You know by now that you should include protein in your diet for fat loss, muscle gain and, well, your overall health. And we're sure you also know that outside of food you can also get some tasty protein from protein powder as well.
But do you know why the best protein powders for women are so useful? Or is it more of a monkey-see, monkey-do with your favourite influencer on the 'gram? Whatever it is, let's give you a little more background on the powerful powder and why it could be the key to hitting your protein goals.
How much protein do women need?
The NHS and the British Nutrition Foundation recommends 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight a day (that's around 50 to 60g ) but, several recent studies, including one Nutrients paper, suggest that those protein guidelines are too low, especially if you’re highly active. 'Those engaging in 150 minutes of exercise a week (or more) require around 1.2 to 1.5g of protein per kg body weight per day, and athletes will require even more,' says nutritionist Jenna Hope.
Why is protein so important for women?
Maintaining muscle mass and strength is important for your overall health, for preventing chronic diseases and for everyday movement, like lifting heavy objects. High protein foods help to support exactly that: and protein powders, in particular, offer bang for buck. 'Your muscles are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein,' explains Dr Stuart Gray from the University of Glasgow. 'Powders deliver a huge amount of amino acids to the muscles.'
Are some protein powders better than others?
Short answer, yes, but it will depend on your goals what 'better' means. There are some ingredients to swerve across the board according to Hope, though.
'Be aware of added sugars, as they can unknowingly contribute to your total sugar intake. Where possible, opt for protein powders which are free from artificial sweeteners and flavourings, too.'
What is the healthiest protein powder?
Let’s clear something up: healthy is entirely objective. So, what’s healthy for one person, could be considered less healthy for another. Capisce?
The healthiest protein powder for you is going to be one that helps you to hit your goals without compromising on nutrients, and also takes personal dietary requirements into consideration.
We recommend always reading the label before committing to a protein powder to double-check the ingredients, keeping an eye out for added sugars and artificial sweeteners, as Hope advises, noting what that specific powder is designed to help you achieve and whether it is suitable for your dietary requirements.
What are the pros and cons of using protein powder?
On the plus side, protein powder offers a convenient way for you to up your protein intake. It can sometimes be difficult consuming your optimal level of protein through food alone (since you have to prep it, carry it around and then actually eat it – which isn’t all that easy when you’re not feeling hungry), so protein powder is a nifty solution.
It doesn’t require any forward prep or planning, it can be whipped into a shake and enjoyed on-the-go (sans bulky cool bag), and often it’s cheaper than stocking up on chicken breasts too.
As far as cons are concerned? The main one is that protein powder tends to lack the micronutrients that you’d get were you eat a source of protein (such as eggs, fish, or steak for example). This generally isn’t a problem if you are getting all of your essential nutrients from food sources and using powder to boost protein intake in-between meals, but would be an issue if you were to supplement food with shakes. Not cool at all.
How to pick the best protein powder for you
Now, without further ado, the best protein powders for women. Not the gloopy, concrete-looking slop that you associate with World's Strongest Man but, tailored, vitamin- and mineral-enhanced blends designed specifically for what women need.
Whether you're vegan, dairy-free or lift a lot in the gym, there's a protein powder just for you. Here's our handy guide on what sets pea apart from casein, and whether hemp tops brown rice in the nutrition department. Whey to go, indeed.
Here we break down the six most common types of protein powders. Keep scrolling for 32 of our favourite protein powders for women you can shop now.
1. Whey (dairy)
- Who for? Women who lift weights
- 30g gives you... 104 cals, 21g protein and 1.9g fat*
- What is it? Basically, it's the liquid scraped off cheese. Revolting, but also the most effective protein for the body to use, says the Journal of Applied Physiology.
'Whey concentrate is around 65-70% protein, which is higher than any plant-based options,' says nutritionist Drew Price. Protein's gold-star nutrient is leucine, an amino acid that triggers muscle growth and repair.
'Around 13% of the protein in whey is leucine, compared with, say, hemp's 7%,' says Price. 'If you’re training regularly at a high intensity, have 15g before your workout and 15g after to get it working faster.'
Dairy issues? Searching for the best whey protein for women but not so keen on dairy? Use whey isolate (it's had the milk sugar removed) and you should be fine.
2. Pea (vegan)
- Who for? Vegans or women can suffer from bloating.
- 30g gives you... 107 cals, 23g protein and 0.6g fat*
- What is it? Made by extracting the soluble protein from fibre-rich yellow split peas, this gives a vegan protein punch - minus the gassy side effects.
High in superstar amino acid leucine, pea protein outranks other plant-based proteins according to The Journal of Nutrition and a study found it as effective as whey at increasing muscle mass during a 12-week training programme.
It's a popular post-workout choice because of its zero fibre (compared with hemp’s 8g per 30g scoop) content makes it easier on the gut, but since it's a little light on crucial amino acids, pair it with another plant protein, like oat bran, which contains plenty. Just add a 30g scoop to a smoothie or make yourself a protein porridge with the oats themselves. Delicious.
3. Casein (dairy)
- Who for? Women aiming for fat loss.
- 30g gives you... 117 cals, 26g protein and 0.5g fat*
- What is it? Another dairy by-product, its fat-blasting reputation means it's a favourite with the body-building crowd.
Despite its meathead associations, casein is actually ideal for anyone with a get-lean goal. ‘Casein is digested more slowly than whey and forms a jelly in the stomach that keeps you feeling full,’ says Price. ‘It also stops muscle from breaking down, enabling you to lose weight without losing muscle,’ he adds.
Take it in the evening. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that ingesting 40g of casein pre-sleep improved protein repair rates by 22% - essentially speeding up your progress by around one-fifth. Still not good for the dairy-averse though.
4. Brown rice (vegan)
- Who for? Women who enjoy smart snacks (read up on WH's favourite expert-approved high protein snacks, while you're at it).
- 30g gives you... 127 cals, 23g protein and 0.6g fat*
- What is it? Rice grains are ground and treated with enzymes to separate the protein. You'd need to eat 500g of rice to get the same protein as in a 30g scoop. That's a lot of risotto.
Easy on the stomach, rice may seem like a decent alternative to whey - one study in Nutrition Journal found it to be as effective on all counts - but Price has a word of warning.
'Rice doesn't compare in terms of amino acids so I'd guess the subjects in the study were getting a lot of protein from elsewhere in the diet, evening things out.' He advises you do the same; 'Fill up on quinoa at mealtimes and snack on peanut butter or edamame beans.' Don't mind if we do.
- Who for? Vegans.
- 30g gives you... 124 cals, 16g protein and 3.6g fat*
- What is it? Made from pressed and ground hemp seeds, this vegan superfood powder will go divinely with your slogan tee and a designer yoga mat.
Good news: Hemp contains anti-inflammatory omega -3 and -6 fatty acids, which are difficult to find on a plant-based diet.
Bad news: 'Although hemp protein has all 21 amino acids, it doesn’t have the optimum amounts you’d find in casein or whey. It’s particularly low in leucine, so try combining 15g of hemp with 15g of leucine-rich pea protein powder to boost the amino acid profile and speed up your body’s rate of repair,' advises Price.
Finally, be warned: 'It can cause bloating, probably down to the high amount of fibre,' says Price. Worth remembering if you don't want to let one rip mid-yoga sesh.
- Who for? Busy AF women who work out a lot.
- 30g gives you... 111 calories, 11.2g protein and 2.6g of fat
- What is it?
While the health benefits of soy protein are often disputed, there is one soy protein product going above and beyond to prove the perks of guzzling its specific blend. Norvia Active Performance blend is designed for the highly active and consists of soy protein, soy fibre and soy lipids promising to prep the body's muscles for exercise and increase energy levels during exertion.
Slip one of the portioned sachets into your gym bag and guzzle post-session when you're short of time. Aside from a healthy protein hit each shake offers a good dose of vitamin B12 and B6, both essential for warding off tiredness.
What about protein blends?
Many protein powders are actually a blend of a few of these common types. While whey and casein are usually just single ingredients, a lot of vegan protein powders mix hemp, pea, brown rice or soy to provide a nutritionally complete profile. Some proteins are better at encouraging muscle recovery whilst others can help you gain muscle mass – combining two or more can often help you achieve a few different goals at the same time.
8 ways to use protein powder
You've ordered your powder and are avidly scrolling high protein recipes on the Women's Health site only to realise they're, well, mainly made from food and not protein powder.
No sweat—we got nutritionists Hope and Lee Chambers (@essentialisecoach) to offer their favourite ways to incorporate the little extra protein hit into their day-to-day.
'I love adding protein powder to my porridge', says Jenna, while Lee loves using protein to add a little sweetener to his morning coffee. Why not try:
- Mixing with water or milk of choice (aka making a traditional protein shake)
- Mixing through your morning porridge (make sure to use this protein powder porridge hack, if you do)
- Stirring through yoghurt for a snack
- Making into protein pancakes
- Blending with banana and your choice of fruit and veg to make a healthy smoothie recipe
- Whizzing it into a pudding or mousse
- Using it to thicken soup or hummus
- Baking it into cakes, bread or pizza bases
How often should you drink protein shakes?
Again, it really depends on you, your goals, your nutrition, and your activity levels.
Protein shakes are ideal for drinking around the time of your workout – either before or after – to promote recovery, or to snack on throughout the day in-between meals. Protein shakes should not replace meals entirely.
Your best bet is to hit up a qualified nutritionist – particularly if you have health, performance, or aesthetic goals in mind – to get the low-down on your daily optimum protein amount, plus how to get as much as you can from food sources and when (and how often) to supplement with protein powder.
Something to pay mind to, regardless of your goals, is that you shouldn’t eat too much protein in one sitting. ‘It's important to spread your intake throughout the day in order for your body to digest it,’ Xander Pipe, fitness nutrition coach and founder of meal delivery service The Key To Food, tells WH. ‘If you eat too much in one sitting, it can place strain on your kidneys.'
32 best protein powders for women to shop now
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