Of course, a diet of whole, organic foods is optimal—but optimal isn’t always possible in our busy world. Quick and easy protein shakes with natural ingredients can be the next best thing, especially when trying to maintain weight, recover from a workout or keep a balanced diet. Thankfully, today’s shakes are healthier—and tastier—than their chalky, choke-’em-down predecessors. And while soy remains ubiquitous in this category, manufacturers are increasingly introducing appetizing soy-protein alternatives.
More consumers are seeing protein powders’ benefits. According to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, sales of powdered meal replacements and supplements with protein as a primary ingredient rose 16.8 percent in natural foods stores and 16.4 percent in natural and conventional stores between April 2010 and April 2011.
Here, three experts share their favorite non-soy protein powders for weight management, sports performance and vegetarian and vegan diets.
For weight management
The expert: Cynthia Stadd, holistic nutrition practitioner, certified eating psychology counselor and senior educator at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo.
I recommend: Whole food–, vegetable- or rice-based protein.
Why: Even supplemental nourishment should be as close to real food as possible. Rice and vegetable proteins are best. I’m not a fan of dairy and soy proteins because of allergies and digestive issues. There is no perfect balance of protein, fat and carbs, because there are all different types of metabolic burners. But a whole-food, plant-based protein powder is the type of product you can use in a long-term diet, because it’s so clean. For weight loss, you can replace lunch or dinner (but not breakfast) with a shake. Most people find it sustains them, and it provides complete nutrition. For weight gain, a shake makes for an easy extra meal that supplies quality rather than just quantity calories. It’s much healthier than nutrition bars for on-the-go, and free of the irritants that most commonly cause digestive troubles.
My favorite: Vega Whole Food Health Optimizer (Chocolate or Berry). I’ve never seen a better mix of synergistic whole foods in a meal replacement than Vega products offer. There’s nothing artificial—no additives, preservatives, extraneous binders or extra sugar. Vega isn’t the cheapest on the market, and it can be gritty in smoothies when not mixed with yogurt or fruit.
For peak performance
The expert: Tavis Piattoly, RD, LDN, team nutritionist for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets, and director of health and fitness programs at Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.
I recommend: Whey protein.
Why: Research shows whey and casein are superior for muscle recovery. In sports recovery, it’s all about timing. Data shows whey is fast acting and casein is slow acting, so the balance delivers the amino acids to tissues effectively and expediently. Sugar plays a key role in getting the protein to the muscle more quickly because insulin shuttles protein to the muscles. Therefore, I suggest shaking the protein powder in a hydration drink with electrolytes. Diabetics or athletes looking to drop fat would want to opt for less sugar. For lactose-intolerant athletes, I recommend dairy-free whey. For serious athletes looking to replenish energy as well as recovery, it’s hard to get that many good, clean calories. Adding nut butters to protein shakes helps athletes get enough high-quality, well-balanced calories. Older adults can use protein powders to help hold muscle tissue as they age, even as appetite declines.
My favorite: Champion Nutrition UltraMet (chocolate).
For vegans and vegetarians
The expert: Myan Sorensen, ND, who practices in Crestone, Colo.
I recommend: Plant-based proteins such as hemp, rice or pea.
Why: One of the biggest challenges for vegetarians and vegans is getting adequate protein, so if food combining isn’t supplying enough, a scoop of pea protein can cover the bases. Hemp has less protein but is high in fiber. Rotating sources offers the advantage of trace elements unique to each grain, legume or seed, and keeps taste buds entertained. A body with a balanced pH is less susceptible to illness, joint pains and aging, and will have more vital energy. A balance of 80 percent alkaline foods to 20 percent acidic foods will keep most bodies in check. The greener the food, the more alkaline it is, so add parsley, kale, chard or romaine to protein drinks or choose products with greens in them to enhance the alkaline balance.
My favorite: I don’t have a favorite brand or flavor because I vary my sources, but I often add Food Science of Vermont’s Superior Greens for alkaline balancing if there aren’t greens in the mix.