How To Choose The Best Protein Powder for YOU

Protein powders offer a quick, tasty, and cost-effective way to satisfy your daily protein needs. They require no refrigeration and can be used to support any performance or physique goal, including weight loss, muscle gain, or general wellness.

But, many individuals struggle with deciding on which particular protein powder to purchase given the hundreds of options available on the market.

How do you know which protein powder is best suited to satisfy YOUR own personal health, performance, and physique goals?

That’s where this guide comes in.

Ahead, we’ll show you how to pick the best protein powder based on your needs.

But, before we get to that, let’s briefly review each of the different protein powder options you’ll encounter when searching for the perfect protein powder.

Types of Protein Powder

Whey Protein

Whey protein easily qualifies as the most popular option when it comes to choosing a protein. It’s a complete protein, rich in BCAAs, and high in leucine — the “anabolic-trigger” amino acid that stimulates mTOR and drives muscle protein synthesis.

Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in milk, accounting for 20% of the protein in milk, with casein accounting for the remaining 80%.

For a long time, whey was perceived as nothing but the useless, liquidy byproduct of the cheese-making process. Manufacturers soon realized that whey was incredibly rich in protein, particularly the BCAAs, and recycled their “waste product” into a staple commodity in the nutrition and bodybuilding areas.

Through the use of various processing, filtration, and isolation techniques, manufacturers are able to “refine” whey from the thin, milky liquid into the powder you mix into your shaker each and every day.

But, not all whey protein powders are created equal. In fact, there are three main “subcategories” of whey protein based on the amount of processing they undergo and the resulting protein content. The higher the grade of whey protein, the more protein it contains by mass.

Here’s a quick rundown of the various forms of whey protein you’ll encounter when searching for the best protein powder:

Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC)

Whey protein concentrate is the least refined form of whey that also offers the widest range of protein content. Due to the limited amount of processing and refinement WPC undergoes, it also retains a higher amount of beneficial fractions lactoferrin and ɑ-lactalbumin.

Whey concentrates offer the best value in terms of cost, nutritional value, and protein content.

Speaking of protein content, concentrates may contain anywhere from 25 to 89% whey protein by mass. [1]

However, knowing the exact grade of whey concentrate in your given protein can be a bit tricky as manufacturers are not required to list which grade they use. A few companies, such as SteelFit® do as Steel Whey uses the highest quality whey protein concentrate in WPC-80. But, by and large, you’re not going to see the specific grade of whey concentrate listed on the supplement facts panel.

This usually means if a company is willing to tell you which grade of whey concentrate they include in their product, chances are very high that they are using the “good” stuff in WPC-80.

And this brings us to one of the “issues” with most protein powders that use whey concentrates — you’re not really sure what grade or quality of concentrate your getting.

For example, let’s say that a company decides to run its initial batch of protein and wants to deliver a high-quality product. As such, they’ll use WPC-80, which is the highest quality form of concentrate, containing 80% protein by mass.

However, after the first batch has sold out, then decide to create a second batch, but this time, they want to increase profits without increasing the price the consumer pays per tub. All the company has to do is change what grade of concentrate they use. For instance, they could use WPC-60 or WPC-70 and save a good bit of money on the cost of goods.

The consumer is none the wiser as he/she just sees that the protein powder contains “whey protein concentrate”. But, the supplement company just significantly increased their profits.

In theory, sure, the consumer could compare the protein, carb, and fat contents of the old tub to the newly purchased tub to see if there are any changes, but most people really aren’t going to do that. Although a discerning consumer might get a more explosive notification of the change in WPC quality if they start experiencing considerable amounts of GI distress, bloating, and/or flatulence — common side effects from the consumption of low-quality whey protein concentrates.

Concentrates also usually contain greater amounts of calories, carbohydrates, lactose, and fat than other forms of whey protein, but if you opt for WPC-80, you still get a high amount of protein with a small number of carbohydrates and healthy fats.

One other thing, if you are lactose sensitive (or outright intolerant), you may want to choose whey isolate (or another form of protein altogether). Concentrates generally contain more lactose than other forms of whey, which can lead to stomach upset and cramping for the dairy sensitive out there.

Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)

Whey protein isolate is often advertised as the “purest” form of whey protein (from a protein content standpoint) as it must contain a minimum of 90% protein by mass. As a result, this means isolates yield a very high amount of protein with minimal amounts of carbohydrates, lactose and milk fat. As such, whey isolates are generally the better choice for individuals who are lactose intolerant, yet still want to enjoy the benefits of whey protein.[2]

However, whey isolate isn’t without its own set of limitations or “drawbacks”, similar to concentrate has its own “drawbacks” of a wide range of variability in protein content and higher lactose content.

The drawbacks to whey isolate protein is that in order for the powder to contain a minimum 90% protein by mass, it must undergo additional processing and refinement. With this added processing comes a loss in some of the immune-boosting compounds abundant in concentrates, such as immunoglobulins.

Isolates also tend to not have a thinner texture and less satisfying “mouthfeel” compared to whey concentrate, due to the decreased levels of fat and carbohydrates.

And finally, isolates generally cost more than concentrates do, again due to the increased amount of processing it undergoes.

As such, unless you’re very sensitive to lactose, whey concentrates are generally the best option for most people looking for the best blend of cost, protein content, flavor, and texture. This is why Steel Whey includes whey protein concentrate (WPC-80) — concentrates offer consumers a high protein content, yet low calorie and most affordable option to hit their protein goals for the day while delivering a thick, rich texture and immune-boosting fractions.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

Hydrolyzed whey protein (whey hydrolysate) is the most processed, heavily refined form of whey protein. For all intents and purposes, hydrolyzed whey protein is essentially “predigested” via hydrolysis — a chemical process where enzymes are mixed with whey to partially digest and break down the peptide bonds linking the various proteins together.

As a result of this “pre-digestion” process, whey hydrolysate protein is incredibly rapid digesting, and quite frequently recommended by the gym bros as the “best” option for a post workout shake as the lightning-fast digestion should flood your muscles with protein and amino acids significantly quicker than whey concentrate or isolate.

However, research comparing whey protein, hydrolyzed whey, and casein found no significant difference in lean mass gains despite the wide variance in digestion speed.[6,7]

Hydrolyzed whey protein contains essentially no carbohydrates, lactose, or fat, which makes it ideal for those deep into contest prep or the extremely lactose intolerant.

Again, due to extra processing and use of chemicals, whey hydrolysates have a vastly inferior flavor, texture and mouthfeel compared to concentrates and even isolates. This is due to the fact that the enzymes used during hydrolysis leave the protein with a distinct “off”, chemical-like flavor.

Whey hydrolysate protein is also the most expensive of the three forms of whey protein, due to the increased amount of processing it undergoes and has virtually all of the beneficial, immune-boosting fractions removed.

At the end of the day, there’s never really a need to purchase hydrolyzed whey. They’re expensive, inferior tasting, and lack the beneficial compounds present in whey. If you’re severely lactose intolerant, you’re better off from a cost and taste standpoints choosing another protein altogether, such as pea or egg-based protein, which we’ll cover in a bit.

Benefits of Whey Protein

Whey protein has been thoroughly researched and, in addition to its ability to boost immune function, the bodybuilding staple has also been noted to help:

  • Increase muscle size and strength when used in combination with resistance training. [3,4,5,6]
  • Support fat loss — research shows that whey promotes feelings of fullness, which reduces hunger and helps you consume fewer calories during the day. [7,8]

Casein Protein

As we mentioned up top, casein accounts for the vast majority (80%) of the protein content of milk. It’s also been a staple pre-bed snack for athletes, bodybuilders, and personal trainers for quite a long time to help keep the body “anabolic” during your 8 hours of sleep.

The reason for this is that casein is incredibly slow digesting. In fact, research notes that casein protein can provide a steady supply of amino acids to your body for up to 7 hours![9,10]

Whey vs. Casein Post-Workout

Whey protein is frequently believed to be the best post-workout protein powder due to its rapid digestion; however, research has shown that casein protein can be just as effective as whey protein for enhancing muscle mass and reducing body fat.[11]

In other words, if you finish your workout and quickly realize that your tub of whey protein is empty, don’t panic. The anabolic window isn’t going to close on you, and you aren’t going to miss out on any big gains. Simply have a scoop of casein (or whole foods meal), and you’ll be perfectly fine.

Now, be aware that casein mixes up incredibly thick, several times more thick than whey protein. As such, if you are going to use casein as your post-workout protein shake on occasion, but don’t want a sludge-like consistency, you will need to add more water than you’re probably used to.

Milk Protein

Up to this point, we’ve covered the two protein in milk separately, as they generally are sold separately. However, milk and casein can be found together within the same protein powder, both as part of a protein blend (which we’ll cover later) or in the form of milk protein isolate.

Milk protein powder naturally contains both whey and casein in the standard ratios (20/80, respectively) that you find them in your daily serving of moo juice.

So, why would you consider using milk protein powder over drinking regular milk?

Well, you’d get more protein, and substantially fewer calories, fat, and lactose by using milk isolate protein powder than drinking milk.

Compared to straight whey protein, milk protein powder provides a “best of both worlds” approach for digestion speeds as it contains both whey and casein. This yields a protein with a digestion time somewhere between that of the lightning-fast whey and the ultra-slow digestion of casein.

Milk protein powder also typically has a thicker texture and more satisfying “mouthfeel” than those of whey isolates or hydrolysates. Again, this is due to milk protein isolates containing a mixture of whey and casein. And, similar to whey protein and casein protein, milk protein powder is a complete protein source providing all nine essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

Egg White Protein

Eggs have a reputation as nature’s “perfect” protein due to the fact that the breakfast staple scores a perfect 100 on the biological value ranking scale.[1] Biological value (BV) is a measure of how efficiently our bodies can absorb and use the nutrients we ingest.

Basically, outside of whey protein (which has a biological value of 104), egg protein is about as ideal as you can get when it comes to consuming protein.

To create egg protein powder, egg yolks are separated from the whites. From there, the whites are dehydrated, pulverized, processed, and ground into a fine powder. Powdered egg whites can be consumed just like whey protein (shakes, smoothies, oats, etc.); however, you should be aware that egg protein powder tastes “eggy”, so getting used to the flavor might take a while for some of you.

Due to the fact that egg white protein tastes like eggs, it’s most often included as part of a protein blend along with whey, casein, and milk protein.

Egg protein powder is also a great alternative protein powder for the lactose intolerant as it is completely lactose-free.

Soy Protein

For quite a long time, those not wanting any dairy or other animal-based proteins (beef, chicken, etc.) turned to soy protein as their protein powder of choice.

The reason soy was the de facto dairy-free protein powder of choice is that it is one of the few plant sources that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

However, soy protein fell out of favor, particularly with men, due to the belief that eating too much of it would increase estrogen levels and lead to gynecomastia, a.k.a. man boobs.[16] This man boob myth stems from the fact that soy contains isoflavones which are phytoestrogens, plant-based compounds that act similar to estrogen.

However, the fears of budding are mostly overblown as recent research has shown that the  “soy makes man boobs” fears were overblown. When consumed within reason, soy does not negatively impact hormone levels or serum testosterone. However, studies have shown that soy protein does support muscle growth and strength development, though. [17,18]

Another reason to consider supplementing with soy protein powder is that studies note it supports heart health.[19] And to top it off, soy has a Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) score of 100, meaning it has incredibly high bioavailability and ranks alongside whey and egg proteins as one of the most efficiently utilized proteins for our bodies.[20]

Pea Protein

Continuing with the plant-based proteins is pea protein.

Yes, there is such a thing as pea protein powder, and in terms of amino acid profile, it’s a surprisingly good protein powder too.

The vast majority of plant-based proteins are “incomplete” proteins, meaning that they are lacking or deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Because of this deficiency,  different plant proteins have to be blended together (think beans and rice) to address the amino acid inadequacies naturally present in each plant protein. Combining these different proteins creates a complete protein, and this is why most plant-based proteins are found as blends of multiple plant proteins.

Pea protein, however, doesn’t suffer from these deficiencies. Similar to soy, pea protein powder is a complete protein providing all nine EAAs needed for muscle repair and growth, which makes it a top choice for vegan athletes looking to optimize protein intake.

As an added bonus, pea protein is lactose-free, making it ideal for the lactose intolerant crowd.

Compared to whey protein, pea protein has been found to be just as effective as whey for building muscle[12], and it surpasses whey and rivals that of casein in terms of satiety and feelings of fullness.[13]

Similar to soy protein, pea protein has also been found to support cardiovascular health. Research suggests that consuming pea protein may help lower cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as blood pressure.[14,15]

The “drawback” to pea protein powder is that, well, it kind of tastes like peas and has a rather distinct the earthy, dirt-like texture. Due to this, pea protein powder is usually blended with other plant proteins to cover up its “unique” texture and flavor.

Other Plant-Based Proteins

While pea protein and soy protein are the two most well-known plant-based proteins, there are a number of other non-animal-based proteins you’ll find on the shelf, including:

  • Brown Rice Protein
  • Hemp Protein
  • Quinoa
  • Alfalfa
  • Chia

The main drawbacks to plant proteins is that they usually are lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids, and they have inferior taste, texture, and mixability compared to whey or casein. Plant proteins are notorious for having a chalky or dirt-like taste and texture along with a rather unpleasant mouthfeel.

Still, if you want to avoid animal-based proteins, plant protein powders can be just as effective for satisfying protein requirements and physique goals, but they will not taste as good, and they are generally more expensive, too.

Protein Blends

When browsing through all the various whey protein options on the shelf, you’ll soon realize that quite frequently a protein will contain more than one form of protein. Whey protein isn’t just sold pure concentrate, isolate, or hydrolysate. Whey protein powder also is available in the form of whey protein blends.

As you might guess, a whey protein blend is a protein powder containing a mix of concentrate, isolate, and/or hydrolysate. This creates a protein powder that contains a higher amount of protein than your average whey protein concentrate, while also containing fewer carbohydrates, lactose, and fat than powders containing only whey concentrate.

Whey protein blends also allow you to get the thicker texture, better flavor, and superior “mouth feel” of concentrate while getting the higher protein content of isolates.

Now, it’s also important that we mention that protein blends extend beyond just blends of whey protein. In fact, protein blends can contain any and all of the animal- and plant-based protein sources outlined above, including:

  • Whey Protein
  • Casein
  • Egg White Protein
  • Beef Protein
  • Chicken Protein
  • Brown Rice Protein
  • Pea Protein
  • Plus Many Others

Protein blends offer you a “jack of all trades” approach to protein, where you get a good mixture of slow, intermediate, and fast digesting proteins, which provide a staggered and sustained release of amino acids into the bloodstream. This also has the added benefit of greater satiety than consuming just whey protein, which may help limit mindless snacking between meals.

However, the drawback to protein blends is that you never really know how much you’re getting of each individual kind of protein if that sort of thing is important to you.

Now that we’ve gone over the various kinds of protein powder available to you, let’s find out how to choose the best protein powder.

What is the Best Protein Powder?

Here’s the thing — there is no such thing as a “best” protein powder for every person all the time. That being said, you can find your own personal “best” by answering several simple questions:

Is the Protein a Complete Protein Source?

Simply put, if you’re looking to find the best protein powder that money can buy, you want to purchase a protein that is a complete protein, meaning it contains ALL nine of the essential amino acids your body requires to build proteins.

While you could make an argument that so long as you’re consuming a variety of foods during the day, whether or not your protein powder supplies all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis isn’t a big deal. And that’s very much true.

But at the same time, if you’re trying to optimize protein intake and muscle protein synthesis, you want a protein powder that is a complete protein. Furthermore, the whole point of purchasing a protein powder is for the protein, so don’t you owe it to yourself to purchase the best quality protein powder you’re budget allows?

Yes, you do. Your muscles sustain the beating you put them through week after week in the gym, so yes, they deserve the best stuff you can get. And in this case, the “best” protein powder is one that provides a complete protein.

The best protein powders also have a high PDCAAS rating and biological value as well. Any of the animal-based proteins (including whey protein) easily fit the bill of a complete protein that also offers high biological value and plenty of mTOR-activating leucine.

Is the Protein Powder High-Quality?

While it can be tempting to buy the protein powder that is on sale (BOGO, anyone?) or the one that advertises the highest protein content per scoop, we’d caution you to pause for a second and really look closely at the entire product label.

By that, does the protein powder state whether or not it is 3rd party tested for quality and purity.

Does it list exactly how much of each kind of protein it contains? 

Is it cGMP certified?

Does the list of ingredients include any added free form amino acids?

If you answered yes to this last question, DO NOT, we repeat, DO NOT buy it. The reason for this is that if the protein powder you are considering purchasing contains added free-form amino acids (l-glutamine, creatine, l-taurine, l-glycine, etc.) there is a very strong chance it is spiked.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty (that’s for another article), protein spiking is a tactic used by supplement companies seeking to pull a “fast one” on consumers. Added free form amino acids allows companies to artificially inflate the protein content by tricking the nitrogen test that is used to test the protein content of various protein powders.

Again, if you see added free form amino acids and the product label DOES NOT make a distinction between whole protein and added amino acids, you’re probably holding a spiked protein, meaning you aren’t getting as much protein as the label states.

Steel Whey™ DOES NOT contain added free form amino acids and is NOT spiked. It contains only 100% pure WPC-80 whey protein concentrate — the highest quality whey concentrate available.

Can You Tolerate Dairy (Lactose)?

A certain percentage of the population lacks the lactase enzyme in their bodies which is required to properly digest lactose — the principle carbohydrate contained in dairy. If you are lactose sensitive or outright intolerant to all things dairy, then you’re better off choosing a non-dairy protein powder such as pea protein, egg white protein, beef protein, or any other non-cow derived protein powder.

If you’re only mildly lactose sensitive, you may be able to get away with using a WPC-80 protein powder or whey isolate.

Another option may be to use a digestive enzyme blend so that you can “have your whey and eat it too.”

Are You Vegan or Do You Avoid/Limit Animal-Based Products?

In light of the current obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemic, more and more people are adopting a plant-forward diet while limiting their use of animal products. Concurrent with this is also a rise in the number of people adopting a vegan lifestyle for a multitude of reasons.

If you are one such person, all dairy-based proteins (whey, casein, milk), egg white protein, beef protein, and a majority of protein blends are not in line with your diet. As such, you’ll need to source a plant-based protein powder or plant protein blend.

The Bottom Line on Choosing the Best Protein Powder for YOU

The takeaway here is that there is no “best protein powder”. Furthermore, you don’t absolutely need protein powder to build muscle and strength.

However, protein powder is high in leucine, easy to prepare, cost-effective, and perfect for a quick anytime, anywhere infusion of muscle building protein. This is why anyone who trains consistently and with intensity regularly uses protein powder.

The vast majority of people do not need to worry about using isolates, hydrolysates, or micromanaging the digestion times of casein vs whey protein.

The most important thing is ensuring you get enough high-quality protein each day. Whey protein concentrate provides a great combination of quality, taste, texture, affordability, and, above all, protein content.

That’s why Steel Whey™ includes the best form of whey protein in WPC-80 whey protein concentrate. Each scoop of Steel Whey™ supplies either 27 or 28 grams (based on flavor) of high-quality whey protein in each serving along with all the beneficial bio fractions naturally occurring in whey.

Click here to learn more about Steel Whey™ and why it qualifies as one of the best protein powders money can buy.

References

  1. Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-30. Published 2004 Sep 1.
  2. Geiser M. (2003) The wonders of whey protein. NSCA’s Performance Training Journal 2, 13-15
  3. Davies RW , et al. “The Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation on the Temporal Recovery of Muscle Function Following Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information,
  4. Morton RW , et al. “A Systematic Review, Meta-analysis and Meta-regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-induced Gains in Muscle Mass… – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information,
  5. Pasiakos SM , et al. “The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: a Systematic Review. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information,.
  6. Miller PE , et al. “Effects of Whey Protein and Resistance Exercise on Body Composition: a Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information,.
  7. Dudgeon WD , et al. “Effect of Whey Protein in Conjunction With a Caloric-Restricted Diet and Resistance Training. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  8. Mollahosseini M , et al. “Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation on Long and Short Term Appetite: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information
  9. Boirie Y , et al. “Slow and Fast Dietary Proteins Differently Modulate Postprandial Protein Accretion. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  10. Phillips SM , et al. “The Role of Milk- and Soy-based Protein in Support of Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Protein Accretion in Young and Elderly Persons. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information
  11. Demling RH, DeSanti L. Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. Ann Nutr Metab. 2000;44(1):21-29. doi:10.1159/000012817.
  12. [Babault et al; “Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein”; Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition; 2015
  13. Abou-Samra, Rania et al.; Effect of Different Protein Sources on Satiation and Short-Term Satiety When Consumed as a Starter; Nutrition Journal; December 2011
  14. Rigamonti, E., Parolini, C., Marchesi, M., Diani, E., Brambilla, S., Sirtori, C. R. and Chiesa, G; “Hypolipidemic effect of dietary pea proteins: Impact on genes regulating hepatic lipid metabolism”; Molecular Nutrition and Food Research; 54: S24–S30
  15. Li, H; “Blood pressure lowering effect of a pea protein hydrolysate in hypertensive rats and humans”; Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; September 2011; 59(18):9854-60
  16. Jorge Martinez, Jack Lewi; “An Unusual Case of Gynecomastia Associated with Soy Product Consumption”; Endocrine Practice; May 2008; Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 415-418
  17. Joseph W. Hartman, David Bruinsma, Amy Fullerton, Jenn G. Perco, Randa Lawrence, Jason E. Tang, Sarah B. Wilkinson, Stuart M. Phillips.(2004). The Effect of Differing Post Exercise Macronutrient Consumption on Resistance Training-Induced Adaptations in Novices; Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University
  18. Candow, Darren G; Burke, Natalie C; Smith-Palmer, T; Burke, Darren G; “Effect of whey and soy protein supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults”; Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab; 1995; 16:233-244
  19. Anderson, JW, Johnstone BM, Cook-Newell ME; “Meta-analysis of effects of soy protein intake on serum lipids in humans”; New England Journal of Medicine; 1995; 333:276-282
  20. Glenna J. Hughes, David J. Ryan, Ratna Mukherjea, and Charles S. Schasteen; “Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Scores (PDCAAS) for Soy Protein Isolates and Concentrate: Criteria for Evaluation”; Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; 2011; 59 (23), 12707-12712

Three 15-Minute Workouts to Limit Holiday Weight Gain

Let’s face it, when the holidays roll around, the furthest two things from your mind are diet and exercise. But, if you want to avoid the same fate suffered by millions each year (unwanted holiday weight gain) you’d do well to at least try to eat somewhat healthy and maintain some semblance of physical activity.

And, while exercise brings with it a world of benefits (emotionally, mentally, physically, etc.), one thing it can’t do is rescue you from a crappy diet.

In other words, you can’t out-train a bad diet.

If you’re serious about avoiding the fat gain over the holidays, but don’t want to stress about micromanaging your macronutrient intake, logging foods in MyFitnessPal, or weighing every bite of food with a scale, then you’re in luck!l

Use the following diet tips and quick, metabolism-boosting workouts to limit excess fat gain during the hectic holiday season all the while enjoying (a few) winter cocktails and decadent desserts.

Best Nutrition & Fitness Tips to Stay Lean During the Holidays

 

Pile on the Protein

Of all the foods you eat this holiday season, priority #1 isn’t grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookies (those are #2). Your top dietary priority during the holidays is protein, lots and lots of protein. Why is protein so important?

You are made of it for starters. Protein provides the foundation and structure of your body along with essential amino acids required to repair, build, and grow muscle tissue and organs. Without consuming adequate protein each day, your body turns to your muscles for the amino acids it needs and begins tearing them down.

In other words, without protein, you’d be a squishy sack of fat, water, and sugar.

But there’s more.

Protein is also highly satiating, and by consuming enough protein at mealtime, you’ll help limit hunger pangs in between meals, reducing the chances that you’ll binge on a bunch of sugary foods.

Protein is also “expensive” to digest for your body, meaning that to break it down into its amino acid components, your body must burn more calories to disassemble it than either carbohydrates or fat.

So, when sitting down to those epic family feasts, one thing that you do NOT want to pass on is the protein.

HIIT it Before Eating

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has been and continues to be a major buzzword in the world of fitness, and for a good reason.

It’s one of the best “bang for your buck” forms of training when it comes to maximizing calorie burning and minimizing time spent exercising. Essentially when performing hit, you rotate between periods of all-out effort and active rest (recovery). You bounce back and forth between these two intensities for 15-30 minutes, and you’ve revived your metabolism, crushed some calories, and freed up some room for more delicious carbohydrates.

As you’re probably aware, glycogen is your body’s stored form of carbohydrate. High-intensity interval training (as well as resistance-training) rely primarily on glycogen.

So, by performing some high-intensity workouts (like the ones listed below), you can burn off some of your carbohydrates stores, creating a “carb sink” of sorts, and freeing up room for the mouthful of carbohydrates you’ll be shoveling down come meal time.

And, if you’re under the misguided notion that eating carbohydrates inherently leads to fat gain, realize this.

Your body will not store carbohydrates as fat until after its glycogen stores have been replenished. So, by performing some high-intensity training bouts before eating, you help deplete carb stores in the body, which reduces the likelihood that the carbs you do eat will be converted and stored as fat.

Change Your Definition of “Working Out”

So often we tend to get mired down in our typical way of doing things or looking at things from a certain point of view — including our view of an approach to fitness and “working out.”

To most of us, being fit and working out means going to the gym, lifting weights, and performing regular bouts of cardio on a machine such as the elliptical or treadmill.

Now, don’t get us wrong, these are all fine forms of exercise and can be particularly effective for building muscle and burning fat. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking they are the only way to improve your health, wellness, and fitness. Furthermore, a workout doesn’t necessarily have to be one that leaves you huffing and puffing on the floor, sucking serious wind.

A holiday workout could easily be going on a long hike in the snow with your family, friends, and/or significant other. Other outdoor winter activities that could check the “fitness” box for the day include ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, or even chasing each other around throwing snowballs.

Hell, even shoveling snow can burn a few hundred calories if you do it long enough!

If you’re in regions that don’t get much snow, you have even more options at your disposal, including:

  • Rock climbing
  • Hiking
  • Rowing
  • Hill Sprints
  • Climbing stairs
  • Bodyweight workouts at the park
  • Outdoor Yoga
  • Pick up games of basketball, football, kickball, etc.
  • Chop wood

The options are endless. The main point is to get outside, get your body moving, and have some fun!

Detach yourself from the thinking of the conventional, and you’ll quickly realize there’s a whole world of fun physical activities awaiting you that could easily qualify as a “workout.”

 

Top 3 Fat-Blasting 15-Minute Workouts

 

Workout #1 — Bodyweight Burner

Bodyweight workouts are fantastic for the sheer fact that you can do them anywhere — no weights, no gym — just you, gravity, and Mother Earth.

If you’ve got a sturdy branch nearby, you’ve got a place to do pull-ups too! If you don’t have a thick tree branch close by, then remove pull-ups from the following bodyweight circuit and substitute jumping jacks instead.

For the bodyweight circuit, you will perform one exercise at the beginning of every minute. Perform each exercise listed below for 40 seconds and rest the remaining 20 seconds. Keep track of your reps and aim to complete more reps the next time you perform this workout.

  • Pull Ups
  • Jump squats
  • Diamond Push Ups
  • Reverse Lunges (Right Leg)
  • Plank
  • Chin Ups
  • Reverse Lunges (Left Leg)
  • Push Ups
  • Side-to-Side Skater Jumps
  • Side Plank (Right)
  • Side Plank (Left)
  • Lateral Lunges (Right Leg)
  • Lateral Lunges (Left Leg)
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Bodyweight Squats

Workout #2 — Total Body Dumbbell Shredder

Perform each exercise for 30 seconds, resting as little as possible in between each exercise. After completing one round of the circuit, rest 60-90 seconds before beginning the next round.

Complete as many rounds as possible (while maintaining good form) in 15 minutes.

  • Hammer curl to overhead press
  • Romanian Deadlift (hip hinge) to dumbbell row
  • Front squats (dumbbells held in racked position)
  • Alternating reverse lunges
  • Farmer’s walk

Workout #3 — Kettlebell Chaos

Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Perform as many rounds of the kettlebell circuit as possible within the time limit, resting only when needed between circuits.

  • 10 kettlebell swings
  • 10 kettlebell goblet squats
  • 10 kettlebell sumo deadlift high pulls
  • 10 alternating goblet hold reverse lunges (5 each leg)

Takeaway

The holidays are a time to relax, unwind, and celebrate. At the same time, the holidays are not the time to completely go off the rails of your diet and exercise program. Use these tips and short, intense workouts above to avoid unwanted fat gain and maintain your fitness without having to stress or sweat the small stuff.

And at the end of the day, realize that even if you miss a whole week of workouts, you’re not going to lose all of the gains you made over the past 12 months. Sure, you might be a bit slower or more easily fatigued from taking an entire week away from training, but the mental break can do a world of good.

5 Diet Tips to Stay Lean this Holiday Season

If you want to know what tips and tricks you can use to avoid weight gain during the holidays and stay lean without feeling stressed or deprived, you want to read this article.

The holidays are a time for family, friends, fun, and celebration.

The holidays are also the time of year when people decide to stop working out and bail on their diet. As a result, millions of people deal with unwanted weight gain, which prompts those same millions to make a New Year’s resolution to get “serious” about their health and fitness and go on one of the many trendy fad diets.

But, wouldn’t it be great if you could still enjoy the holidays and not have to sacrifice the physique you’ve spent the better part of the past year developing? You can!

Best of all, it won’t require any gimmicks, avoidance of certain macronutrients (we’re looking at your carbohydrates), or ridiculous exercise protocols.

We’ve come up with five diet tips to help you avoid the holiday weight gain and stay lean and mean throughout your break!

5 Ways to Stay Lean During the Holidays

 

1. Make Sure You Consume Enough Protein Each Day

Protein is the crucial cog for staying lean and avoiding the dreaded holiday way gain for a couple of reasons:

  • Protein is essential for maintaining your muscle.It provides the building blocks (essential amino acids) your body needs to build and repair muscle. You must make sure to eat enough protein every day while you’re traveling for the holidays.
  • Protein is highly satiating. Research notes that of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats), protein is the most satiating of the lot. [1]  Research also shows that when individuals consume higher protein diets, they reduce food intake.[2]Why is this a big deal? Holiday weight gain occurs as a direct result of eating too many calories each day. You’re also a higher risk for losing muscle during the holidays since sweet treats (cookies, cake, candy) are available in abundance, and protein options are typically in short supply.  By prioritizing protein at each meal, you’re protecting your muscles from breakdown and also reducing the chances of overeating.

How Much Protein Should I Eat Per Day?

A good rule of thumb is to aim for eating roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.

The easiest way to keep track of your daily protein intake is with a food tracking app on your phone, such as MyFitnessPal.

MyFitnessPal allows you to search a database of thousands of foods and track the nutrition data of the food you eat (or plan to eat) during the day. This helps reduce the amount of guesswork involved in figuring out how much protein you’ve consumed throughout the day as well as helps you make better decisions about what you’ll eat.

If you know ahead of time that where you will be traveling for the holidays (and the people you will be visiting) tends to have limited protein options available, it never hurts to packs some whey protein powder with you.

Whey Protein Powder (such as Steel Whey) provides a low calorie, high protein snack that helps you hit your protein quota for the day and tastes delicious.

Two other things in regard to protein intake that bear mentioning:

  • Leaner individuals tend to require slightly more protein. This means that if you’re a guy with ~10% (or girl with ~15%) body fat or less, definitely get 1-1.1g/lb of bodyweight. If you’re carrying 15-20% or higher for body fat, you can easily get away with consuming between 0.8-1 gram per pound of body weight and not worry about losing muscle.
  • Proteins from carbohydrate and fat sources (nuts, avocados, pasta, etc.) count toward your daily protein goal. These proteins may not be as high quality as animal-based ones, but they still count. For example, if you need 150 grams of protein per day and you get 120 grams from lean meats, dairy, and protein powder, the other 30 grams can easily come from vegetables, grains, legumes, etc.

2. Reduce Meal Frequency

If you’re like most fitness-minded individuals, you probably eat multiple times per day, frequently averaging 4-6 small meals, consuming one every few hours.

While this is great for optimizing muscle protein synthesis and limiting protein breakdown when you’re at home (on your regular training schedule and nutrition plan), the constant grazing can lead to severe overeating during the holiday.

As you would expect, day after day of eating more calories than you burn is going to lead to some very unwanted weight gain. And, during the holidays, it’s ridiculously easy to fall into the habit of mindless eating. If your holiday get-togethers are anything like ours, the second you walk in the door, you’re greeted by a table filled with all manner of sweet indulgences.

Therefore, to help limit the damage done during these periods of indulgence, it may be helpful to remove a few of your meals throughout the day and eat less frequently. This way you can save or “bank” calories for the big meals with all of your family and friends later in the day.

So, instead of having 5-6 small meals spaced every 2-3 hours, eat three larger meals spaced 5-6 hours apart. If, for example, you’re currently following a meal plan that looks a little something like this:

  • Breakfast: 8 AM
  • Pre-Workout Meal: 11 AM
  • Post Workout Meal: 2 PM
  • Dinner: 6 PM
  • Pre-Bed Snack: 10 PM

Why not try this schedule during the holiday:

  • Breakfast: 8 AM
  • Lunch: 1 PM
  • Dinner: 6 PM

So long as you’re getting in enough protein and calories each day, you don’t need to worry about losing muscle, as the theory behind increased meal frequency leading to better fat loss and muscle gain has been mostly debunked. Hitting your macronutrient goals each day is far more important than how many meals you eat or how frequently you eat them.

3. Practice Intermittent Fasting (if necessary)

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a pattern of dieting that revolves around restricting your food intake for extended periods, and then consuming your days’ worth of calories during a pre-set “feeding window.”

Intermittent Fasting is related to meal frequency, but slightly different, and to be honest, it deserves its own section because it’s incredibly useful when you’re traveling (and a real lifesaver during the holidays when you don’t want to go ham on the table of desserts).

The most common way to practice intermittent fasting (or intermittent feasting, depending on how you look at it), is to fast for 16 hours each day, and eat only during your 8 hour “feasting”’ window.

Some people adopt a slightly longer fasting period and fast for 20 hours per day and shovel down their calories during a rather small 4-hour feeding window.

Note: This 20:4 fasting, feasting window may work for those with lower calorie intakes, but if you’re bulking or have a fast metabolism, it can be quite challenging (not to mention uncomfortable) cramming down 3,000+ calories in only 4 hours.

Still another way to practice intermittent fasting is to do a one day on, one day off approach where you fast one entire day, and then eat the next. Though, we’re not really in favor of this method if you’re actively trying to build muscle.

Intermittent fasting by definition helps reduce meal frequency, and it also helps increase fat burning and reduce fat storage. This is because when you’re fasting, insulin levels are low.

When insulin is elevated (for example, after consuming meals high in protein and carbohydrates), fat burning is turned off, and energy storage is activated (which includes fat storage). [3]

Now, don’t think that insulin inherently causes fat gain (it doesn’t, by the way, consuming more calories than you burn does), but when it is elevated, your body is not burning any of its stored body fat — it’s busy using the food you just ate for energy to perform whatever tasks it needs to.

The intermittent fasting protocol favored by most of the individuals who follow it was developed by Martin Berkhan of Lean Gains fame and entails:

  • Fasting for 16 hours per dayDuring this time, you consume no food (not even keto-approved ones). You are allowed to consume non-calorie containing beverages though, such as black coffee, unsweetened tea, diet sodas, and, of course, water.
  • Eating only during an 8-hour feeding window during your feasting window, focus on hitting your protein goals for the day (1 gram per pound of body weight). Also, if you’re planning on training and intermittent fasting, we’d suggest training during your feeding window, or breaking your fast immediately after your training session is complete. Resistance training causes muscle breakdown, and if you’re serious about limiting the amount of muscle you lose and subsequently building muscle as fast as possible, you will want to eat before and after training. Plus, having some food in your system prior to training (particularly carbohydrates) supports greater performance during your workout.

Speaking of exercise during the holidays…

4. Exercise First Thing in the Morning

When people go on vacation or travel for the holidays, they view it as a time to take a break from their training program. While this might be tempting, and you might even feel that your body needs a break from the weights, we’re going to caution against going completely without any exercise while you’re away from home.

Exercise has a number of important benefits aside from preserving lean muscle mass. It also supports heart health and cognitive function, boosts mood, and alleviates stress (which can build up when visiting family for the holidays). [4,5,6]

So, at the very least, train to combat stress and have peace of mind.

And, another thing, schedule your workouts for first thing in the morning, or right before a big meal. There’s no shortage of interruptions or things popping up last minute that can derail you from getting in a quick workout.

The easiest way to avoid these situations and still get in your training is to make it a priority and exercise first thing in the morning.

Now, if you’re following point #3 above and utilizing intermittent fasting, but don’t want to risk excessive muscle breakdown during your workout, you can sip on some BCAAs (such as Steel Fuel) to preserve muscle and limit muscle breakdown.

Drinking BCAAs will cause a small increase in insulin, but not nearly as much as consuming a full-on meal or even a whey protein shake. [7]

The truth is, it doesn’t take nearly as much training volume to retain muscle that you have built as it does to build new muscle tissue. So, if you’re not actively in a bulking phase while traveling (and not many people are), and you want to hold onto the muscle that you’ve built, you only need to train two times per week at most.

Now the volume and intensity of these sessions will have to be rather high compared to your typical training days, but if all you’re interested in is preserving your current amount of lean mass, and not losing any, then two days per week is all you need.

All that being said, if you either don’t feel like finding (or can’t find) a gym to lift weights during your travels, performing bodyweight workouts, or you simply don’t have the time, we’d suggest you perform a few brief (20-30 minutes) sessions of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to help burn off some calories and create a bit of a “carb sink” in your muscles.

High-intensity interval training, as well as resistance training, relies primarily on stored carbohydrates (glycogen) in your muscles. Training before a huge family feast helps deplete your glycogen stores. [8]

The way the body refuels these depleted stores with carbohydrates. [9]

So, by burning through a portion of your glycogen stores (via HIIT or resistance-training) before eating, you can earn some “free carbs” in your post-workout meal.

Best of all, your body will not store the carbohydrates you eat as fat until your glycogen levels are full.[9]

Our favorite method for performing HIIT is using a work to rest ratio of 1:2 where you perform 30 seconds of all-out effort followed by 60 seconds “rest” (active recovery) and very low intensity.

You can perform your intervals using bodyweight exercises, sprints, recumbent bikes, rowing machines, or any other cardio machine of choice.

5. R-E-L-A-X & Enjoy Yourself!

The holidays are a time to cut loose (within reason) and enjoy the company of those with whom you are closest and don’t get to see all that often. Do your best to limit overindulgence in all the “naughty” foods, but at the end of the day, it’s not worth increasing your stress levels and ruining your mental health.

If you happen to go overboard at one meal, make up for it at the next by eating less, training harder the next day, and/or toying with some intermittent fasting. Planning your meals outside of the big family feasts can also help.

And besides, any damage that is done during the time you’re gone during the holidays can easily be undone with a brief mini-cut when you return from your time away from home.

The Bottom Line on Staying Lean During the Holidays

The holidays are meant to be the time of year when we celebrate and give thanks for all that we have received during the year. Make the most of this time and enjoy it to the fullest extent possible.

And, if you’re looking to keep the lean, sexy physique you’ve worked so hard all year long to build, use the above strategies to limit any “damage” you’ll do to your body composition. With these five tips, you’ll be able to enjoy food to your heart’s content every day over the holidays and start the new year right where you left off before the holiday season started.

References

  1. “Fat As a Risk Factor for Overconsumption: Satiation, Satiety, and Patterns of Eating.” ScienceDirect.com | Science, Health and Medical Journals, Full Text Articles and Books, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822397007335.
  2. Woods SC, D’Alessio DA, Tso P, Rushing PA, Clegg DJ, et al. Consumption of a high-fat diet alters the homeostatic regulation of energy. Balance Physiol Behav. 2004;83(4):573–78.
  3. Mechanisms of nutritional and hormonal regulation of lipogenesis. EMBO Rep. 2001;2(4):282-6.
  4. “Health Benefits of Physical Activity: the Evidence.” PubMed Central (PMC), Mar. 14, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1402378/.
  5. “Physical Activity Reduces Stress | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Home | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-reduces-st.
  6. “Exercise Holds Immediate Benefits for Affect and Cognition in Younger and Older Adults.” PubMed Central (PMC), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768113/.
  7. Kalogeropoulou D , et al. “Leucine, when Ingested with Glucose, Synergistically Stimulates Insulin Secretion and Lowers Blood Glucose. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19013300.
  8. Gollnick PD , et al. “Selective Glycogen Depletion Pattern in Human Muscle Fibres After Exercise of Varying Intensity and at Varying Pedalling Rates. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4278539.
  9. Ivy JL. Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):131-8. Published 2004 Sep 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905295/
  10. JL, Ivy. “Glycogen Resynthesis After Exercise: Effect of Carbohydrate Intake. – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9694422.