Most women are looking for a healthy protein powder with little-to-no carbs and fats, and there are many options.
Whey? Casein? Soy? Egg? Rice? Hemp? Pea? The list goes on and on.
Which is the best for women?
Well, the truth is there isn’t a single type of protein that is best for all women. They key is finding what is best for you.
In this article, I want to explore each of the above options and help you determine what will best fit your body and needs.
Whey protein is by far the most popular type of protein supplement out there. You get a lot of protein per dollar spent, it tastes good, and its amino acid profile is particularly suited to muscle building (more in that in a second).
What is it, though?
Whey is a semi-clear, liquid byproduct of cheese production. After curdling and straining milk, whey is left over.
It used to be thrown away as waste, but it was discovered that it’s a complete protein, and is abundant in an amino acid known as leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that plays a key role in initiating protein synthesis.
When the world of sports nutrition caught onto this research, the whey protein supplement was born.
Whey protein can be taken anytime, but it’s particularly effective as a post-workout source of protein.Why? Because it’s rapidly digested, which causes a dramatic spike in amino acids in the blood (especially in leucine). This, in turn, stimulates more immediate muscle growth than slower-burning proteins.
So, whey is an all-around good choice for protein powder for men and women.
I should mention, however, that even if you’re not lactose intolerant, you can be allergic to the actual proteins found in cow’s milk. This is why some people don’t do well with highly refined forms of whey, such as isolate or hydrolysate, which have virtually all lactose removed.
If whey bothers your stomach, try a non-dairy alternative and you will be fine. My favorite non-diary protein is egg protein, but there are vegan options that work as well (we’ll get to them in a minute).
Casein protein is probably second in popularity behind whey, and it’s also a protein found in milk.The curds that form as milk coagulates are casein.
Casein protein is digested slower than whey, causing a smaller spike in amino acids in the blood, but a steadier release over the course of several hours.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether supplementing with whey is better than casein for building muscle or vice versa, but here’s what most reputable experts agree on:
Personally, I use whey in my post-workout meal, and then have a few scoops of egg protein (which is very slow burning) throughout the day to help hit my numbers. The reason I don’t use casein is my stomach starts to bother me if I eat too much dairy.
Many people don’t even know that you can buy egg protein in a powder form. You can, and it’s a great source of protein.
It has three primary benefits:
The bottom line is egg protein is just a great all-around choice. It’s what I personally use for all supplementation needs (I really like Healthy n Fit’s product), besides my post-workout meal, in which I use whey protein.
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Soy protein is a mixed bag.
While research has shown it’s an all-round effective source of protein for building muscle, soy protein is a source of ongoing controversy, and especially for men.
According to some research, regular intake of soy foods has feminizing effects in men due to estrogen-like molecules found in soybeans called isoflavones.
For instance, a study conducted by Harvard University analyzed the semen of 99 men, and compared it against their soy and isoflavone intake during the 3 previous months. What they found is that both isoflavone and soy intake were associated with a reduction in sperm count. Men in the highest intake category of soy foods had, on average, 41 million sperm/ml less than men who did not eat soy foods.
On the other hand, a study conducted by the University of Guelph had 32 men eat low or high levels of isoflavones from soy protein for 57 days, and found that it didn’t affect semen quality. Furthermore, literature reviews like those conducted by Loma Linda University and St. Catherine University suggest that neither soy food nor isoflavones alter male hormone levels.
What gives, then?
Well, further research has indicated that there isn’t a simple answer just yet.
For instance, the effects can vary depending on the presence or absence of certain intestinal bacteria. These bacteria, which are present in 30-50% of people, metabolize an isoflavone in soy called daidzein into an estrogen-like hormone called equol.
In a study conducted by Peking University and published in 2011, researchers found that when equol-producing men ate high amounts of soy food for 3 days, their testosterone levels dropped and estrogen levels rose. These effects were not seen in women, regardless of equol production or lack thereof.
Related to this is a study conducted by Sungkyunkwan University, which found that in a high-estrogen environment, isoflavones suppressed estrogen production, and in a low-estrogen environment, they increased estrogen production.
Now, in the case of women, research has shown that it is less likely to negatively affect your hormones. There are other things to consider, however.
While there is research that indicates soy might have special benefits for women such as reducing the risk of heart disease and breast cancer, other research casts doubt on these findings. And to the contrary, studies have shown that soy can even stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
Another issue that we have to deal with when we eat soy is the fact that the vast majority of soybeans grown in the States are genetically modified (91% according to government data).
The subject of genetically modified foods is incredibly heated, and too complex to fully address in this article (I will in a future article), but the safest bet at the moment is to avoid GM foods as much as possible until more research is done on the potential long-term health effects in humans.
Don’t let this scare you into completely avoiding soy protein, though. While women with breast cancer probably shouldn’t eat soy, there is no reason to fear a few servings of soy per week.
If you want to supplement with a protein powder several times per day, and would like to include soy, then I recommend you alternate with another source.
Other sources of vegan protein, such as rice, hemp, and pea protein, are often demonized as being “incomplete” sources of protein.
That is, some “experts” claim that such proteins are missing essential amino acids that your body needs, and thus must be combined in special ways to form “complete” proteins.
This myth and the faulty research that spawned it was thoroughly debunked by MIT years ago, but it still lingers. All protein found in vegetables is “complete.” What is true, however, is that some forms of vegetable proteins are lower in certain amino acids than others, making certain sources better than others.
Three of the better, and more popular, types of vegan protein powders are rice, hemp, and pea protein. Here’s how they stack up:
It’s also worth noting that using a combination of rice and pea protein works especially well, as their combined amino acid profile is similar to whey protein’s. That’s why this combination is often called the “vegan’s whey protein.”
The reality is hemp should be viewed more as a whole food, and not a pure protein supplement.
I hope you now feel more confident in choosing a protein powder. What you should do is try several, or all, of the options given in this article and see which your body does best with.
As I said earlier, I found what works great for me is whey protein after my workouts, and egg protein for all other supplementation needs. With a bit of experimentation, you can find what works best for you as well.