One of the most common questions surrounding women’s nutrition is the role that protein plays in nutrient intake and timing, muscle building and fat loss. Women often ask, “What’s the best protein powder for women’s health?” “What macronutrients does a woman need?” “Is protein powder good for weight loss?” “Are nutrition requirements different for women than for men?”
A simple search of “best protein powder for women” or “best protein shakes for women” will return listicles of female-targeted products written by lifestyle magazines pushing sponsored products, leaving out the science of nutrition in the process.
With pseudoscience running rampant in the lifestyle and fitness world, and certain products marketed specifically to women, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to protein needs and sourcing. In this article, we’ll explore how to calculate protein needs based on your fitness goals, quality sourcing, and optimizing nutrient timing.
Are nutritional requirements for women different than for men?
In an effort to generate sales and create perceived ‘need,’ the world of advertising has facilitated the widespread misconception that a female’s needs are drastically different than that of a male’s. We need not look farther than ‘Bic For Her’ pens or the ‘Pink Tax' to witness this sales phenomenon in action.
Pink labels, cute names, and inflated price points send signals that women require something special to reach their desired fitness goals, relationship status and career successes.
With the rise of fitness influencers and social media marketing, nutritionists and health professionals see this phenomenon play out in the form of protein powder formulated “just for women,” or sports supplements branded with cute monikers such as “FitMiss” or “Lady Lean” taking up shelf space.
But what if the difference in meeting your fitness goals comes down to the quality of nutrients, timing, and sourcing, and not ingesting products simply because they’re ‘formulated with women in mind’?
Not to imply that there aren’t indeed important differences in the male and female anatomies, but time and time again, side-by-side comparisons of women’s supplements to men’s supplements highlight that the ingredients are the same, but the price point and packaging have been modified to encourage women to buy into the “secret formula” to help them achieve their fitness goals.
Wherein lies the problem.
So, how can women know what their true protein requirement is? What protein powder, if any, is the right choice for supplementing a woman’s nutrient intake?
Next, we’ll explore how to calculate the amount of protein a woman really needs and how to look past pink packaging to understand what signifies a protein’s quality.
Why everyone needs protein
With our bodies made up of over 10,000 different proteins, in everything from our muscles, bones, skin and hair, protein makes up the enzymes that power chemical reactions in the body. Around the world, millions experience protein malnutrition, which can cause loss of muscle mass and decreased immunity.
When we ingest a protein source, it’s broken down into proteins and amino acids that are used in nearly every metabolic process in the body.
How much protein does a woman need?
According to Harvard Medical School, research shows that a range of 15% to 25% of your total daily calories should come from protein-rich sources.
But as Harvard also notes, the amount of protein you need is also contingent upon your activity level and the protein “package” or, simply put, the quality of the protein being ingested. For both women and men, understanding how much protein your body needs to maintain, lose, or gain weight is a step in the right direction for optimizing nutrient intake and setting realistic fitness goals.
To calculate how much protein you need daily, simply multiply your current body weight by the number of grams needed to maintain, lose, or gain weight as shown below:
To maintain current weight: 0.65-0.7 gm/lb
To decrease body fat and/or lose weight: 0.7-0.9 gm/lb
To gain weight: 0.9 gm/lb
For example, a 175-pound woman who aims to decrease body fat or lose weight should eat between 0.7 and 0.9 grams of protein per day, per pound of her current body weight. That math would look like this:
0.7 x 175 = 122.5 (low end)
0.9 x 175 = 157.5 (high end)
A 110-pound woman who wants to gain more weight/muscle should consume about 0.9 grams of protein per day, per pound of body weight. This means she needs to consume about 99 grams of protein each day.
A 140-pound woman who wants to maintain her weight would consume about 0.65 grams of protein per day, per pound of body weight, putting her daily protein consumption at 91 grams per day.
Animal protein vs plant protein
Protein is derived from a variety of food sources, which can be divided into two main categories: animal protein and plant protein. Animal proteins (think: grass fed beef, wild-caught fish, and eggs) are complete proteins, or simply put, they offer a good balance of all the essential amino acids the body needs to function. Plant proteins (think: beans, lentils, nuts), on the other hand, lack one or more of the essential acids needed for the body to function properly, categorizing them as incomplete proteins.
As a tool to supplement daily nutrient intake or to serve as post-workout recovery, protein powders derived from plant proteins and animal proteins are both widely available. So, how do women know which one to choose?
Let’s compare three common protein powders.
Casein protein, an abundant animal protein derived from milk, is used in many mass marketed ready-to-drink protein shakes.
Within the protein found in milk, there are two separate varieties: whey and casein.
Within the casein protein found in milk, there are two separate varieties: A1 and A2 beta-casein. The casein is designated A1 or A2 depending on the type of cow (A1 or A2) that produced the milk.
Most cows’ milk available in your neighborhood grocery store contain a combination of A1 and A2 beta-casein proteins due to consolidation of cows milk at large production facilities. The body digests A1 beta casein in a very different way than it digests A2. The body’s attempt to digest A1 results in the release of a peptide (or a protein fragment) from what is known as beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM-7). If BCM-7 gets through the gut and into the blood of people with immune deficiencies, they can experience negative health effects. Casein protein that contains A1 beta-casein has been shown to increase levels of BCM7, which has been linked to diabetes, autism and heart disease. Casein sourced strictly from A2 beta-casein (A2 cows) does not increase levels of BCM-7 and can be a great source of high quality protein.
Plant protein powder is an alternative that works well for vegans (and some vegetarians) seeking to supplement their protein intake, but a common point of user disappointment is the chalky taste that accompanies plant-derived protein powders. While it is important to ensure you’re getting enough protein, recent research has shown plant proteins can be very high in heavy metals as they’re absorbed from the soil during the plant’s growth.
Whey is the liquid protein component of milk. As discussed earlier in the article, a full amino acid profile is important for supporting essential bodily functions. Whey protein provides all nine essential amino acids, classifying it a complete protein. In addition to offering a full amino-acid profile, whey protein provides a very unique form of l-cystine that the body can use to produce glutathione, which is only found in whey protein.
Benefits of glutathione and grass fed whey for women
Why should women care about glutathione? According to Dr. Mercola, “Glutathione is your body’s most powerful antioxidant and has even been called ‘the master antioxidant.’ It is a tripeptide found inside every single cell in your body. It protects cells and has the unique ability of maximizing the activity of all the other antioxidants.”
The top food for maximizing glutathione production is high quality whey protein. It must be cold pressed whey protein derived from grass fed cows, and free from hormones, chemicals and sugar. Quality whey provides the body with all the key amino acids for glutathione production (cysteine, glycine and glutamate) and contains a unique cysteine residue (glutamylcysteine) that is highly bioactive in its affinity for converting to glutathione. Glutamylcysteine is a bonded cysteine molecule (cysteine plus glutamate) that naturally occurs in Bovine Serum Albumin – a fragile immune component of the whey. This unique cysteine is exclusive to whey and rarely appears in other protein foods – which makes whey protein the best glutathione-promoting food source available. Furthermore, whey provides critical cofactors, immunoglobulins, lactoferrin and alpha Lactalbumin (also a great source of cysteine), which together help create the right metabolic environment for high glutathione activity.
In addition to promoting glutathione production, grass fed whey is easy to digest, offering the highest bioavailability of any protein powders.
What’s in your protein powder?
Now that we’ve explored how to calculate women’s protein needs and protein sourcing, let’s recap with an easy checklist of what to look for in a protein powder to ensure it’s quality:
- Protein powder should offer a full BCAA (branched chain amino acid) profile for recovery
- Proper 2:1 ratio of EFA (essential fatty acids)
- Low in heavy metals and glyphosate
- If you’re opting for whey, it needs to be cold processed, grass fed whey
- If you’re opting for a plant-based option, it should be organic and certified low in heavy metals
- If you’re opting for casein, it needs to be sourced from A2 cows
And there you have it: the truth about protein powder for women and the role it plays in nutrient timing. Still have questions? Check out ‘The Grass Fed Difference’ and our FAQ to start. Or, feel free to chat with us on social or send us an email. We’re happy to discuss nutrition with you.
Joanne Tull, former Fitness America, Fitness Canada and Fitness Universe finalist. Joanne is a Co-Founder of Nutrology, the naturally based sports nutrition company that has innovated clean label nutritional products used by thousands of athletes, including elites in the NFL, MLB, NHL and Professional Boxing. Having appeared on ESPN, Fox Sports and TSN after finishing a storied athletic career as a state champion, collegiate and national level gymnast. Joanne’s common sense approach to nutrition will educate and motivate people on how to live a healthy lifestyle while balancing career, kids and fitness goals.