In my clinical nutrition practice, when a client needs a protein-powder supplement, I generally recommend whey protein isolate powder, even though it's made from an animal source. I like the fact that whey protein contains all nine amino acids that our bodies must have to produce all the different proteins we need to function. Whey protein is also easily absorbed and used by the body, even after surgery or other stressful events.
In the past, nutritionists referred to the nine amino acids as the “building blocks of protein.” Then they started calling them “the essential amino acids” because the body can't make these building blocks on its own, but has to get them entirely from the foods we eat. Lately, the experts have further upgraded their admiration for the nine amino acids, referring to them as “the indispensable amino acids” (IAAs). Three of the most important IAAs – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – are the so-called “branched-chain amino acids,” which are believed to help with muscle repair and formation, and even perhaps with blood-glucose regulation.
Another plus for whey protein isolate is the fact that, although it's made from milk, it does not contain lactose, the enzyme in milk that irritates the digestive systems of so many people. Thus, whey powder works well for my weight-loss-surgery patients who are lactose intolerant.
Since it seems that an ever-increasing number of my bariatric-surgery patients are vegetarian, or wish to avoid milk-based proteins, I also recommend protein isolate powders made from soy. I've been talking with my patients about several newer vegetarian protein powders on the market that they can use as alternative supplements. These vegetarian protein powers are also easily digested and absorbed before and after surgery. They may be nutritionally similar to whey protein powder, although their IAA profiles do vary, depending on how they're processed.
Other Powders Made From Vegetable Proteins
I sometimes recommend other less well-known protein products to my patients to help supplement their protein intake:
Hemp seed protein. Hemp is a nutritional powerhouse, whose oil is a rich source of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids (among the “good” fats). Hemp seeds contain all nine IAAs and these are similar to proteins found in the human body, making them easy and quick to digest and assimilate. Additionally, hemp protein is also rich in fiber, boasting 8 grams of natural fiber per serving so that it can help with constipation and fulfill your protein needs. (Hemp protein, by the way, is perfectly legal; it's made from the “male” part of the marijuana plant, which has no mood-altering capabilities.)
Brown rice protein, reasonably enough, is made by carefully extracting the protein from brown rice. Although rice is commonly overlooked because its protein profile of amino acids is incomplete, rice powders are commonly supplemented with the missing L-amino acids that complete their profile. Many vegans rely on this allergen-free, gentle, and high-quality protein powder when they make smoothies for their exercise workouts.
Yellow pea protein. The protein powder made from yellow peas (Pisum sativum) is an easily absorbed, allergen-free source of 100 percent pure protein that is also fairly certain not to be genetically modified. It can easily be added to protein smoothies and shakes without altering their taste.
Manufacturers are currently talking about the feasibility of extracting proteins from other vegetable sources, such as flax seeds and canola.
My Thoughts on Vegetarian Protein Powders
As more and more people are seeking alternatives to animal-based protein powders, it's important that suppliers offer high-quality alternatives. Although I have certainly seen high-quality hemp- and rice-protein powders, producers must be sure that any new product contains the proper amounts of the indispensable amino acids. Otherwise, the body might not be able to absorb these new powders or to make use of all grams of protein listed on the label.
The “protein digestibility corrected amino acid score” (PDCAAS).
If you're trying to figure out if a protein powder is complete and if all the proteins listed on the label will be available to your body (that is, if it's “absorbable” or “bioavailable”), you must first find out its PDCAA score. The PDCAAS is a measure of a protein product's ability to provide adequate levels of all 9 of the IAAs that the human body needs. A registered dietitian or other health professional can calculate the PDCAAS for you or – if you know the IAA amounts of the protein product in question – you can look online for a “PDCAAS calculator.” (Note: If the manufacturer hasn't listed the amounts of IAAs on the label or website, and if they can't or won't tell you these numbers, then move on – the quality of their products is suspect.)
More protein is not necessarily better.
When making your smoothies, I advise against super-concentrating the protein content. This means that you shouldn't add more than 1 scoop, or much more more than 30 grams of protein to each drink. Your body may well be able to absorb more than this at a single sitting, but a high concentration of protein can dehydrate the body. Also, especially in gastric-bypass-surgery patients, too much protein at one time can increase the risk of an unpleasant phenomenon called “gastric dumping,” or “rapid gastric emptying,” where ingested food bypasses the stomach so rapidly that it enters the small intestine largely undigested. Oof!
The excess protein that you eat – but that your body doesn't need – is just so many extra calories.
Protein powders are an excellent way to supplement your diet if your protein intake is low, but always check first with your doctor or a registered dietitian to find out what an adequate protein goal is for you – it's different for each individual.