If you've recently started paying more attention to your diet, you've probably heard that protein is king in nutrition. One easy way to get more of this important macronutrient is by investing in a protein powder. But not all protein powders are created equal and which one you choose matters, especially if you're looking to shed some pounds. The best protein powder for weight loss will support—not derail—your efforts.
So, what's the big deal with protein anyway? First and foremost, it can help you lose weight and keep it off, according to a 2015 American Society for Nutrition study. "Protein plays a big role in weight loss because it keeps us full and satisfied so that we make it to our next meal without snacking in between," explains Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist. It can also help you build and maintain your muscle mass, which is necessary to burn fat, even at rest, she adds.
All of these benefits come from the ability of protein powders to boost your amino acid levels, says Laurie Schubert, PhD, RD, of Nutrition Heartbeat. There are 20 amino acids in total, and your body can make 11 of them. But the other nine have to come from food. So, if you're not getting enough protein, your body's amino acid levels drop, which slows down cell function (a huge disadvantage if you're trying to lose weight). Amino acids can also turn off hunger signals in your brain and build new tissues in your body, she adds, so it's a good idea to up your protein intake.
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"If you are trying to change your body composition," Schubert says, "it's beneficial there." But protein powder alone won't kickstart the weight loss process. "It's going to be more about calorie balance than anything else," she notes.
Still, it can be hard to sort through everything on the market, so here are a few tips on how to use protein powders to lose weight and what to look for.
Meet the experts: Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, has more than 10 years of experience in helping women reach their health goals as a nutritionist. She also consults for several big companies like Tiffany & Co. and Ferragamo on health and wellness in the workplace, and has been featured in more than 20 national media outlets.
Laurie Schubert, PhD, RD, specializes in sports nutrition. She works with athletes of all ages, sports, and positions. She also serves as a lecturer at Benedictine University and a clinical nutrition research coordinator at Exercising Nutritionally, which focuses on clinical research and education company promoting healthy living and aging.
How often should you use protein powder in a day?
To get the most out of any protein powder, Schubert recommends only consuming one serving a day. The rest of your protein should come from what you eat, which can provide additional nutrients you won't find anywhere else (even in the *best* powder). And, drinking a protein shake after working out "can help rebuild muscle and bone and repair connective tissue damage," she adds, so consider throwing one in your gym bag before you hit the elliptical.
But remember, protein shakes shouldn't be used as a meal replacement, says Megan Byrd, RD, a nutritionist in Oregon. "Protein powders don't have enough calories or nutrition to be actual meals," she says. Instead, they can be used to make snacks like baked goods and smoothies healthier and more filling, while adding to their nutritional value.
What should you look for in a protein powder if you're trying to lose weight?
First things first, Byrd suggests choosing a protein powder that is high in fiber, high in protein, and low in carbs. "These types of protein powders will help keep you full longer, curb cravings, and help prevent sugar highs and crashes during the day," she explains.
You'll also want to opt for the unsweetened kinds because they won't add in sneaky sugars that could actually be sabotaging your weight loss efforts, per Zeitlin.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when making your pick.
Check the label. Make sure you look for something with at least 20 grams of protein, less than 10 grams of total carbohydrates, and at least three grams of fiber per scoop. You should also look for protein powders that are naturally sweetened using ingredients like monk fruit extract, stevia, and natural flavors. "Avoid protein powders that use sucralose, sugar alcohols, aspartame, Splenda, and other artificial sweeteners," says Byrd. She also recommends avoiding milk powders, milk solids, and gluten since they are unnecessary fillers that can cause bloating and other GI issues.
Opt for a protein blend if you're going plant-based. Whey, casein, or egg-based proteins are complete proteins, meaning they have all nine essential amino acids that help your body better absorb and make the most of your protein source. If you want a plant-based protein, look for a blend (like pea and rice)—these can also feature a complete amino acid profile.
Look for something with at least 100-150 calories per serving. This range is typically average for a protein powder, says Bryd. "Anything lower and I would question the ingredients and [satiety]. Anything higher and I would assume there are more fats and carbs than needed in that protein powder," explains Byrd.
Consider the flavor. If you're new to protein powder, start with classic flavors, like vanilla or chocolate, says Byrd. And, if you don't enjoy them, you can use them up by mixing them into foods like pancakes, waffles, protein donuts, smoothies, and baked goods.
Opt for a powder made with natural ingredients and added benefits. "It's always a bonus when protein powders have extra health benefits, such as added greens, prebiotics, probiotics, essential vitamins and minerals, and electrolytes," Byrd points out.
Nutritionists shared their favorite protein powders for weight loss. Here are 17 options from the pros.
1. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Isolate
"This protein powder is a mixture of whey protein and hydrolyzed isolate, which means it is not only quickly digested, but also contains a higher amount of protein per serving than regular whey protein, which is great for building lean muscle," says Jonathan Valdez, RDN, the owner of Genki Nutrition and a media spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It is also low fat and contains only a gram of carbohydrates for anyone watching their carb intake," he adds.
What's more, supplements aren't closely regulated, but you can feel safe using Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard because the ingredients have been verified by a third party called Informed Choice.
Per serving: 110 calories, 0.5 g fat, 190 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 25 g protein
2. Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides
Not only is Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides packed with 18 grams of protein to stimulate lean muscle growth and help combat cravings, but it also contains 20 grams of collagen peptides, which promote joint health, as well as hyaluronic acid to keep your skin glowing.
"The peptides are the perfect addition to your morning coffee or afternoon smoothie to get that extra protein boost and they’re NSF-verified, so you can be confident in the ingredients you're choosing with each sip," Valdez says.
Per serving: 70 calories, 110 mg sodium, 18 g protein
3. Orgain Grass-Fed Whey
TBH, tasty protein powders are often hard to come by. But "Orgain is a superior option," says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, the CEO of The NY Nutrition Group, a private New York City-based nutrition practice. Snag this one when you want a good protein powder with zero artificial ingredients or sweeteners.
Per serving: 150 calories, 3.5 g fat, (1.5 g sat fat), 14 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 140 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 21 g protein
4. Quest Multi-Purpose Protein Powder
Adding powder to smoothies is nice and all, but this one can be baked into peanut butter bars or even tossed into a tomato sauce. "One scoop has only 100 calories and no sugar since it’s simply pure protein, which makes it a perfect addition to any recipe to increase its nutrient density," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, the lead dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine.
Per serving: 100 calories, 0.5 g fat, (0 g sat fat), <1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 115 mg sodium, 0 g fiber, 23 g protein
5. Garden of Life Meal Vanilla Powder
"This vegan protein powder is made from a blend of pea protein, brown rice proteins, and a combination of whole grains, including millet, quinoa, amaranth, as well as seeds like chia, flax, and lentil," says Valdez.
Per serving: 130 calories, 2 g fat, 190 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 20 g protein
6. RSP Nutrition AvoCollagen Protein Powder
"People tend to forget that fat is very satiating, so adding a fat-based product like AvoCollagen can provide the satiety one needs to prevent overeating later," says Monica Auslander Moreno, RD, the founder of Essence Nutrition. Plus, the oleic acids in the avocado oil help fight inflammation, and the collagen peptides go easy on the gut and help repair damaged tissue and muscles post-workout.
Per serving: 90 calories, 4 g fat, (0.5 g sat fat), 4 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 10 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 10 g protein
7. Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein Powder
With this bone broth protein powder, you'll be absorbing 20 grams of protein per serving. The blend also contains hydrolyzed collagen, so you'll be giving some extra support to your gut and skin too. Byrd also loves that the powder is made with natural ingredients. "This protein powder has minimal ingredients that are all-natural, which is amazing," she says. "It also has 20 grams of protein per scoop, is gluten-free, and doesn't have any added sugars."
With nearly 6,000 positive reviews on Amazon, this powder is a fan-favorite, and you don't have to stick with your basic vanilla flavor. It's available in chocolate and turmeric too, unless you prefer the unflavored option.
Per serving: 90 calories, <1 g fat, (n/a g sat fat), 2 g carbs, 1 g sugar, 150 mg sodium, n/a g fiber, 20 g protein
8. Isopure Whey Protein Isolate Powder
Instead of adding a spoonful of honey or cocoa powder to your morning oatmeal, Leah Kaufman, RD, a nutritionist in New York City, suggests sprinkling a serving of this powder on top. It packs a huge punch of protein (25 grams, to be exact), in addition to satisfying even the pickiest sweet tooth.
Per serving: 100 calories, 0 g fat, (0 g sat fat), 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 240 mg sodium, 25 g protein
9. Ascent Native Fuel Micellar Casein
“Ascent uses only natural ingredients, and it has 25 grams of protein for only 110 to 130 calories, depending on the flavor," says Tara Collingwood, RD, the team dietitian for the Orlando Magic. "It’s also an excellent source of all essential amino acids.”
Per serving: 130 calories, 1 g fat, (0 g sat fat), 5 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 140 mg sodium, 1 g fiber, 25 g protein
10. Naked Nutrition Egg White Protein
“Naked Nutrition uses clean ingredients and non-GMO eggs, and the only other ingredient is sunflower lecithin," says Collingwood. "It doesn’t have any added sweeteners or colors, and it packs 25 grams of protein for 110 calories.”
Per serving: 110 calories, 0 g fat, (0 g sat fat), 2 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 380 mg sodium, <1 g fiber, 25 g protein
11. Navitas Organics Cacao & Greens Essential Blend
"This is a great vegan blend that consists of pea, pumpkin seed, sunflower seeds, flax, and hemp," says Lauren Antonucci, RDN, the owner of Nutrition Energy. She points out that it also has added greens for fiber, as well as probiotics for gut health, which solidifies its place on the list of best protein powders for weight loss.
Per serving: 100 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g sat), 200 mg sodium, 10 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 12 g protein
12. Vega Protein & Greens
“I like Vega because it includes many nutrients that I’m interested in,” such as pea protein, brown rice protein, and organic kale powder, says Sharon Palmer, RD, who specializes in plant-based nutrition. It's a tasty vegan option as well for all you plant-based folks out there.
Per serving: 120 calories, 2.5 g fat (0.5 g sat), 270 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 20 g protein
13. NOW Sports Nutrition Soy Protein Isolate Unflavored Powder
This plain soy protein powder offers 20 grams of protein, which is helpful for keeping you full, says Starla Garcia, RD, the owner of The Healthy Shine in Houston. She recommends adding this to a smoothie with fruits and veggies to bump up the fiber count and extend the duration of fullness.
Per serving: 90 calories, 0.5 g fat, 170 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 20 g protein
14. Momentous Essential Plant-Based Protein Powder
This plant-based protein powder comes with four grams of fiber per scoop and 20 grams of protein. Its brown rice and pea protein blend gives it more vitamins, minerals, and fiber per scoop than other plant-based options, making it a well-rounded choice for those wanting to go the vegan and gluten-free route, says Garcia.
Per serving: 140 calories, 2.5 g fat, 340 mg sodium, 9 g carbs, 2 g sugar, 20 g protein
15. NOW Sports Nutrition Pea Protein Unflavored Powder
“Pea protein powders are great because they don't cause a lot of GI issues to pop up for those that use them,” says Garcia. “They’re also super easy to blend and leave minimal after-taste.”
Per serving: 120 calories, 2 g fat, 320 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 0 g sugar, 24 g protein
16. OWYN Vegan Plant-Based Protein Powder
This protein powder is made up of pea, pumpkin, and chia, and is a great option for those with issues like IBS or IBD, says Garcia, since it's easy to digest. Available in flavors like chocolate and vanilla, one scoop offers 20 grams of protein and three grams of fat (from the seed blend).
“This kind of heart-healthy fat is great for overall taste, satiety, and texture. This brand is also free of all allergens,” Garcia notes.
Per serving: 140 calories, 3 g fat, 240 mg sodium, 7 g carbs, 4 g sugar, 20 g protein
17. Klean Athlete Whey Protein Isolate
This product is high in protein with 20 grams per spoonful, and also offers electrolytes for athletes, which can make a replenishing protein shake post-workout, says Garcia. “This would be best used for recovery to reduce the likelihood of sugar cravings and energy crashes that lead to excessive snacking or overeating at meal times later in the day,” she explains.
Per serving: 85 calories, 30 mg sodium, 1 g carbs, 20 g protein
Jasmine Gomez is the Associate Commerce Editor at Women’s Health and covers health, fitness, sex, culture and cool products. She enjoys karaoke and dining out more than she cares to admit.
Jackie Lam is the senior health editor at Women’s Health where she oversees health and weight loss content for the website and the Mind section of the print magazine. Originally from Hong Kong, she’s a journalist with more than 10 years of experience and a proud graduate of Cornell University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. When she’s not at her laptop, she can be found experimenting with Japanese recipes in her kitchen with her husband as her main taste tester, discovering the latest in K-Pop, and dreaming up her next trips to Japan.