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Your Guide to Protein Powders (Plus: The One That Won’t Make You Bloat)

Some products are not what they claim to be.

Curious about protein powder? While it’s not a replacement for proper nutrition, it is a smart way to supplement your diet. Boosting protein intake while exercising with weights or resistance bands improves results. However, finding a product that ticks all the boxes — 1) it tastes good; 2) each scoop really has as much protein as the label says; 3) it doesn’t make you bloat — is easier said than done.

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First, I must acknowledge that most Americans over-consume protein and eat roughly double what they need. This meat-heavy mentality leaves less room for other important foods that should fill out our diet, like whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. So, protein powders might not be necessary for a lot of women. “While protein powders may be a convenient and easy way to add protein to your diet, this can be easily accomplished by eating ‘real food’ sources such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, and eggs,” says Michelle Rauch, RD at the Actor’s Fund Home.

On the other hand, a powder is a good option if you don’t eat meat (there are many vegan and vegetarian options), or simply enjoy the ease of making a protein shake. Also, you need to eat more protein than the recommended amount if you want to gain muscle.

Building muscle as we age is important not just for burning fat, but for improving mobility, balance, joint health, and bone health. “Women benefit greatly from gaining and maintaining lean muscle mass, especially as they age and are at higher risk for conditions such as sarcopenia and osteoporosis,” adds Rauch. The muscle that comes with regular exercise will also help you maintain independence later in life.

How much protein do you need if you want to gain muscle?

It depends on your bodyweight, height, age, and physical activity level. The recommended daily amount (RDA) to maintain your current muscle-to-fat ratio is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. To easily find your recommended amount based on your activity level, try using this protein calculator.

What should you look for in a protein powder?

The fitness market is saturated with options, and unfortunately, many products are not what they claim to be. Protein powders are classified as supplements, so they are not regulated like food and medicine. Manufacturers are responsible for testing their products themselves to make sure they’re safe and meet the company’s claims. And not every company tells the truth. For instance, one South African study found that five out of 70 products tested had between 42 and 80 percent less protein per scoop than what the labels claimed.

So, how do you find a good protein powder that also won’t make you bloat? Here’s what to look for:

  1. An NSF certification. NSF (the National Sanitation Foundation) is a global organization that independently tests products to ensure they’re safe and contain the ingredients (and nutrients) advertised on the label.
  2. It’s a complete protein. This is important if you opt for a non-dairy supplement. Pea powder, for example, is a complete protein; collagen powder is not. “A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids,” Rauch explains. (It gets even more complicated: Some experts consider ingredients like peas to not be complete proteins because they contain very little of one or more amino acids. This is why vegan supplements tend to have a mix of vegetable proteins.)
  3. It has simple ingredients. While added vitamins and minerals are great, ingredient lists can get complicated quickly. As someone with a sensitive stomach, I appreciate a simpler label because a) it cuts down on the research I have to do, and b) if I experience stomach pain or bloating, it’s easier to narrow down the culprit.
  4. It doesn’t have sugar alcohols. Artificial sweeteners like sorbitol may cause bloating and diarrhea in large amounts. Protein powders often have high concentrations of sugar alcohols in an attempt to improve the flavor. Rauch also recommends avoiding dextrins and maltodextrins, or starches that can cause bloating.

What’s the best protein powder for women?

Big disclaimer: I haven’t tried too many powders for fear that most would upset my stomach. I avoid whey entirely, because even whey isolate causes me stomach pain. (Whey isolate is more refined than its counterpart and tends to cause fewer issues; it has less fat, carbohydrate, and lactose.) As a result, I’ve likely missed out on some good products.

So far, just one powder stands out above the rest, and it’s new to the market: Vitalura Labs Plant Based Protein, Chocolate Gelato Flavor (Buy from Vitalura Labs, $59.99). Despite the high price, I bought it because it ticks all my boxes: The short ingredient list is vegan and NSF certified. One scoop contains an impressive 25 grams of protein, 110 calories, 3 grams of carbs, and zero sugars (sweeteners include stevia and monk fruit extract).

I’ll serve you the downsides first: It does not taste like chocolate gelato. (One can dream.) It’s very much a protein powder, with that classic, slightly grainy texture. When you mix it with water as the package suggests, the bitterness of the stevia stands out. However, the flavor is the best of the powders I’ve tried. It tastes delicious in smoothies and milk — I think the milk’s natural sugars helped out here. Soy milk and oat milk are close runners-up. My favorite part? After trying it for two weeks, I haven’t noticed any bloating or stomach upset. I recently tried the vanilla gelato as well, and it’s a great alternative for the days when I’m not craving chocolate (a rarity, I’ll admit). It makes for a very tasty pumpkin smoothie.

Here’s what Rauch has to say about Vitalura: “I have never tasted this, so I can’t speak to the flavor. It is plant based — so good for someone who is gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan. It is also a source of complete protein, low in calories, no added sugar, and low carb … This product would be suitable for someone watching their blood sugar.”

Overall, I’m quite happy that I found this product. (I’m not sponsored — promise!) One last thing: If protein powder simply doesn’t agree with you, don’t force it. You can meet your nutrient requirements through diet alone; just pay better attention to what you’re putting on your plate.

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This article was updated on November 16, 2022.

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