Introduction to Protein Powders

January 14, 2023
| Created by Hannah Langley, MS, RDN, CD

Are you overwhelmed by the wide variety of protein powders in the sports nutrition aisle and aren’t sure which will best meet your individual needs? This article is part of a series, written by Harmons Dietitian Hannah Langley, to take an extensive look at protein powders and help you make the most informed choice when shopping for your health 

Meeting our daily protein needs through food sources is ideal for proper nutrition. We don’t want to use protein powder to replace meals, though using protein powder can be very beneficial for health in a variety of circumstances.  

If the thought of protein powder conjures images of the gym and exercise, there’s a good reason. Protein powder provides a concentrated and efficient source of protein immediately after a workout to stimulate muscle growth and aid in recovery. Consuming a source of protein after exercise is beneficial for both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (strength) training.  

Protein powder can also help people meet their daily protein needs or increase how much they consume for: 

Satiety: Protein helps us feel full and satisfied during meals; It takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and may reduce hormones that stimulate hunger while boosting hormones that promote satiety.  

Wound healing: Protein is required to build, maintain and repair all the tissues in our body, not just muscles. If we have a wound, our body needs additional protein to aid in the healing process.  

Preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue: Maintain muscle mass during periods of intentional or unintentional weight loss.  

Trouble meeting protein needs by food alone: For high level athletes and very active individuals the amount of protein required to keep up with the demands of exercise can be greater than what you can comfortably consume as food. In that same vein, those that have certain dietary restrictions and trouble with chewing, swallowing, or appetite may find it difficult to meet protein needs through food alone.  

Important Terms

Bioavailability: How much of a substance can be absorbed and used.

Bioavailability is important because we want as much out of our supplement as possible. Protein powder with low bioavailability is low quality. We want to be able to absorb and use as much of the supplement we’re buying as possible. 

Rate of Utilization: How quickly a substance can be absorbed and used.

Rate of utilization is important to consider depending on how you’re using a protein powder. A high rate of utilization means that our body can absorb and use the protein very quickly. A high rate of utilization is ideal for post-exercise recovery because it can quickly be sent to our muscles to repair and build them. A low rate of utilization is ideal for satiety and may help prevent muscle protein breakdown. Any protein powder with a medium rate of utilization is beneficial for meeting or increasing daily protein needs.

Complete Protein: Contains all 9 essential amino acids in sufficient amounts for health.

When supplementing the diet with protein for any reason, we want to ensure that we’re getting a complete amino acid profile. Protein is made of building blocks known as amino acids. There are 21 amino acids, 9 of these are known as essential amino acids because we must consume them through our diet. The essential amino acids are Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. When protein is consumed, it is broken down into individual amino acids to be used for various functions throughout the body. 

A quality protein powder should have medium-high to high bioavailability and be a complete protein. If using protein powder for post-exercise recovery, a medium-high to high rate of utilization is also optimal. 

Key Takeaways

  • Protein powder can be very helpful to meet daily protein needs but should not be used as a replacement for food and meals.  
  • A quality protein powder should have medium-high to high bioavailability and be a complete protein. If using protein powder for post-exercise recovery, a medium-high to high rate of utilization is also optimal.

Your Harmons Dietitian can help if you have questions, would like personalized product recommendations, or are curious about your individual protein needs. Reach out to