So many of us turn to protein powders as a way to get more of the essential amino acids we need while we work out, build muscle, lose weight, and try to eat healthier. It helps us steer away from processed carbohydrates and provide the building blocks needed to repair muscle after exercise. For years whey was the only option, and then soy took the health community by storm. Soybeans are easy to grow and are subsidized by the government. This makes them an inexpensive ingredient so, like corn, soy made its way into almost any processed food and stepped into the role of alternative to whey.
Soy has problems though. It has been the go-to protein powder for vegans, vegetarians, and those who don’t like whey, but there are other options available now. Before we delve into those, let’s look at the risks of soy. Soy contains phytoestrogens, compounds that mimic the female hormone we are familiar with. These estrogen-like molecules perhaps can be helpful. They have a place in the human diet in minimizing the effects of menopause and as an occasional food. The fermented varieties have been shown to be better for us. But the daily use of soy, especially with it hidden in so many things, isn’t healthy.
The phytoestrogens in soy disrupt the hormone balance in developing children and adults. This can cause thyroid problems. It’s been associated with breast and prostate cancer risks. The hormone mimicry can lead to accelerated puberty and problems with fertility. Soy is also one of the most likely foods to be genetically modified. GMOs have not been studied long-term and they let farmers use much more pesticides than ever before, meaning those pesticides make their way into our diet. Many pesticides mimic hormones as well. To add to the fun, soy is highly allergenic and contains fairly large amounts of phytic acid, a compound that limits the absorption of important minerals. Reach for something better.
Pea Protein – This protein powder comes from yellow peas and is very rich in essential amino acids. It has more protein per serving than soy, is hypoallergenic, doesn’t contain phytoestrogens, and is very absorbable. Pea protein is easy on the kidneys too, unlike animal proteins. Some studies show pea protein may even protect the kidneys from damage.
Brown Rice Protein – Brown rice is hypoallergenic and one of the easiest to digest. It doesn’t pack as much protein into each serving as the pea, but it still has plenty. Some people think the combination of rice and pea protein is the perfect blend that supplies all the essential amino acids while being less chalky or gritty than either alone.
Hemp Seed Protein – This protein is simply the ground seeds of the hemp plant. This means it is one of the least processed protein powders you can find. Hemp seeds contain all the essential amino acids you need and it doesn’t need all the artificial flavors, fillers, and additives you find in whey and often soy. It does have higher calories than the others as it comes from a whole seed that includes some carbohydrates, fats, and fiber, but these are beneficial too. Some people steer away from this protein powder due to the stigma that still surrounds hemp even though it does not contain detectable levels of THC.
Whey Protein – Whey is technically soy free, but it has its own mess of issues. Many whey proteins add soy to whey as filler along with artificial chemicals, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives. Whey is harder on the kidneys than plant-based proteins and is more likely to cause digestive issues like gas and bloating.
There are other places to get quality protein too. Chia, amaranth, quinoa, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and tahini all are rich in protein and good fats that keep you energized and active. Protein powders are convenient, but don’t forget to combine them with whole foods for amazing results.