A Paleo diet emphasizes nutrient-dense, well sourced and raised seasonal and local foods and avoiding processed foods, preservatives, refined sugar, chemicals, additives and hydrogenated oils. Protein powders, can have a place in a Paleo diet but it is a processed food. The quality of a protein powder is based on the origin of the protein and the additional ingredients.
Of course, you should aim to get the majority of your protein from real, humanely raised meats, poultry, seafoods and eggs along with some nuts and seeds. However, to supplement your body with additional protein or any time, you will need a fast and convenient protein-rich meal; using good-quality protein powder can be extremely helpful.
Protein powder can benefit you when:
- You are an athlete, or someone who is extremely active, protein powder is an easy way to quickly get protein to your muscles to help the recovery and rebuilding process.
- Modern life gets busy. Sometimes it is simply not feasible to sit down and eat each meal every day. If you are on the go, protein powder can come in handy – blended up with greens, some non-dairy milk, maybe some fruit and a little nut butter and you have an on-the-go meal that is nutrient dense, protein-packed, and very portable.
- A well-formulated, high quality powder added to a shake or smoothie may provide much needed protein for those having challenges chewing and swallowing.
- There might be an occasion where you want a protein rich breakfast (as you should) but you need a break from eggs, meat or seafood. Having a protein smoothie or some protein pancakes might be a good choice.
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Choosing A Protein Powder
When looking for a protein powder, there are numerous options. Some are more paleo-friendly than others and the protein’s origin is not the only ingredient you should be concerned about.
When picking a protein powder, read the labels to be sure the ingredients are as natural ingredients as possible, there is no added sugar (safer sweeteners such as stevia are refined), and no strange chemicals or additives. Do some research into anything you are uncertain about.
A few ingredients to avoid include:
- Artificial ingredients
Isolate vs. Concentrate
It is important that you understand the difference between “isolate” and “concentrate” with protein powders. These different processing methods will have an impact on the overall nutritional profile of the protein powder.
Concentrate is less processed. If your ultimate goal is to reduce the processed foods that you are consuming, then you might choose a concentrate. These ingredients will be close to the natural form of the original ingredient, and include things such as fat and other compounds. Unfortunately, this results in a protein content that is generally less than an isolate product.
Isolates are pure protein extracts, with very few of the other elements from the original ingredient remaining. Isolate is usually about 90-94% protein, meaning you can rapidly increase your protein consumption with one serving. Isolates go through significant amounts of refinement, resulting in a highly processed product.
People often turn to the Paleo diet to improve digestion and find relief from gut issues. Often, they begin to experience digestive problems when incorporating protein powder back into their diet. Choosing a product that is easily digestible helps to minimize discomfort and support digestion
Animal-Based Protein Powder
Egg protein is a good option as long as you can tolerate eggs. It provides a full profile of amino acids, is highly bioavailable, low-carb, and comprises approximately 24 grams of protein per 30-gram scoop. It is naturally lactose-free, so it is acceptable when avoiding dairy. Look for protein powders that use whole egg protein, egg white protein, or a combination of the two.
Beef protein is made from several parts of a cow, including bones and connective tissues. Beef protein is free of the carbohydrates and fat often found in other protein powder supplements. Additionally, it is free of soy, lactose, and gluten. Since there are fewer fillers used in beef protein isolates, it can be easier to understand how much protein you are actually ingesting and accurately monitor your consumption. Beef protein is tougher to digest than egg protein and may cause some gastrointestinal distress in those making the switch or using it for the first time.
Collagen Peptides are beef protein isolate that have been hydrolyzed, meaning collagen, gelatin, and leftover scraps. Although not always considered a protein powder, collagen peptides contain many benefits. While high in precisely the same amino acids as beef protein, they are not as easily digested, comprise mostly nonessential amino acids, and no branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) that are proven to assist in building muscle. However, it is an excellent nutritional supplement and can help balance hormones, support healthy thyroid function and decrease cortisol levels. Collagen is especially valuable for maintaining bones and tissues strong as we age, and our creation of these non-essential amino acids fall.
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Many protein powders are made with whey. The subject of whey is highly debated in Paleo communities as it is an isolated fraction of cow dairy. Whey protein can be a concentrate (less processed but with less protein percentage), an isolate (higher protein percentage and fewer traces of dairy), or a more priced hydrolysate (pre-digested and more easily absorbed). Consuming dairy, whether whole or not, is a personal decision that each person needs to make for themselves.
Casein is the other protein derived from milk. It is absorbed slower than whey, supplying amino acids to the muscle over a prolonged period of time. It’s a popular protein with body-builders, who often take it before bed. Casein is even more problematic than whey for those with dairy allergies or intolerances or autoimmune conditions.
Plant-Based Protein Powder
Plant-based protein powders are somewhat lower in protein than animal-derived sources and are not as efficiently absorbed by the body. Individual plant-based protein powders do not contain any of the necessary amino acids (other than cannabis seeds), but they can provide a solid alternative for vegetarians and people who cannot tolerate dairy or eggs.
Legumes from edible pods such as green peas and green beans are usually permitted on a paleo diet because they contain lower and less toxic antinutrients than other grains or legumes that are mature. Any current toxins are also less secure in young pods and are generally deactivated or negated through the cooking procedure.
Soaking and sprouting beans and grains before cooking also helps decrease the quantities of the antinutrients mentioned above and increases the bioavailability of beneficial nutrients. Fermentation is much more effective in deactivating toxins and improving the digestibility of those foods. You can also choose protein powders out of legumes and grains which have been soaked, sprouted, or fermented.
Hemp protein is the most paleo-friendly of the plant-based choices and the one with the most complete amino acid profile. Hemp protein is derived from hemp seeds and is generally lower in protein than animal-based powder. It is, however, high in fiber and contains all essential amino acids and a good ratio of Omega 3 to 6, making it a good choice for vegetarians.
Rice protein is technically not Paleo friendly, but rice is one of the least offensive grains that can be consumed. This protein is inferior to animal ingredients, but might be a good option if you need an alternate product due to food allergies digestive issues. However, rice protein is not an optimal ingredient for the Paleo diet, and should only be considered for individuals who cannot tolerate egg or beef protein.
Pea protein is usually isolated protein in the golden pea husks.
A Note On Protein Quality
Humanely raised chickens and cows produce more nutrient dense eggs and meat compared to factory-farm raised animals. Additionally, humanely raised animals are not fed pesticide-laden feed or given high doses of antibiotics, or other harmful chemical treatments often used by confined animal feeding operations. The health of the animals will have a direct impact on the quality and nutrition that is available within the protein powder.
Being selective about the quality of your protein powder means that you need to be willing to spend a little more on the products that you are buying. With Paleo protein powder, you definitely get what you pay for in terms of the quality and effectiveness of the product.
Eating real food, from real sources should always be your priority, but it may not be an option all of the time. Supplementing with protein powder can be an extremely easy and convenient source of protein to aid in your nutrition and fitness goals and there is little point in restricting yourself from consuming something that will aid in your goals simply because it does not conform to a strict Paleo philosophy. Adding protein powders to your Paleo diet is a matter of choice. There are a number of more Paleo friendly alternatives available or you might personalize ‘your’ Paleo diet to allow for protein powders.