Best Protein powder

Kate Smyth- Sports Naturopath and Nutritionist

It can be difficult to know how to choose the best protein powder. Protein plays a vital role in any athlete’s eating plan. Irrespective of your chosen sport be that running, triathlon, swimming, team sports, cycling or lifting weights, athletes expend more energy than the average person. Athletes also need more nutrients to recover from intense training or competition.

Protein provides both structural and functional properties to all working cells in the body, making up approximately one sixth of your body weight. Protein helps strengthen muscle tissue, repair damage and is critical to building muscle mass. Protein and amino acids are also vital for healthy bones, cartilage, tendons, skin and blood as explained in our article on collagen and tendons.

But there are many more benefits to including adequate protein in your diet, especially as an athlete. Optimising protein intake as an athlete is vital and needs can vary significantly from that of a more sedentary person.

Benefits of adequate protein

  1. Stable Blood Sugar – more energy and reduced fatigue
  2. Less Cravings for Sweet and Snack Foods- better weight management and reduced energy fluctuations
  3. Improved recovery after sessions and events
  4. Muscle growth and reduced risk of muscle loss, leading to greater powder to weight ratio
  5. Improved immune system, reduced downtime days and disruptions to training progress
  6. Healthy bone maintenance and reduced risk of osteoporosis
  7. Improved metabolism and fat burning capabilities- enabling of a lean physique
  8. Aids injury repair and improved recovery time
  9. Improved nerve function and muscle contraction
  10. Reduced hunger through reducing ghrelin (the hunger hormone) leading to greater satiety

Good sources of dietary protein

Ideally, sources of protein are coming from whole, fresh foods such as lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products such as yoghurt, milk and cheese, seeds and nuts, beans, legumes, tofu and some grains, such as quinoa or buckwheat.

While it is possible for elite athletes to reach their daily protein requirements through diet from unprocessed wholefood sources (and this is highly recommended for the majority of protein intake) athletes in high training loads, with requirements for lean muscle mass or when injured, may find protein powders (20-30 grams) beneficial when ingested straight after training. During this time the muscles are more receptive to uptake of amino acids. However, muscle repair continues for 24 hours and therefore regular protein intake throughout the day is important.

Protein supplements such as whey protein or vegan protein powders are practical, convenient when travelling, or in a smoothie as a mid-morning snack.

Best protein powders

A ‘complete protein’ refers to the building blocks of protein – amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that can form a protein, and 9 that the body cannot produce on its own. These are the essential amino acids and we need to be able to get them through diet, or supplementation. All amino acids are required for protein synthesis, and a lack of one or more amino acids may compromise the athlete’s ability to build muscle.

Leucine is the key amino acid linked to muscle building and recovery. Research suggests ingestion of 2.7 grams of leucine results in a robust stimulation of muscle protein synthesis.   Research suggests powders containing the optimal ratio for the branch chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine in a 2:1:1 ratio in addition to the full amino acid profile are optimal for sports recovery and performance.

What type of protein powder is best?

There isn’t one type of protein powder that is better than others however some powders may be more suited to athletes depending on food preferences and intolerances, and health goals.  Powders with minimal ingredients, natural flavors, a balanced and complete amino acid profile, and organic are suggested to be the healthiest. Some powders may provide added probiotics beneficial for gut health.

Popular protein powder options include:

Plant-based protein

Plant-based protein powders may include combinations of pea, hemp, soy, pumpkin seed, flax seed fava bean, potato, corn and brown rice protein. Plant based options are dairy, whey, casein and egg free.  Leucine, lysine, and/or methionine are key amino acids for muscle-building capacity which may be reduced in plant-based powders.

Plant-based proteins could provide the same amount of leucine by adjusting the amount of protein ingested. Due to the greater leucine content of corn, 20 g of protein needs to be ingested to provide 2.7 g leucine, while the dietary protein dose of the other plant-based proteins would need to be increased to 33 g (potato), 37 g (brown rice), 38 g (pea), 40 g (soy), and 54 g (hemp).

Plant-based proteins that do meet the requirements for essential amino acids include soy (27%), brown rice (28%), pea (30%), corn (32%), and potato (37%). When plant-based proteins are combined (e.g. rice and pea) the amino acid profile can be enhanced.

Microalgae has received considerable attention in recent years due to their high protein content (similar to meat, egg, soybean, and milk), presence of other beneficial nutrients, and production that requires less water and land than other crops or animal foods. 48 g of microalgae protein is required to provide 2.7 grams of leucine.  Plant-based options are often viewed as sustainable, easily digestible, and potentially cheaper.


Whey protein powder is dairy-derived and fairly quickly and easily digested and absorbed. When combined with resistance training, whey protein may help increase muscle mass, support growth, and speed so it’s a great choice for athletes. Whey is also high in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which can help speed muscle recovery.

Of the animal-based proteins, whey protein has the highest essential amino acid content of 43%. Whey protein is available in concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate form, although many supplements contain a combination of the three. Typically 25g of whey protein provides 2.7 g of leucine.

Although whey concentrate and isolate offer similar benefits, whey protein isolate (WPI) undergoes processing methods that result in a higher concentration of protein and lower amounts of fat, carbs, and lactose. WPI may be a better option for those who are limiting their consumption of fat, carbs, or lactose. Hydrolyzed whey protein powders have been partially broken down to ease digestion and speed absorption.


Casein protein powders are dairy based and keep you feeling fuller for longer as they are digested and absorbed more slowly making them a good option for muscle growth and enhancing sleep when ingested before bed.  Casein has a slightly lower essential amino acid content (34%) than whey  (43%). Casein’s larger molecule size can make it more difficult to digest for some individuals and may be linked to digestive symptoms.


Egg white protein is suitable for those who have an allergy or intolerance to dairy products is paleo friendly and has a higher amino acid content (32%) than many of the plant-based proteins. It is not as easily manufactured and therefore not as widely distributed or found in health food shops.  Egg white typically provides 26 grams of protein in a 30-gram serve.


As mentioned in our blog, collagen is great for bone, joint, and ligament health, and a 20-gram serving of collagen peptides contains 18 grams of protein, no carbohydrates, and no fat.  Collagen has a different amino acid profile to protein powders and therefore can be added to your protein powder or taken before a workout for tissue repair.

If you would like to know how we can best support your sports nutrition goals. Make an appointment here. 

About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://


Athletic requirements for protein intake, Australian Institute of Sport- . While athlete’s requirements have been widely debated, the Australian Institute of Sports has published this fact sheet on the Athletic Requirements for Protein Intake.

Campbell, B., Kreider, R. B., Ziegenfuss, T., La Bounty, P., Roberts, M., Burke, D., … & Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 4(1), 1-7.

Witard, O. C., Garthe, I., & Phillips, S. M. (2019). Dietary protein for training adaptation and body composition manipulation in track and field athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 29(2), 165-174.

Vitale, K., & Getzin, A. (2019). Nutrition and supplement update for the endurance athlete: review and recommendations. Nutrients, 11(6), 1289.

Bleakley S, Hayes M. Algal proteins: extraction, application, and challenges concerning production. Foods. 2017;6(5):33. doi: 10.3390/foods6050033. 


Blood sugar

To keep your energy sustained, it is important to maintain blood sugar control. Natural blood sugar control is possible when done correctly and with professional guidance and supervision. When individuals fail to fuel themselves properly, they may experience reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or dysglycaemia (abnormal blood sugar levels) with an exaggerated insulin response. As a result, there is a subsequent dramatic drop in blood glucose, causing physical and emotional symptoms (see below). When blood glucose levels become unstable we can feel like we are on an energy roller-coaster throughout the day.

Symptoms can mimic other common issues such as anxiety or even menopause.

Symptoms of blood sugar dysregulation:

  • Nausea
  • Seeing flashes of light
  • Moodiness and “hangry” relief after eating
  • Negative attitude/ irritability
  • Exaggeration of relatively minor problems
  • Feeling emotionally flat or depression
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Sweating and flushes
  • Sugar cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shakiness
  • Paleness
  • Cold/clammy skin
  • Poor concentration and memory

Thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances, or high exercise demands can exaggerate these symptoms, especially with inadequate fueling in between multiple daily training sessions. There are a number of simple steps that may help stabilise blood sugar.

1. Protein is essential to blood sugar stabilisation and should be included in every meal including breakfast. Quality protein can be found in lean animal meats (kangaroo, lamb, beef, chicken) and fish. Vegetarian options include tofu, tempeh, legumes, eggs, dairy, and high-protein grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth. Vegans and vegetarians must practice protein source combinations to obtain all the essential amino acids.. For example: consume chickpeas with brown rice.

Athletes should ideally consume 1.2-1.6 grams of protein/kilogram of body weight which equates to 60-80 grams of protein for a 50kg female and 90-128 grams for an 80kg male athlete per day. It is beneficial to have 20 grams of protein with carbohydrates within 30- 60 minutes of completing a training session. A good option is a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder (pea, brown rice or whey if tolerated), a small can of tuna or 2-3 eggs.

2. Carbohydrates
Intake of low GI (Glycemic Index) carbohydrates will help keep blood sugar levels more sustained, and energy levels consistent. A high GI carbohydrate will cause a surge in blood glucose, triggering a response from the pancreas. This can contribute to the symptoms described previously.

Good sources of complex carbohydrates include porridge, Bircher muesli, brown, basmati or wild rice, barley, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, teff, rye, sweet potato, and root vegetables with skins on. Sourdough bread, corn on the cob, bananas, fruit smoothies with protein powder, and homemade muffins using wholemeal flours such as hemp, chia or buckwheat are all good options. Consuming carbohydrates with quality fats and soluble fibre also reduces the GI of foods.

3. Magnesium
Magnesium assists with blood sugar control by supporting healthy insulin secretion.

Magnesium is abundant in amaranth (a grain), pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and raw cocoa, wholemeal bread, quinoa, firm tofu and dark leafy vegetables. It is also found in oat bran, brown rice, cooked spinach, avocado, coconut water, kale, legumes, sesame seeds and cashews.

4. Chromium
Chromium deficiency reduces your body’s ability to use carbohydrates for energy and raises your insulin needs. Chromium may enhance the effects of insulin or support the activity of pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Chromium is found in meats, fish, poultry, wholegrains, dairy, broccoli, cheese, mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, apples, bananas, grape juice and potato.

5. Probiotics
Probiotics especially those containing more than one species of beneficial bacteria may help regulate blood sugar by influencing the way the body metabolises carbohydrates by reducing inflammation and preventing the destruction of pancreatic cells that make insulin.

Maintaining energy throughout the day

  • Have regular meals throughout the day eating every 2 hours
  • Consume protein at every meal. Aim to make up at least 1/3 of your meal from protein
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water regularly (2-3 litres per day minimum)
  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, stevia, and ginger can all be used instead of sugar to add sweetness to food.
  • Carbohydrates higher in fibre and from unprocessed sources are better
  • Consume carbohydrates within 30 minutes of completing a session
  • Fat reduces gastric emptying time and as a result, slows down the absorption of glucose from the meal. Consume beneficial fats with carbohydrates from raw nuts and seeds, fish, avocado and cold-pressed oils.
  • Increasing the acidity of food or meals will slow gastric emptying time. A simple tip is to add vinegar dressing to salad or vegetables.
  • Short-term supplementation of magnesium, chromium, probiotics or cinnamon, and other blood sugar-stabilising herbs and nutrients may be beneficial for some individuals.

Always seek help from a healthcare practitioner if your symptoms persist.

About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://

Optimise recovery

The amino acid leucine is of particular importance to female athletes keen to optimise recovery across the menstrual cycle. Leucine is one of the nine essential amino acids the body needs to obtain through the diet. Leucine along with other amino acids, are required for protein synthesis, tissue repair and nutrient absorption.

The demand for protein changes throughout the menstrual cycle.  The fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone have a profound effect on muscle turnover and protein synthesis. Amino acids like leucine are harder to access during the high hormonal phase (day 12 to day 23 of a typical 28 day cycle).  It is suggested to be harder for females to build and maintain muscle during this hormonal phase making it even more important to ensure adequate intake of essential amino acids during this time.

Strength training including weights or resistance stimulates muscles to take up leucine (and other amino acids) and triggers muscular growth.  Leucine can help prevent the deterioration of muscle with age so it is super important for masters athletes to obtain adequate leucine in order to optimise recovery.

The richest sources of bio-available protein including leucine are in eggs, milk, fish, and meats. Milk contains both whey and casein protein.  Whey is more easily absorbed and is higher in leucine than casein.  Whey is also digested at a much faster rate than casein, ensuring blood leucine levels rise soon after ingestion and triggering protein synthesis responsible for building muscle. Hence why many athletes swear by chocolate milk as their preferred recovery drink. Female athletes need additional leucine to optimise recovery and would benefit from options such as a post-workout smoothie including yogurt, milk, protein powder or almond butter.

Recent research also suggests that the combination of other highly bio-available proteins rich in leucine results in more favourable muscle hypertrophy compared to other proteins such as whole milk protein, casein and soy protein.

Vegans and athletes with dairy intolerance

Athletes who choose to avoid dairy need not feel they are missing out. Interestingly, a recent study found both whey and rice protein isolate administration post-resistance exercise improved body composition and exercise performance with no differences between the two groups when taken in adequate amounts.

Leucine-rich foods

Leucine can also be found in plant-based proteins included including soy, lentils, kidney beans, tofu, quinoa, hummus, rice, and almonds. These plant proteins contain approximately 50% less leucine. Therefore vegan athletes need to pay attention to getting enough high-quality plant proteins that offer the optimal amount of leucine (about 2.5 grams per meal or snack).

Vegans want to consistently enjoy soy, beans, legumes, seeds and/or nuts regularly at every meal and snack. Don’t have just porridge for breakfast; add organic soy milk and walnuts.  Don’t snack on just an apple; slather apple slices with peanut butter.  A blend of rice and pea protein powders makes a good substitute for whey-based protein powders. Some plant-based protein powders also provide added amino acids, making them a good choice for dairy-intolerant or plant-based athletes.

As a general guide 2 grams of leucine can be found in 120 grams beef, 130 grams almonds, 400 grams tofu, 3 eggs, 600ml cow’s milk or 900ml soy milk, 380 grams lentils, 350 grams kidney beans, 70 grams cheddar cheese, 350 grams yogurt, 27 grams whey protein isolate,  50 grams rice protein powder.

Elite athletes with large volumes of training may struggle to obtain adequate leucine from their diet alone,  especially if vegan.  These athletes may consider using protein and collagen powders including leucine, isoleucine and valine 30 minutes pre and post-workouts in addition to a diet rich in leucine to optimise recovery.

This table compares the leucine content of plant and animal foods.

Animal food Plant food (swap) Leucine
(g) approx
Eggs, 1 large Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons 0.5
Milk, ½ cup Soy milk, low fat, 1 cup 0.5
Tuna, 25 grams Black beans, 1/2 cup 0.7
Chicken, 60 grams cooked Tofu, extra firm, 170 grams 1.4
Cheese, 14 grams Almonds, 21 grams 0.3
Beef, 40 grams Lentils, 1 cup 1.3

We recommend including a variety of leucine rich foods in your diet in order to optimise recovery.

Most women’s daily protein intake should account for 30% of their diet to optimise recovery. A gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is adequate for recreational athletes, while elite athletes may require up to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, especially when competing in power and high-end endurance sports. On lighter recovery days protein intake can be reduced slightly keeping in mind other processes in the body require adequate protein intake (hormones and immune cells for example).

Consuming 20-25 grams of protein within 30 minutes of finishing a session is ideal for optimal recovery while having a protein-rich snack such as a high protein, low-fat yogurts such as YoPro or Chibani Fit at bedtime can boost protein synthesis by 22 %.

When you wake in the morning you are in a catabolic state after fasting for 10-12 hours during the night while sleeping. Having a protein-rich breakfast is really important to optimise recovery, restock your glycogen stores, fuel your daily activities and prevent overeating and sugar cravings later in the day. Great breakfast options to optimise recovery include scrambled eggs on toast or an omelette with sweet potato and veggies, a protein-rich smoothie, porridge with added yogurt or protein powder or scrambled tofu.


About the Author: Kate Smyth is a Sports naturopath, nutritionist and female-centric running coach. She is the founder of the Athlete Sanctuary- a holistic healthcare clinic for athletes of all levels and sporting codes. Kate has a thirst for knowledge with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree under her belt. She has been involved in sports for many decades and competed for Australia in the Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games marathons with a personal best time of 2 hours 28 minutes. For more information visit www.https://