During my old school bodybuilding days, when I was a poor college student trying to decipher and decode how to affordably pile slabs of muscle on my lean, hard-gainer body, my diet was basically comprised of…
…creatine (which I taught you about here)…
…tuna fish (often with relish or ketchup or some other low carb way to “moisturize” cheap canned fish)…
…the infamous “bricken” meal (lean-ass chicken with flavorless steamed broccoli)…
…and oodles and oodles of nasty, canned, artificially sweetened, chemical-infused whey protein powder (the farts were unimaginable, and little did I know at the time that some whey protein can actually be clean, creamy, delicious, and easy-to-digest, but I'll get to that shortly)…
…resulting in, when combined with 5,000-6,000 calories per day and tons of heavy, full-body lifting protocols, me bulking up from a skinny 175 lbs to a big ol' 215 lb 3% body fat pile of muscle who could actually pose on stage and feel good about it.
Anyways, a huge key to the whole nutritional scheme of my approach was, as you probably know, all the amino acids and protein I was shoving down my gaping maw and guzzling multiple times per day.
Of course, we all know that protein is good for us. It’s a vital macronutrient that promotes muscle growth and repair, metabolism, sleep, skin and nails, brain function, the immune system, and so much more. Because protein is used for just about every bodily process, it’s constantly being broken down and must be replaced with adequate amounts from your diet. And what's it broken down into? The amino acids that I taught you about in this very recent article.
But, what exactly constitutes “adequate amounts of protein” for the average person just trying to be healthy? Or how about the elite athlete who wants to optimize performance and recovery? And what about the skinny fella desperately trying to put on a few pounds of muscle?
Once you finally discover how much protein you should eat, where should you get it? Do you have to eat animal products, or can you get adequate amounts from plant-based sources? And what about protein powders, are those any good?
After all, while it's no secret I'm a huge fan of essential amino acids, at some point you actually need caloric sources of protein, and slamming steaks and salmon all day long can be expensive, time-consuming, and if you're hitting the gym frequently, a bit difficult to digest on-the-go.
Heck, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked those questions above—or any question about protein timing, dosage, sourcing, etc., really—during my career, I’d be a rich, rich man, retired on a beach somewhere in Thailand. See, the topic of protein and the building blocks of protein, amino acids (as I mention here) can be confusing and slightly contentious. Are you a whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, rice protein, hemp protein, pea protein, or unicorn horn protein consumer, bro? Or do you even protein?
So in this article, I want to do my best to provide you with answers to those probing protein questions (or at least guidelines to help you find your own answers)—answers to questions such as:
- How much protein do you need?
- Exactly how I evaluate the best protein sources
- How plant proteins stack up against animal protein
- The fascinating history of a commonly demonized protein
- The best kind of protein powder money can buy, and the kind I’m personally using today (it may surprise you)
Alright, let's get ready to become a master of this macronutrient and an official “protein pro”…
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
Despite what many nutritionists, personal trainers, or health coaches will tell you…
…answering the question “how much protein should I eat?” is more complicated than you may think.
In fact, my personal answer can sometimes be frustrating, as I hardly ever respond with a simple number, range, or equation. Essentially, to determine how much protein you, personally, should eat, you need to be familiar with a term called “nitrogen balance.” Here's how nitrogen balance works:
Nitrogen enters your body when you consume protein (or amino acids), and it exits your body in urine as urea.
“Nitrogen balance” then, refers to the amount of nitrogen coming in versus the amount of nitrogen getting excreted.
You can also think of nitrogen balance as the balance between catabolism (breakdown of protein) and anabolism (synthesis of protein). Easy, right?
As you can probably imagine, if you don’t eat enough protein for your needs—in other words, you’re using more than you’re consuming—you’ll be in a “negative nitrogen balance.” While this isn’t an issue in the short-term (meaning, you don’t need to worry about meeting your exact protein needs every single day), over time, negative nitrogen balance can lead to:
- Brain fog
- Fluid retention
- Dry, brittle nails
- Muscle weakness
- Sagging, aging skin
- Low energy or fatigue
- Poor immune function
- Slow athletic recovery
- Thinning or shedding hair
- Cravings or incessant hunger
- Inability to put on or maintain muscle
Not good, right? This long list can lead many people, especially athletes and bodybuilders, to pound the protein in the form of multiple protein shakes, chicken breasts, cans of tuna, tubs of peanut butter, and more…but unfortunately, there are downsides with that, too.
If you consume more nitrogen from protein than you excrete—you guessed it—you’ll be in a “positive nitrogen balance.”
While you’ll be mostly free of the issues above, constantly eating way more protein than your body needs, day after day, could also cause other issues:
- Dehydration or extreme thirst
- Stress on the kidneys and liver
- Digestive distress, gas, and bloating
- Overactivation of mTor, which controls most anabolic and catabolic processes in response to nutrients and nutrient-induced signals
Now, I’m not saying you should never put yourself in a positive nitrogen balance. There are definitely reasons to occasionally, or seasonally, “over-eat” protein—but I’ll get to those in just a moment.
So, of course, it’s best to generally try and maintain “nitrogen balance”—meaning you’re eating enough protein to fuel your physical needs, but not so much that it causes a burden on your body, organs, and potentially shortens your lifespan.
“Yeah Ben, but how much is too little or too much?!” Alright, it's time to blow the dust off your calculator and get ready to crunch some numbers…
Protein Intake Guidelines
The current US recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, which was designed for the average sedentary adult to maintain nitrogen balance, is an arguably somewhat measly 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (0.8 g/kg).
This means that the average 175lb male—let’s call him “Jim” for short—would need just 63 grams of protein per day to maintain nitrogen balance. So basically Jim just needs to eat a few pastured eggs, a handful of nuts, a 6-ounce grass-fed ribeye, and boom: nitrogen balance, baby. Easy peasy.
But, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not just the “average sedentary adult” like Jim. In fact, I would guess that you are a) at least moderately physically active, b) have certain body composition goals, and/or c) want to maintain muscle mass as you age.
So, what if you’re in one, or all, of those categories? Then how much protein should you eat?
The short answer: Somewhere between 0.5-1.15 g/lb of your body weight, with the high end of that range being ideally reserved for highly active individuals, people recovering from an injury, or bodybuilders or high school or college football players trying to put on oodles of lean muscle.
Now, I realize that’s a somewhat big range, and where you personally fall will fluctuate based on your activity levels, goals, and age. So here are some general guidelines on how much protein you should eat if you’re an athlete, older adult, or looking to build muscle, according to recent research.
If you’re an athlete, you likely need to be eating more than the measly RDA of 0.36 g/lb. No surprises there.
However, you might not need as much more protein as you’ve been led to believe—but this also depends on your sport and goals.
Every coach, nutritionist, and trainer has different thoughts on how much protein athletes should eat. So, when “expert opinions” contradict, it's helpful to look at what the body of research says. Science for Sport recently did a thorough review of all the studies on protein intake and athletic performance and recovery. After analyzing a good chunk of research, here’s the general range of protein they found to be effective for athletes, depending on their sport (numbers rounded for ease):
- Endurance athletes: 0.5-0.8 g/lb (1.0-1.8 g/kg)
- Strength/power athletes: 0.6-0.9 g/lb (1.4-2.0 g/kg)
- Athletes currently in a weight-loss period: 0.7-1.15 g/lb (1.6-2.4g/kg)
The report also found that exceeding these levels did not confer any additional benefit to the athletes. And since you now know that there are downsides to going overboard on protein, it’s probably a good idea to generally stick within these ranges.
So if our buddy Jim was an elite athlete, depending on his “sport,” he should be eating around 88-158 grams of protein per day. And if he was “cutting weight,” closer to 122-200 grams.
Another scenario in which you may want to exceed the average recommended intake of protein is if you’re 65 or older.
As we age, muscle mass becomes increasingly important—and increasingly more difficult—to maintain.
This is because of something called “sarcopenia,” or age-related muscle loss, which is partially due to the aging muscle being less responsive to anabolic stimulus from amino acid intake. Additionally, stomach acid and the digestive enzymes responsible for breaking down protein can decline by up to 40% as we age, which inhibits our ability to break protein down into amino acids and utilize it for building muscle. Therefore, in order to overcome these obstacles, aging adults should probably eat more protein than the RDA (recommended daily allowance)—especially if they want to kick butt well into their 90’s, and they should probably combine that with a decent digestive enzyme complex that helps to break down that protein (e.g. Thorne's Bio-Gest or Bioptimizers Masszymes are a couple of decent brands I like).
That means Grandpa Jim would need to be eating closer to 100-158 grams of protein each day.
What if our fictional character Jim was looking to utilize a higher protein diet as a muscle gain/fat loss tool?
Purposely exceeding nitrogen balance could definitely be an effective short-term strategy. This is because protein works in two main ways to help fat loss:
- It satiates your appetite, resulting in less calorie intake overall
- It increases lean muscle mass, which boosts your resting metabolic rate (RMR), or how many calories you burn at rest
For the generally healthy person who wants to put on lean muscle (and simultaneously lose body fat), somewhere around 0.6-0.8 g/lb (1.3-1.8 g/kg) protein per day seems to be the most effective for satiating appetite and building muscle.
So if Jim wants to “slim down and tone up,” he could shoot for 105-140 grams of protein per day.
However, I have indeed worked with some individuals—so-called “hard gainers”—who have a difficult time putting on muscle or recovering properly unless they eat 0.8-1.0 g/lb of protein. But those folks are few and far between, and most people don’t need that much protein to see results for body composition.
Long story short, in case your eyes have been glazing over for the past two minutes, is that for most folks, I tend to recommend no less than 0.55-ish g/lb and no more than 0.8g/lb. That's pretty much the sweet spot of protein intake for the lion's share of people.
Reasons You May Want To Eat More Protein Than the RDA
There are other scenarios in which you may want to exceed the protein RDA…
…or purposely achieve “positive nitrogen balance.”
Those circumstances and individuals include:
- Pregnant women
- Growing children
- Recovering from illness or injury
- During a caloric deficit or “weight cut”
- A “refeed” period after extended fasting or calorie restriction
- If you have digestive issues such as hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid levels), depleted enzymes, or gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut microbiota) which can lead to decrease digestion of protein
Whew! See? The answer to “how much protein should I eat?” can be complicated!
In case your head is spinning, let’s recap the protein guidelines:
- The U.S. RDA for nitrogen balance in sedentary adults is 0.36 g/lb
- Athletes may need 0.5-1.15 g/lb depending on their sport and goals
- The sweet spot for gaining lean muscle is around 0.6-0.8 g/lb
- Older adults need more protein to combat sarcopenia, around 0.55-0.9 g/lb
So, as someone interested in both maintaining muscle and optimizing for longevity, what do I do, personally? While I tend not to obsess over macros or calorie intake, I usually aim for around 0.55-0.80 g/lb of protein per day (which for me, is around 100-150 grams), depending on how heavy my activity levels are that day.
The take-away message is this: If you’re a generally healthy, active adult, eat as much protein as your body needs for repair and recovery (~0.5 g/lb). If you’re an athlete fueling intense bouts of exercise, an older adult, looking to put on muscle/lose weight, or are in another aforementioned category, you’re likely going to need more than that (~0.6-1.15 g/lb).
In other words, if you're reading this, you could probably do well with eating more protein than the RDA—but how much more ultimately depends on your personal health and goals, and your optimal protein intake may take a bit of tinkering to discover.
So now that you know generally how much protein you might need, the next obvious question is: What exactly should I eat to get this protein?
What Are The Best Protein Sources?
First, I should admit that I think the importance of getting “X amount of grams of protein” every day is a little overblown.
Wait, didn’t we just spend a whole ten minutes discussing how much protein you need?!
Here’s what I mean: I don’t think about food sources only in terms of their protein content. Instead, I personally, tend to look at the amino acid profile, among other factors.
See, amino acids confer nearly all the magic that often gets attributed to protein. In fact, I just published an entire article on the wonderful world of amino acids, the importance of getting adequate amounts, and their science-backed benefits, which I would highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already read it, as it will provide a lot of background information to what I’m about to cover here.
Essentially, when it comes to “the best protein sources,” I tend to look at food in terms of 1) what sources are going to give me the most “complete amino acid profile” (adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids), 2) the amount of protein delivered per calorie, and 3) overall nutrient density.
So, with that being said, below are some of the most nutrient-dense, amino-acid-rich protein sources—broken down into the categories of animal sources, plant-based sources, and protein powders (yes, I do use protein powder, and find it extremely beneficial when I’m in a pinch, want to put on muscle, or on a hard training day where I need a protein boost. I’ll tell you which protein powder I like best in just a moment).
When you think about protein, the first thing that may come to mind is a big ol' steak.
Am I right?
Well, there's no question about it…animal protein—such as meat, eggs, dairy, and fish—is a superior source of protein. This is the case for a number of reasons:
- Complete amino acid profile: Contains adequate levels of all nine essential amino acids
- Higher amounts of protein per calorie: Meaning you need fewer calories to meet your protein needs
- Chock-full of other nutrients: Such as B Vitamins, Vitamin D, Omega Fatty Acids, Zinc, and Heme Iron (which is more bioavailable than the Non-Heme Iron in plants)
Because of these reasons, I try to get a solid amount of my daily protein via animal products. Now, I won’t give you an exhaustive list of all the different animal food sources you could eat, but here are some general numbers to give you an idea of how many grams of protein animal sources supply, and roughly how much you might need to meet your personal daily protein requirements:
- Chicken (~27 g protein / 100 g)
- Organ meats (~26 g protein / 100 g)
- Beef (~26 g protein / 100 g)
- Fish (~20-25 g protein / 100 g)
- Eggs (~6 g protein each)
- Yogurt (~10 g protein / 100 g)
- Cheese (~6-10 g protein / 1 oz.)
- Milk (~3 g protein / 100 g)
It goes without saying that, ideally, you should try to get animal protein from grass-fed, wild-caught, pasture-raised sources. As you can see, it really doesn’t take much to hit your protein goals if you’re regularly eating high-quality animal protein.
However, there are reasons some people choose to limit or avoid animal protein—such as the cost, environmental impact, and other ethical reasons. I’m certainly not here to promote an animal-based diet as the only way to meet your protein needs (though I will say that in terms of environmental/ethical reasons, I would highly suggest listening to my podcasts with Joel Salatin and Mark Hyman to learn about other regenerative farming solutions).
In any case, there are certainly plant-based proteins that can help fill the gaps—whether you’re relying strictly on plants, or just want to supplement an omnivorous diet.
Personally, I’m a big fan of plants.
In fact, unless I'm giving my gut some TLC and avoiding too many plant defense compounds or hefty amounts of raw fiber to give my gut a bit of a break, my plate is usually loaded up with small-to-moderate amounts of vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, tubers, herbs, spices, and plants of all kinds—and the remaining is typically a variety of clean, nose-to-tail animal products, and a few choice supplements, such as creatine, fish oil, protein powder, etc.
While there are many, many benefits of a diet rich in plants, purely relying on them for adequate protein intake can get a little tricky. This is because:
- Most of them have an incomplete amino acid profile—Even if a plant protein is touted as “complete,” it is usually still low in one or more of the EAAs (essential amino acids, or those you need to get from food sources), especially leucine
- They’re lower in protein per calorie—This means you need to eat more calories of plants to get the same amount of protein. Ted Naiman's Protein Leverage Hypothesis states that you will prioritize the consumption of protein in food over other dietary components, eating more calories until your base protein needs have been met, regardless of how much energy you are taking in. This means that if you are vegan or vegetarian, you are more likely to overeat as your body tries to meet your protein needs. Supplemental protein will help you to reach your protein requirements more quickly, thus reducing the likelihood of overconsuming calories. The video below explains the Protein Leverage Hypothesis in greater depth.
However, it’s still certainly possible to get adequate protein from plants. In fact, athletes such as ultrarunner and Ironman Rich Roll, MMA fighter James Wilks, NBA star Kyrie Irving, and many more seem to thrive on completely plant-based protein, but man-oh-man, this approach takes a ton of slow-food prep, fermentation, soaking, sprouting and the like to actually render all those plant protein sources digestible, and, furthermore, many plant-based eaters either have to accept the fact that they're gonna be hella skinny or they're going to have to consume massive plates of food to actually reach the amount of protein intake their bodies need, resulting in the type of gas, bloating, indigestion, weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations and inflammation many plant-based eaters, especially the active ones, experience on the daily.
But some plant protein isn't bad to consume. It's just easier to round out your protein intake with animal sources. If you do include plant protein sources, below are some of the more complete plant protein sources, which contain all nine EAAs (but again, are going to be too low in one or more of them, so are not typically considered “complete proteins”):
- Edamame (~11 g protein / 100 g)
- Peas (~5 g protein / 100 g)
- Spirulina (~4 g protein / 1 Tablespoon)
- Quinoa (~4 g protein / 100 g)
- Hemp (~3 g protein / 1 Tablespoon)
Comparing these numbers to the animal sources, you can see how it can be more difficult (though not impossible) to meet daily protein needs if you’re just relying on plants—especially when it comes to getting adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids.
That’s why I, personally, tend to focus on getting most of my protein from animal sources, while again, still filling much of my plate with plants. Not only that, I will often “supplement” my protein intake with a few scoops of some kind of easy-to-digest protein powder, such as in a morning smoothie. So, let’s dig into that next!
What About Protein Powders?
Let’s face it: If you’re in a category that needs more protein, squeezing in adequate amounts every day can be tough—especially if you’re restricting calories or intermittent fasting. Not only that, there’s the expense that comes with high-quality protein, as well as the amount of time required to prepare it every day.
This is where quality protein powders can be a life-, time-, and wallet-saver. Just one convenient scoop added to a smoothie can deliver an extra 10-20 grams of protein in as little as a few seconds.
However, the question of “which protein powder is best” is ubiquitous and could be a topic for an article in and of itself. There are dozens of protein powder choices out there, plant- or animal-based, including these common choices:
- And more…
While all of these protein powder sources have their pros and cons—and I’ve personally tested and tinkered with many of them—as you’re about to discover, when you isolate for the three factors I mentioned above (amino acid profile, protein per calorie, and nutrient density) one clear winner emerges…
…good ol’ whey protein.
It's also worth mentioning the protein digestibility-corrected amino score (PDCAAS). PDCAAS is a newer model that is used by the World Health Organization to evaluate protein value based on the amino acid requirements of humans. While many protein powders stick with the biological value or BV (a way to measure a protein's usability—the higher the BV, the greater amount of available protein that the body can synthesize), the PDCAAS is becoming increasingly popular. Both whey concentrate and whey isolate have an optimum PDCAAS of 1 while, in contrast, pea protein has a PDCAAS of 0.49, rice protein is 0.27, and hemp protein is 0.46.
Now, you may be surprised by that answer. After all, whey protein has a notoriously bad rap in the alternative health and wellness world, especially by those concerned with dairy, hormones, growth factors, etc.
However, when you look past the (slightly unfounded) stigma, whey has a fascinating history as a health-promoting product dating back thousands of years, and according to the research, it beats the pants off just about every other protein powder source in a number of wheys (heh).
The History of Whey Protein
For those that aren’t familiar with whey, or perhaps didn’t spend their formative years tossing back scoops of whey protein powder in the gym or signing “Little Miss Muffet” on the playground (curds and whey, remember?), here’s a brief background on what it is and where it comes from.
Whey is one of the main proteins in milk—it makes up 20% of the total protein content, while casein makes up the remaining 80%. If you’ve ever seen the watery liquid that can settle on top of yogurt or raw milk, that’s whey.
While neon-colored tubs of whey protein lining GNC store shelves is certainly more of a modern-day phenomenon, the use of whey is anything but recent. In fact, it’s about as old as dairy itself.
Archaeologists have discovered remains of pure whey in ceramic vessels dated all the way back to 7100–5600 B.C. This means the ancient man may have been intentionally separating whey and using it for a specific purpose (instead of just discarding it, as cheesemakers do today). Additionally, the Father of Modern Medicine, Hippocrates, is also documented to have prescribed whey to his patients for immune issues, gastrointestinal ailments, and skin conditions.
Later, during the 1600s-1900s, there were even European “whey houses” that served fashionable whey drinks and dishes, as well as “whey spas” where patrons would go to literally bathe in whey, as well as receive other skin treatments. (Heck, you can still find fancy European skincare products that are made with whey today!)
Here’s the main point: For essentially all of human history, whey has been universally regarded as a health food. That is, until the 20th century—when the commercialized dairy industry exploded.
As the demand for industrialized cheese and milk products grew, whey became a menacing “waste product.” So, dairy processors began disposing of it in just about any economical way they could, including tossing it into waterways and fields, which of course led to some pretty serious pollution problems.
Environmental regulators responded by prohibiting the illegal disposal of whey, and thus, processors were forced to find another use for it.
As a result, scientists started studying the nutritional value of whey, and upon finding it was rich in protein, amino acids, and other nutrients, the modern-day whey protein industry was born. Pretty fascinating, right?
However, the stigma of whey as a “waste product” still remains in the psyche of most of the modern world (especially here in America). So, let’s break down exactly what it is about whey that I’m a fan of, and why it may deserve more credit as a nutrient-dense source of protein.
The Top 5 Reasons Why Whey Protein Shines
As mentioned, when you start diving into the nutritional profile of whey…
…its “udder” :) superiority to other protein sources becomes clear.
This is true in the following ways:
- EAA profile
- Protein quality & digestibility
- Leucine content
- Protein-to-calorie ratio
- Nutrient density
So, unless you’re vegan or allergic to dairy (people with lactose intolerance may still be able to tolerate certain types of whey—I’ll tell you which kinds later in this article), here are a few solid, science-based reasons to reconsider whey as your protein powder of choice.
Reason #1: Highest Ratio of EAAs
Now, remember, amino acids are the building blocks of protein—and thus, deliver nearly all of the benefits often attributed to protein.
EAAs are especially important, as our body can’t make them on its own, and we must get them from our diet (if you want to understand more about amino acids and why they’re so beneficial, be sure to read this recent and quite helpful article).
Therefore, finding a protein source that has a “complete protein profile” with adequate levels of all nine EAAs is going to give you the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of health benefits, especially when it comes to muscle protein synthesis, body composition, and athletic recovery. (This is also why I tend to sometimes skip the protein powder altogether and supplement with straight essential amino acids—especially if I’m in a pinch or want to avoid extra calories.)
While there are certainly other protein powder sources that are “complete”—including milk, casein, and egg—whey contains the highest levels of all the EAAs of any other protein source (43%).
The dotted line in the image above represents the WHO/FAO/UNU essential amino acid requirements. When a protein source is below this line, it means that protein alone wouldn’t meet your EAA requirements. As you can see, many popular plant proteins are below the recommendations.
This is one of the major reasons why whey is such a winner in my book. But that’s not all.
Reason #2: Superior Protein Quality & Digestibility
Another way to evaluate the quality of a protein is to look at both the amino acid requirements of humans and our ability to digest that protein.
Historically, protein quality has been ranked using the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).
Using the PDCAAs, whey protein has the highest value any protein can achieve (1.0), meaning it provides 100% (or more) of all the amino acids required in the diet. However—the PDCAAS is capped at 1.0—so other inferior protein sources such as soy protein, eggs, and casein are all also given a score of 1.0.
Due to these limitations and confusion caused by the PDCAAS, experts have started using a different method for protein quality scoring: the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). Now, I won’t get into the minute differences in protein scoring techniques here, but essentially the DIAAS looks at ileal digestion as opposed to fecal digestion, and it allows for a score to go above 1.0 to see the true differences in quality.
All that to say, according to the newer DIAAS protein quality method, whey protein (isolate and concentrate) has the highest “protein quality” of any other protein source:
In other words, the amino acids in whey are absorbed more quickly and efficiently by the body than any other protein source.
Reason #3: Highest Amounts of Leucine
In addition to having high amounts of EAAs…
…whey is also chock-full of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) such as isoleucine, valine—and especially leucine.
Leucine is the most important amino acid when it comes to stimulating muscle growth and repair. As covered in my post on EAAs, leucine:
- Increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis
- Regulates the production of anabolic endocrine hormones
- Stimulates the release of insulin, which enhances the uptake of other amino acids and suppresses muscle protein breakdown
- Modulates the mTor pathway, the cell survival pathway that monitors the availability of nutrients, cellular energy, and oxygen levels, triggering muscle hypertrophy (an increase and growth of muscle cells)
In fact, a specific lack of leucine may be why plant-based proteins don’t have as much of a profound effect on building muscle when compared to leucine-rich animal proteins.
Whey has a higher leucine content (per gram) than any other protein source.
For example, 25 grams of whey protein provides enough leucine to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (2.7 grams)—while, on the other hand, you would need to consume twice that amount (54 grams) of hemp protein for the same amount of leucine.
Reason #4: More Protein in Fewer Calories
Whey also offers the highest amount of protein per calorie, which can be a good thing for those wanting to lose weight and simultaneously build lean muscle.
For instance, 100 grams of whey protein provides 80-90 grams of protein (depending on the type) and only 82 calories. 100 grams of soy protein, on the other hand, has a similar amount of protein (88 grams)—but a whopping 321 calories! And even a whole-food source, such as 100 grams of lean beef, provides only 36 grams of protein and 200 calories.
For this reason, whey protein is an incredible tool when it comes to getting a lot of satiating, muscle-building protein for very few calories.
Reason #5: Nutrient Density
Finally, not only is whey rich in protein and amino acids…
…but it also provides a vast array of bioactive components that have their own unique health benefits.
Some of the nutritious and beneficial compounds in whey include:
- Cysteine, an amino acid that can enhance glutathione levels and antioxidant function
- Lactoferrin, a beneficial protein for the immune system, gut health, and bone health
- Lactoperoxidase, a protein with anti-microbial benefits
- Immunoglobulins, immune-building proteins that support overall health, athletic performance, and gut health
- Growth factors, such as IGF-1, IGF-2, platelet-derived growth factor, fibroblast growth factor, and others that promote muscle growth,
- Bioactive peptides like ACE-inhibitory peptides and lactoferricin that have a wide range of health benefits in the body
- Prebiotics that can boost gut health and microbial diversity, such as galactooligosaccharides
Not too shabby, huh?
So, in summary—between its amino acid profile, protein quality and digestibility score, leucine content, protein-to-calorie ratio, and the long list of additional nutrients—it’s pretty dang hard to beat out good ol’ whey protein. Now you can see why 18th Century Europeans were soaking themselves in bathtubs full of whey!
However, before you jump in your car and drive to your local Whole Foods to grab the cheapest whey protein available, it helps to know about the various types of whey and the differences between each.
Which Whey is Best: Concentrate, Hydrolysate, or Isolate?
There are three types of whey protein you’ll find on store shelves today: Concentrate, hydrolysate, and isolate.
While they all come from the same source of liquid whey, each type is processed differently, which has an impact on its nutritional profile and protein content.
Whey Concentrate: After liquid whey undergoes basic filtration and drying, it becomes “whey concentrate.” Whey concentrate is the most basic and least processed form of whey protein, which also means it's the least expensive. It’s higher in fat in carbohydrates than other sources, and lower in protein (~80% by weight)—though this contributes to its delicious, creamy taste. However, whey concentrate is higher in lactose, which could be an issue for those with severe lactose intolerance.
Whey Isolate: When whey concentrate goes through a further purification process, whey isolate is produced. Isolate is lower in carbohydrates and fat, and much higher in protein (~90% or more), which means it gets digested faster than whey concentrate. While it’s not as creamy, it’s still pretty darn tasty, especially compared to some plant-based proteins. It’s also incredibly low in lactose, which is another perk for those sensitive to dairy.
Whey Hydrolysate: And finally, even more processing (hydrolyzation) gets you to whey protein hydrolysate—very high in protein (~99%), and essentially zero carbs, fats, or lactose. While hydrolysate may sound like the clear winner, it’s highly processed, prone to degradation, and tends to also be much more expensive and worse tasting than other forms of whey protein.
This table from Gronk Fitness sums up the comparison fairly well:
So, while all three types of whey have their pros and cons as well as science-backed benefits, I personally think whey protein isolate is “whey” superior for a number of reasons:
- Moderate cost
- No sugar or fat
- High protein (90% or more)
- Lower in carbs and calories
- Purer product and a smoother taste
- Incredibly low in lactose (less than 0.5% or 1 gram per serving)
In other words, whey protein isolate is clean, digests well, and beats the pants of most other protein sources in terms of bioavailability and digestibility. But how about real-world application? Is whey protein isolate actually proven to provide benefits when it comes to health and human performance? Let’s find out.
The Top 3 Science-Backed Benefits of Whey Protein Isolate
When diving through the research, you’ll find dozens of cited benefits of whey isolate…
…from the immune system to gut health to bone health, as well as important biomarkers such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels.
However, for the purpose of brevity and impact, I’ll focus on the most heavily researched and supported benefits here:
- Muscle protein synthesis and lean muscle growth
- Satiety and healthy weight management
- Athletic recovery
Here’s exactly how whey protein isolate can help improve your health in all these categories, backed by the highest quality research I could find.
Whey Protein Isolate Benefit #1: Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis & Lean Muscle Growth
When we exercise, our muscles get damaged temporarily.
If we have enough protein onboard, our body will initiate “muscle protein synthesis” to repair and rebuild our muscles—making them stronger, and oftentimes bigger, too. If we don’t have enough protein, however, the body undergoes “muscle protein breakdown” and we lose muscle mass.
So if you want to build muscle, you need protein (potentially in excess of the RDA, as we discussed earlier). Whey protein, rich in muscle-building amino acids—especially leucine—is one of the best protein sources for increasing muscle protein synthesis, and thus, the growth of lean muscle.
- In a study on healthy, active young men, 20 grams of whey protein isolate maximally stimulated muscle protein synthesis (even more than 40 grams, which resulted in amino acid oxidation and ureagenesis).
- A 2020 randomized controlled trial on healthy older women compared whey protein isolate to collagen protein. Whey protein isolate (30 grams 2x/day) stimulated muscle protein synthesis significantly better than collagen—with and without resistance exercise.
- Another randomized controlled trial studied the effects of whey protein and resistance exercise on healthy older women with sarcopenia, a condition caused by an age-related decline in muscle mass. 20 grams of whey protein taken after exercise significantly increased skeletal muscle mass, grip strength, and gait speed.
- A 2014 meta-analysis of RCTs found that overall when combined with resistance exercise, whey protein significantly increases lean body mass.
Therefore, supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein, especially when combined with and consumed after resistance training, can significantly improve muscle protein synthesis and lean muscle mass.
Whey Protein Isolate Benefit #2: Promotes Satiety and Healthy Weight Management
Bodyweight is complicated and often involves multiple factors such as calorie intake, macronutrient profiles, activity levels, metabolism, hormones, genetics, and even your microbiome.
In fact, I’ve covered the many potential factors involved in weight loss a number of times, most recently in the article “Why You’re Not Losing Fat, How To Turn Your Body Into A Fat Burning Machine, The Biggest Fat Loss Mistakes & Why Your Fat Loss May Have Come To A Screeching Halt.”
While I will admit that whey protein definitely isn’t a “magic weight loss pill,” it can certainly be a tool for supporting healthy weight management, specifically in its ability to reduce appetite and improve glucose metabolism (not to mention its ability to build metabolism-boosting muscle as previously covered).
An RCT from 2017 showed that whey protein decreased hunger, the desire to eat, and food consumption in obese adults. After 12 weeks, body fat was significantly reduced compared to controls.
Another study on young, healthy men and women looked at the effects of whey protein isolate on blood glucose and showed it was able to significantly moderate blood glucose levels 30 minutes post-consumption. By improving post-prandial glucose metabolism, whey protein may have a beneficial effect on body fat levels.
And finally, according to a 2014 meta-analysis of RCTs, “the current body of literature supports the use of [whey protein], either as a supplement combined with resistance exercise or as part of a weight-loss or weight-maintenance diet, to improve body composition parameters.”
Whether by satiating your appetite so you eat less, improving your glucose metabolism so you store less fat, revving up your metabolism with increased lean muscle—or perhaps a combination of all three—whey protein appears to have beneficial effects on maintaining a healthy weight and body composition.
Whey Protein Isolate Benefit #3: Enhances Athletic Recovery
Still chugging chocolate milk after your workouts to speed recovery?
Time to put down the Yoo-hoo and pick up the whey protein. Studies show that whey protein is a more effective post-workout recovery aid (not to mention lower sugar and less mucus-inducing).
There are a number of studies that back up the claim that why protein is superior for athletes:
- A double-blind crossover study on healthy young men showed that, compared to a placebo, consuming 25 grams of whey protein after strenuous resistance exercise improved whole-body net protein balance and overnight performance recovery.
- A 2018 meta-analysis and systematic review of 13 RCTs found overall positive effects of whey protein on the recovery of muscle function following resistance exercise.
- The recovery benefits of whey protein are likely due to its high level of EAAs, which are incredibly effective for repairing damaged muscle and attenuating muscle soreness.
Whew! Believe it or not, what we just covered isn’t even an exhaustive list of the research on whey protein isolate—just a glimpse at the highest quality studies available currently.
Introducing The New Kion Clean Protein: Pure, Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate
So, long story short is this…
…protein powder helps you get all the amino acids you need, and can be incredibly healthy if derived from proper sources, and if you're going to use a protein powder, the research is glaringly obvious: you should use a quality whey protein isolate.
So if I’m such a raging fan of whey protein isolate, you may be wondering which brand I personally use. If you would've asked me this question last month, I would have said…none. Seriously: I have been frustratingly unable to find any whey protein isolate out there that my sensitive “princess gut” can actually digest, or that is clean enough for me to feel good about using or recommending.
So I decided to scratch my own itch. Why should I not formulate and design a whey protein isolate that is clean, that tastes good, and that is actually good for you?
Indeed, for the past several months, me and my team at Kion have been hard at work in our secret Batman labs in Boulder developing the absolute cleanest, purest, most effective, and most damn-delicious whey protein isolate available on the market.
The result is astounding, mouthwatering, creamy, delicious, clean-burning, oh-so-easy on the gut, and an incredible new addition to our Kion clean supplements lineup. It’s called—of course quite simply—Kion Clean Protein (you can click here to get yours now) and I’m incredibly excited to be able to share it with you today.
When we launch a new product at Kion, we cut no corners and spare no expenses. I can confidently say that about this new clean whey protein isolate.
Our supply chain then goes to work to find the purest, cleanest, most rigorously tested source of those ingredients they can possibly find…
And finally, our formulators put those ingredients together in a way that achieves: a) the research-backed dose of each ingredient, b) the most effective delivery mechanism, and c) a taste that is absolutely friggin delicious—without ever adding a single iota of sugar, artificial flavoring, artificial sweeteners, or other junk ingredients.
The new Kion Clean Protein is no exception to these high standards. It’s by far one of the cleanest, highest quality whey protein isolates on the market, and here are five reasons why it's “the cream of the crop” of protein powders (pun intended).
Allow me to fill you in.
Kion Clean Protein Advantage #1: Sourced Exclusively From Grass-Fed Cows
Sourcing is incredibly important when it comes to animal products.
Chugging a whey that’s chock-full of antibiotics, added hormones, BPAs, and heavy metals isn’t going to exactly be healthy for you—no matter how much protein it has.
Kion Clean Protein is sourced strictly from grass-fed cows that graze on pastures, producing a uniquely nutrient-dense, protein-rich, delicious whey. Not only that, Kion whey is always 100%:
- Growth hormone-free
- From happy, healthy cows
Kion Clean Protein Advantage #2: 20 Grams of Pure Protein
One scoop of Kion Clean Protein contains a whopping dose of 20 grams of complete protein.
On a hard training day, or when other clean protein sources are limited, just one serving can help you reach your ideal protein intake without the mess or time required to, say, grill up a steak or scramble a few eggs.
Not only that, it contains virtually zero carbohydrates (1 gram per serving) and 80-90 calories per serving making it a convenient, delicious protein source if you’re on a calorie-restricted or keto/low-carb diet.
Check out the supplement facts to see the full nutrient profile (this is our smooth, velvety, addictively delicious Chocolate flavor):
Kion Clean Protein Advantage #3: Tested for Toxins
This may come as a surprise, but high levels of toxic substances are a big problem in protein powders…
…even in organic, plant-based options.
The 2018 Clean Label Project Protein Powder Study found elevated levels of BPA and heavy metals (including lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium) in 53 leading protein brands. In fact, the Certified Organic and plant-based proteins that were tested had some of the highest amounts (up to 2x)!
Kion Clean Protein, on the other hand, is rigorously tested for toxins like heavy metals and other contaminants to ensure you’re getting the purest, safest product possible.
Kion Clean Protein Advantage #4: Virtually Free of Lactose
Compared to other types of whey, isolate is incredibly low in lactose, and most folks with lactose intolerance find they can tolerate it with no issues (if you have a dairy allergy, that’s a different story, however).
As someone who tends to get digestive distress from large amounts of dairy (though admittedly I do fairly well with fermented forms such as cheese and butter), I find the Kion Clean Protein to be incredibly gentle on my digestion, and free of other gas and bloating I tend to get from traditional whey proteins.
Kion Clean Protein Advantage #5: Delicious, Velvety & 100% Natural Taste
I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried untold numbers of “clean” protein powders that were incredibly disappointing in the flavor departments—and tasted either like a spoonful of sand, or sickly sweet (often with that “fake” aftertaste that artificial sweeteners are known for).
Not only that, clean proteins tend to be gritty and chalky, often leaving me longing to brush my teeth soon after.
Not this protein, baby. Kion Clean Protein takes the freaking cake when it comes to delivering a rich, creamy, velvety flavor that’s more like ice cream than protein powder.
And the crazy part is, they’ve somehow accomplished this using absolutely zero added sugar: just organic natural flavors, Himalayan sea salt, and stevia. Plus, it comes in chocolate, vanilla, and unflavored—so yes, there’s something for everyone.
Kion Clean Protein is hands-down the best-tasting protein I’ve ever tried, and it’s quickly replaced just about every other protein powder I have in my pantry (and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased, it really is delicious).
Kion’s Protein just dropped today, and you can try it for yourself right now, right here (and might I suggest throwing in some Kion Colostrum for an extra rich, creamy, immune-boosting smoothie, and if you're a real over-achiever, toss in Kion Creatine, Kion Berry or Lime Aminos, and Kion Clean Energy Bars for the ultimate smoothie, which I'll tell you below exactly how to make).
Well, if you made it this far…
…you can officially call yourself a “protein pro.”
You now know exactly how much protein you should be eating every day (somewhere between 0.5-1.15 g/lb depending on your age and activity levels):
- The bare minimum for sedentary adults is 0.36 g/lb
- The sweet spot for gaining lean muscle is ~0.6-0.8 g/lb
- Athletes may need ~0.5-1.15 g/lb depending on their sport and goals
- To combat age-related muscle loss, older adults may need ~0.55-0.9 g/lb
You also know how I, personally, tend to evaluate dietary protein, and why it’s not just about protein content. Instead, I tend to look at food in terms of:
- What sources deliver the most complete amino acid profile (adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids)
- Protein-to-calorie ratio (how many calories I have to eat to get the same amount of protein)
- Overall nutrient density (vitamins, minerals, immune factors, etc.)
For those same reasons, you now understand why—while I’m definitely a fan of plants—I tend to rely on animal sources for the majority of my protein needs, as they meet all three of those categories more effectively than plant proteins. There’s also certainly a time and a place for supplementation in the form of protein powder (especially on heavy training days, during a weight cut, or when I just don’t have much time to prepare a full meal).
So, after diving into the research when it comes to all the available protein powders, I’m now a believer that whey protein—specifically whey protein isolate—is one of the best sources out there for a number of reasons:
- Whey contains the highest levels of essential amino acids
- It has the best protein quality and digestibility score (as determined by DIAAS)
- It contains the highest levels of leucine, a potent BCAA for muscle building and repair
- It contains more protein per calorie than other sources and is virtually free of carbs and lactose
- It’s chock-full of other nutrients such as immune system proteins, bioactive peptides, and prebiotics
Not only that, whey protein is one of the most heavily-researched protein sources, and has a hefty amount of clinical research in terms of its ability to promote:
- Muscle protein synthesis and lean muscle growth
- Appetite satiety and healthy weight management
- Enhanced athletic recovery
The truth is, whey protein—despite its controversial stigma over the last several decades—is actually an incredibly powerful, health-promoting protein (something that our ancestors appear to have known well). However, whey is an animal product at the end of the day, so just like your meat/dairy/eggs/fish/etc. you should make sure you’re getting it from a reputable, high-quality source.
Ideally, your whey protein should be:
- Growth hormone-free
- Tested for heavy metals and other contaminants
- Free of added sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors
Very few whey protein isolates on the market meet all of these standards—and still taste amazing…but Kion Clean Protein fits the bill.
Kion Clean Protein can transform your bland, boring smoothie into a delectable, creamy, high protein, low-carb, sugar-free, low-lactose, chocolate/vanilla-flavored ice cream shake. Seriously, you’re gonna want to try this stuff. Click here to grab yours today.
(PS: I wouldn’t wait too long, we JUST launched it and I have a feeling it’ll sell like hotcakes.)
And finally, drumroll please, what is the brand-spankin' new protein smoothie recipe that I've been drinking every morning, and that I'm kinda addicted to like crack cocaine now? Here's the instructions in all their glory, including a video where I show ya how to make it:
-2 scoops Kion Vanilla Clean Protein or Plain Clean Protein (I'm not joking—the plain flavor tastes like rich, creamy breastmilk…it's astoundingly good)
-2 scoops Kion Colostrum for extra gut nourishment, growth hormones, and even more lovely creaminess
-2 scoops Kion Berry Aminos (I'll raise my hand for even more digestible amino acids to really crank the protein content through the roof while retaining digestibility)
-Add ice and bone broth, coconut milk, or coconut water to desired texture, along with a pinch of sea salt, and, if you desire even more mouth-watering goodness, one to two handfuls of frozen wild blueberries
-Blend to a thick, ice-cream-esque consistency, then top with a crumbled-up Kion Clean Energy bar (I keep mine in the freezer so they're ultra crunchy and textured)
-Proceed to have breakfast (or your post-workout meal if that's when you're drinking this) and tell me you don't slip into rich, creamy, delicious protein smoothie nirvana
I dare you.
And let me know what you think below, or add your own twists on a protein powder recipe that you make with this new, clean protein that I now consider to be the best protein powder out there, bar none.
How about you? Have you tried a variety of protein powders in the past? Has this article helped you to understand more about whey protein (I hope so)? I want to hear from you, so leave your comments, questions, and feedback below. I read it all, and I can't wait for you to try the new Kion Clean Protein.