bar must not contain added sugar (even in the form of dates, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, cane sugar, molasses or agave), artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.), harmful fats (soy, cottonseed, vegetable oil or hydrogenated oils) or allergens like soy or gluten, especially if you have sensitivities.
Here are my suggested guidelines for what to look for when shopping for protein bars:
• High-quality protein sources. Protein bars that source their protein from high-quality isolates and concentrates (such as whey protein, pea or a mix of pea and rice) are the most beneficial.
• Natural sweeteners. Choose options with minimal amounts of natural sources of sugar, such as cane sugar or fruit.
• Whole-food ingredients. The best protein bars only use whole food or natural ingredients—no artificial ingredients allowed. The bars with the fewest ingredients usually are best.
• Healthy fats. Fats are essential for your body to absorb certain nutrients and they also help to keep you satiated. Opt for protein bars that contain healthy fats from nuts and seeds rather than those that include vegetable oils.
• Low to no synthetic or isolated fibre. Avoid those that contain corn fibre, which can cause bloating and increase the risk of allergic symptoms if you have a sensitivity to corn. We used to suggest Quest protein bars at Clear Medicine, but when they changed to a corn-based fibre, we stopped recommending them to our patients.
• Low in sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols have risen in popularity recently because they are a low-calorie way manufacturers can sweeten protein bars. Consuming large quantities of such ingredients, however, can cause bloating for some people.
As far as nutrition content guidelines go, look for products that contain this range of nutrients:
• 10–20 grams of protein (or more). The ideal options are those that contain more protein, especially if you are looking for a meal replacement. Go for 15–20 grams of protein if you’re looking to stay strong and lean and at least 10 grams of protein for a snack.
• 5 grams of sugar (or less). The best protein bars have no more than 5 grams of sugar.
• 6 grams fibre (at least).
• 5–9 grams of fat.
• Aim for less than 20 grams of net carbs. For example, the flavour of B-Up listed just below, which we stock at Clear Medicine, contains 25 grams of carbs and 19 grams of fibre, which translates to 6 grams of net carbs.
Recommended Brands (some of these we are having a hard time finding lately)
• B-Up (e.g., their Peanut Butter Cookie flavoured bar contains 8 grams fat, 25 grams carbs, 19 grams fibre, 20 grams milk and whey protein)
• Built Bar (e.g., their Coconut flavoured bar contains 2.5 grams fat, 6 grams fibre, 17 grams carbs, 17 grams milk and whey protein)—not your cleanest option as this brand does include maltodextrin and glycerin
• One Bar (e.g., their Peanut Butter Cup bar contains 8 grams fat, 8 grams fibre, 20 grams whey and milk protein—contains sugar alcohols)
• SimplyProtein (e.g., the Peanut Butter Chocolate bar contains 8 grams fat, 7 grams fibre, 15 grams carbs, 12 grams soy protein)
• No Cow Protein Bars (e.g., the Cinnamon bar contains 4 grams fat, 25 grams carbohydrate, 16 grams fibre, 22 grams pea and rice protein)
• Primal Thin Protein Bar Sweet Cream contains 5 grams fat, 19 grams carbs, 18 grams fibre, 20 grams whey protein
• Paleo Thin Bars:
• Chocolate Brownie contains 8 grams fat, 25 grams carbs, 24 grams protein, 20 grams egg protein
• Sweet Sunflower bar contains 7 grams fat, 25 grams carbs, 24 grams fibre, 20 grams egg protein
• Pegan Thin Bars:
• Cinnamon Raisin Roll contains 10 grams fat, 22 grams carbs, 17 grams fibre, 20 grams sachainchi seed protein
• Ginger Snap Cookie contains 6 grams fat, 28 grams carbs, 27 grams fibre, 20 grams pumpkin seed protein
• Vanilla Cinnamon Twist bar contains 6 grams fat, 26 grams carbs, 23 grams fibre, 20 grams pumpkin seed protein
• Chocolate Lava bar contains 9 grams fat, 27 grams carbs, 26 grams fibre, 20 grams sachainchi protein