Navigating the Protein Powder Aisle
When I walk into the protein powder aisle of any store I see a million different options- and I've read just about every ingredient label there is. I know that so many people, men and women, add these to their smoothies or drink them immediately following a workout every day. Not everyone has the time- or is as crazy as me- to read and let alone understand what every single ingredient is in them.
If you are going to fuel your body after a work out- you should be sure that you're taking something that is actually healthy and made with real ingredients.
While protein is important for building muscle and muscle recovery, and many other bodily processes, choosing a safe and healthy option is so important. You don't want your supplement to be doing more harm than good.
I wanted to help clear up that confusion by highlighting a few of the standout ingredients to avoid- and what exactly I look for in a protein powder for myself.
- Creates carb cravings
- May slow metabolism and lead to weight gain and/or diabetes
- Digestive issues
The name artificial sweetener alone is a red flag. Let's get back to basics, eating real food in its naturally state- not something created in a lab.
Sucralose (AKA Splenda) is one ingredient I see very often in protein powders-typically jumbled up with a million other ingredients so that you don't even notice. I have a couple problems with artificial sweeteners.
The first being that, while many people feel it is a better option than sugar, artificial sweeteners actually leave your body craving more sugar/carbs and can lead to weight gain. Why? In short, artificial sweeteners confuse your body.
When there is no glucose (sugar) to absorb, insulin (your fat-storage hormone) basically floats around waiting for more sugar. That's where the cravings set in. Sucralose has also been shown to increase glucose and insulin levels in overweight individuals, putting them at risk for developing diabetes and further weight gain.
Additionally, artificial sweeteners can be addictive.
By taking a supplement that is extremely, and artificially, sweet, we are basically training our bodies to not enjoy things that are naturally sweet, like fruit. This again in turn can cause you to consume more sweetened beverages. Sugar addiction is a real thing, and added sugars have become a big problem linked to the obesity and chronic disease epidemics. Taking small steps to reduce your cravings and your intake of added sugars can really have a positive impact on your energy levels and your overall well-being.
Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to negatively impact gut health, just another reason I like to stay clear of them. Many people experience digestive distress and/or migraines from artificial sweeteners as well as sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, etc.).
Without going on again about the addictive nature of sugar, any supplement with sugar/glucose or one of it's many other names can raise your glycemic load, which can lead to fat storage, skin issues, poor energy levels, and an increased risk of developing diabetes. A protein powder should be simple, and I prefer one not sweetened at all. Some I like are flavored naturally with vanilla bean powder or lightly sweetened with monk fruit extract. Be sure to take the time to read the ingredient label next time you are purchasing a protein powder- sugar is unfortunately hiding in so many products.
Know your source.
I wanted to include this one because I know how popular this option is. While I tend to not force organic or grass fed on anyone- I have to say that whey is something I don't budge on.
If you are consuming a whey protein almost every day, you should definitely consider what kind of cow that whey is coming from. The science on the impact on our bodies and the environment that factory animals can have is always growing. If your protein powder doesn't specify organic or pasture-raised cows, the animal your whey is coming from could very likely be sick, packed with antibiotics, and fed on a feed they are not meant to eat and that is covered in pesticides.
Luckily, more and more brands are starting to create whey protein options with minimal ingredients and made from pasture-raised cows. If you don't want to spend more money for a grass-fed option, then I would suggest sticking to a plant-based protein.
I think it's important to not mindlessly consume animal products every day- knowing the source and decreasing our environmental impact is always a priority for me.
It's also important to note that many people are sensitive to whey and/or casein. Pay close attention to whether or not you are feeling bloated or having digestion issues after consuming a whey protein!
Soy is something I try to avoid in general as a personal choice, but if you are going to take a protein supplement with soy almost every day I would take caution.
Some people (not everyone!) have trouble digesting the protein that makes up soy. So again, pay attention to how your body is feeling.
Soy also has a phyto-estrogen compound, which has been shown to disrupt hormone balances and lower thyroid function. As someone with a thyroid disease, I take caution to this. Keep in mind, this becomes more of an issue if soy is consumed in large amount every single day- so don't let this bit of information make you completely fearful of soy.
Additionally, soy (along with corn) is one of the most genetically modified (GMO) crop with high pesticide use. GMOs are beyond the scope of this article, so if you are interested I encourage you to do some research! Again, that is a personal choice that I choose not to force onto anyone.
5. A long list of words you can't even pronounce
In general, I look for protein powders with a very short ingredient list with only words I can understand. Some of my favorites are Aloha Moment, Bob's Red Mill, Amazing Grass, and Nuzest as a plant-based option, and Vital Proteins as a collagen and/or whey option. I tend to choose a plant-based protein more often, as long as I find one that doesn't cause bloat or GI distress. I feel better about my impact on the environment this way, and many plant-based options provide you with an extra boost of veggies and nutrients!
It's empowering to make choices that give us more control of the way our body is nourished. You can make a long-term impact in a short amount of time with a few small changes.
Fuel your body with real food!
Follow along on Instagram for many of my favorite smoothie recipes- perfect for meals on the go or recovery after a good gym session!