Which Protein Is Best for Beginners?

Which Protein Is Best for Beginners?
  • People starting new fitness routines may want to incorporate more protein into their diet, as it affects muscle growth.
  • There are many ways to increase your protein intake; experts say whole foods are preferable to protein powders.
  • However, protein powders may benefit people who don’t have time to eat whole meals regularly.

It can be challenging to learn how to prioritize protein in your diet. There are many protein sources—including meats, other types of food, such as eggs, nuts, and some vegetables, and protein powders.

Some people looking to get more protein may have recently started a new fitness journey and are, therefore, interested in building muscle. This could be why the topic has recently taken off on TikTok, with videos on protein garnering 14 billion views.

Regardless of your workout schedule or fitness goals, it’s essential to prioritize protein in your diet to support your overall health, experts said.

“Your body uses protein to build and repair muscles and bones, to make hormones and enzymes, to support your immune system, and to transport and store nutrients throughout your body,” Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and the author of “Unapologetic Eating,”.

Protein is essential no matter your health goals or stage of life, Chris Kolba, PhD, PT, CSCS, a physical therapist specializing in sports medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, added. “Obviously, if you’re trying to stay fit and healthy, adequate protein is important,” Kolba said. “But it becomes [especially] important in the older population because it helps us build and maintain muscle.”

If you’ve recently started a new fitness routine and are searching for the best protein for beginners, it’s important to prioritize whole foods when possible. “Ideally, most of your protein intake should come in the form of food,” Rumsey said.

It’s also important not to eat too much protein, as doing so can cause uncomfortable symptoms.

How Much Protein Should You Be Getting?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds) of body weight.

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However, Kolba counsels people to aim higher than the RDA for protein. “That’s somewhat inadequate,” he said. “That’s just taking enough not to be deficient.” Instead, he advises people to shoot for 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Older people may require more than younger people, Kolba added.

“They probably need to be thinking about the 1.2 grams [end of the spectrum] because as we get older, we don’t absorb as much, so our intake is going to need to be higher,” he explained. “When an 18-year-old consumes 100 units of protein, they’re going to absorb 100 units; when someone who’s 65 [does the same], they might only absorb 50 to 60 units.”

You don’t necessarily need to eat more than the RDA of protein unless you’re working out constantly. “If you’re not a high-level athlete, as long as you get the needed amount of protein within the 24 hours of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” Kolba said.

Overdoing it likely won’t cause significant health problems, but eating too much protein can cause uncomfortable side effects, Rumsey said. “Eating too much protein may cause intestinal discomfort and indigestion, dehydration, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, and headache,” she explained. (This is true no matter what kind of protein you consume.)

People with certain health conditions must be especially mindful of their protein intake. “Most of the studies have found that even very high amounts of protein aren’t really detrimental, though they might cause some gastric upset,” Kolba said.

“If you have pre-existing kidney issues, higher doses could be an issue,” Kolba explained. People with health conditions that affect their kidneys need to work closely with their healthcare providers to make sure they’re getting the right amount of protein, he added.

If you’re looking to include more protein in your diet via whole foods, the following are good sources:1

  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Lentils
  • Meat
  • Nuts
  • Peas
  • Poultry
  • Seeds
  • Soy products

What to Know Before You Try Protein Powders

It’s important to research the brand you’re interested in before trying a new protein powder, Rumsey said. The products are not standardized and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Their composition can vary widely and may not reflect what is on the label,” she explained.

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“Certain brands [of protein powder] and products have been found, through testing, to contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium in higher levels than recommended.” If you decide to use protein powder, Rumsey recommends ensuring the product you choose has been verified as safe by a third-party testing group.

Whey protein powders are among the most commonly used types. “It has all of the essential amino acids and is easily digested and absorbed,” Rumsey explained. “Other types of protein supplements use soy protein, egg protein, milk protein, brown rice protein, pea protein, and hemp protein.”

No specific protein powder is “better” for people who are just starting to implement more protein into their diet, but some may be better suited than others for people with pre-existing health conditions.

Whey protein powders differ based on the way they are made. “Depending on how they have been processed, whey protein can be split into several different types, including concentrate and isolate,” Rumsey explained. “Isolate has a larger percentage of protein—typically around 90%—compared to concentrate, [which has] about 70 to 80%.”

Isolate products also have less fat and carbohydrates than concentrate products because they are processed more. They may be the better choice for people who are lactose intolerant since isolate powders contain less lactose.

“Isolate is digested and absorbed more rapidly than concentrate, but due to the higher level of processing required by isolate, [it] is more expensive than concentrate,” Rumsey said.

Who Should Use Protein Powders?

If you can, you should try to get enough protein through foods rather than protein powders. “While protein powders can be a good source of quick and easy protein, it doesn’t contain the additional nutrients and phytochemicals you get from whole foods,” Rumsey said. “Plus, protein powder is not any more effective than food when it comes to building muscle mass.”

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That said, if it comes down to consuming protein powder or not getting enough protein throughout the day, you should choose the former, Kolba said. “Protein powders aren’t ‘bad,’ and I think it’s a great way to get some extra protein if you’re someone who, for instance, can’t eat a lot [at work].”

People who travel a lot, spend a lot of time in a vehicle, or—for one reason or another—can’t eat regular meals can benefit the most from protein powders, Kolba explained.

Though they aren’t necessary for building muscle, Kolba said protein powders are “a good way to get some more protein in.”

How Protein Affects Muscle Growth

Increasing your protein intake won’t automatically result in larger muscles. “Eating protein alone won’t build muscle,” Rumsey explained. “Muscle growth is a complex process that relies on hormones, physical activity, and adequate intake of protein and calories.”

But consistently eating enough may immediately help you feel more energized—and it may eventually yield results you can see. “Protein contributes to muscle growth because when you incorporate strength training exercises, protein from food helps repair damage from exercising and builds up more muscle, making them stronger over time,” Rumsey said. “Muscle growth may be visible, or it may not, as much of whether you ‘see’ muscles depends on genetics.”

Since it can be difficult to see how your protein intake affects your body, it may make more sense to track how much stronger you feel after you start eating adequate protein, Rumsey said.

What This Means For You

Getting enough protein is important, no matter your fitness or health goals. Though the official recommendation is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight daily, it might be more beneficial to aim for 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, experts say. You can get protein through a variety of foods. Protein powders can help people who aren’t able to eat full meals regularly reach their protein intake goals.


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