Picking the Perfect Protein Powder: A Thyroid Thriver's Guide
Navigating the complex world of protein powders can be quite the challenge, especially as Thyroid Thrivers with special dietary needs and restrictions. Protein is key to maintaining lean muscle mass, hormonal balance, blood sugar balance, optimal health, weight maintenance, and thyroid function, but getting enough of it can be difficult. That's why having a good protein powder option that works for you and your needs can be helpful, providing a concentrated source of protein in a convenient shake or smoothie... But picking the right protein powder is crucial.
In this blog post, we'll cover the most common expert recommendations regarding protein powder for Thyroid Thrivers, as well as what to watch out for and what to avoid. We'll delve into the essential role of protein for thyroid function, explore the diverse types of protein powders available, and I'll provide some simple criteria to help you make an informed choice that aligns with your unique needs and dietary restrictions. I'll also provide my favorite protein powder recommendations at the end of this post.
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Why Protein Matters for Thyroid Thrivers
Protein is an essential nutrient for anyone, especially for Thyroid Thrivers. To optimize all the functions of the body that the thyroid affects (which pretty much means all functions of the body), high-quality protein is a requirement.
Consuming adequate protein helps us:
- Build and maintain lean muscle mass
- Promote blood sugar balance
- Maintain skin, hair, nails, and gut health
- Consume amino acids that are supportive to our gut and thyroid function, such as glycine, tyrosine, glutamine, and proline
- Support weight loss
- Support metabolism
- Support fat burning
- Support healthy immune function
- Stay satisfied between meals
- Consume key thyroid-supporting nutrients like zinc, iron, and selenium
Hypothyroidism, Hashimoto's, or life without a thyroid can make everything on the list above more challenging than it is for the average bear. Let's zero in on that first item on the list: building and maintaining lean muscle mass.
According to Dr. Emily Kiberd, founder of Thyroid Strong and one of the contributors to my Thyroid-Friendly Workout Kit, if you have an underactive thyroid, it's harder to maintain muscle mass. Hypothyroid myopathy or muscle weakness affects about 79% of people with hypothyroidism. Strength training combined with adequate protein consumption helps us build muscle, or what she calls the "Organ of longevity."
Maintaining our muscle mass is one of the best things we can do for our thyroid function. Muscles are a major target for thyroid receptors to receive the signaling of thyroid hormones. When the thyroid is underactive, type 2 muscle fibers will atrophy, making it harder to maintain muscle mass. To have good thyroid hormone turnover, Kiberd says, we need to stimulate the muscles.
While it's not great news that we face these challenges as Thyroid Thrivers, being aware of them is what empowers us to make the best choices for our health. Protein can be like a secret weapon on your journey to optimal well-being.
How Much Protein is Enough?
The question of how much protein we need daily sparks lively debates among experts. While recommendations vary, the two most common approaches I hear from thyroid and fitness experts are the grams per meal approach and the grams per pound approach. Allow me to explain.
The grams-per-meal approach is a simple rule of thumb to shoot for at least 30 grams of protein with every meal. As Dr. Emily Kiberd explains, "The recommended amount of protein per meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis is a minimum of 30 grams per meal."
The grams-per-pound approach recommends between 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of your ideal body weight. Health and nutrition expert J.J. Virgin tells her readers: "While your protein needs will differ, depending on things like age and activity level, you’ll want to aim for around .75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight. Let’s say your ideal body weight is 150 pounds. That means you’ll want to get 113–150 grams of protein per day, ideally divided into three meals."
As you can see, opinions vary on this topic, but these guidelines give you an idea of what neighborhood you want to be in with your protein consumption. How much you need depends on your current circumstances, like how active you are or what your goals are. Are you doing a lot of strength training and actively trying to build muscle? Are you over age 40 and tipping into the phase of life where you're more prone to muscle loss? Do you have an underactive or missing thyroid? If any of these apply, you may need to up your protein intake.
More protein is not necessarily better if you're already getting enough. Like other calories, excess calories from protein may be stored as fat in the body. Regularly overdoing it on protein also comes with some health risks.
Getting adequate protein, as in getting enough for your personal needs and physical makeup, is the name of the game. If you're not getting enough, you'll have a harder time maintaining optimal health, strength, and vitality.
Pick a protein goal that works for you and makes sense to you. For me, a woman with Hashimoto's in my mid-forties who is approaching menopause and actively trying to build and maintain muscle, I go with the 30 grams per meal minimum, which usually puts me between 90 - 120 grams of protein per day, all told.
Getting in that much protein daily can be a bit of a challenge, especially when life gets hectic. That's the magic of protein powder. A quick scoop or two, a whirl in the blender, and you've got a convenient shake or smoothie that's perfect for those busy days or a post-workout recovery drink. It's also a great way to stay satisfied between meals and reduce cravings.
How to Pick the Perfect Protein Powder
Picking a perfect protein powder can be a minefield as a Thyroid Thriver, especially when you're avoiding common protein powder ingredients like dairy, soy, grains, or eggs. Add to that the hurdle of uber-long ingredient lists, hidden sources of sugar, artificial ingredients, and finding the right product takes some seriously fancy footwork.
Crafting a list of criteria based on expert recommendations, plus any personal preferences you may have, is a good place to start.
Here's the basic list of what to look for in a thyroid-friendly protein powder:
- A complete protein source
- Free from gluten, dairy, added sugar, and soy
- Devoid of erythritol, ideally
- A short ingredient list with real food ingredients
- Available in an unsweetened or Stevia-free option
- Free of trans fats or partially-hydrogenated oils
You may have different or additional needs to add to this list. Are you looking for options that are plant-based? Does your protein powder need to adhere to a specific therapeutic protocol such as Paleo or the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)? Are you looking for a flavored or unflavored product? Sweetened or unsweetened? We all have our unique needs and tastes to adhere to.
Personally, I don't do flavored protein powders because I like to prepare smoothies using a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables. Color and flavor are important, and I want to choose them with each smoothie I blend. A chocolate-flavored protein powder, for example, is going to dictate the color and flavor of every smoothie I add it to. If I want a chocolate protein shake, I'd rather just add my own cacao powder.
This is also why I don't use sweetened protein powders, even those that use natural sweeteners. I find the added sweetness overpowering, and would rather enjoy the unadulterated taste and sweetness of whole food ingredients like wild blueberries, bananas, or mangoes. You may feel differently.
With so many unique tastes, food sensitivities, and dietary restrictions amongst Thyroid Thrivers, the question lingers: Is there a perfect protein powder? The real question is, "What's the perfect protein powder for YOU?"
One strategy you can use to fast-track your search is to narrow down the options first. Think about what type of protein powders you are open to trying and which types you aren't. Let's take a quick look at what those choices are to help you refine your search.
The Protein Powder Lineup
Diving into the array of protein powder options reveals a multitude of sources, each with its own unique advantages and considerations. Amongst the thousands of choices out there, protein powders are commonly made using these ingredients: whey (a dairy byproduct), egg, soy, rice, hemp, pea, beef, or collagen protein. Some products are made with a mixture of these. Some include other sources of protein, like watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds. The varieties are endless!
Some protein powder ingredients are okay for hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s, and some are likely to cause inflammation, GI distress, or worse. As with all things, there is an element of bio-individuality, meaning that the protein powder that is right for your friend may not be right for you. We each have unique needs and sensitivities.
This topic is big enough to fill a book, but let’s boil it down to which options are best and which to avoid for Thyroid Thrivers. Amongst thyroid experts who create their own protein powders (like Dr. Izabella Wentz and Amy Myers MD), they typically use these ingredients: beef protein, collagen protein, or pea protein. Let's compare...
ON THE MENU: Chocolate Protein Smoothie
Top 3 types of protein powder for Thyroid Thrivers:
Beef Protein: Beef is a complete source of bio-available protein that comes with the added benefit of thyroid-supportive nutrients like tyrosine, selenium, iron, and zinc. This option may be better tolerated than plant-based protein powders by those with compromised gut health. Make sure that what you’re buying is beef protein and not bone broth or beef collagen to ensure you’re getting a complete protein (see item 2). Also, look for grass-fed beef protein to ensure you’re consuming a product that is anti-inflammatory vs. inflammatory.
PROS: Concentrated source of protein, highly digestible for most.
CONS: Cost, flavor, hard to source, may add lots of froth to smoothies.
Collagen or "Bone Broth" Protein: Collagen is terrific, but this one comes with a caveat: Collagen is not a complete protein. Be careful when buying beef-based proteins to determine if what you are getting is indeed a complete beef protein, not just collagen. Collagen can add significant protein and other beneficial nutrients to your smoothie, which support skin, hair, nail, and gut health; however, collagen lacks some of the nine essential amino acids necessary to use as building blocks for our bones, muscles, skin, cartilage, and organs. Collagen dissolves easily and is relatively flavorless. It can be a great addition to your smoothies, but as a standalone protein powder, it's not the best option. Try combining collagen protein with other types of complete protein to get all those essential amino acids and the most benefit.
PROS: Relatively flavorless and dissolves in anything, easy to source.
CONS: Not a complete protein.
Pea Protein: Pea protein is a complete, plant-based, vegan protein source with a relatively mild taste. Peas are a legume, so this option is not Paleo or AIP-compliant. While some Thyroid Thrivers are sensitive to legumes and have a hard time digesting them, pea protein can be a less inflammatory and more digestible option than whey or egg-based proteins. Always look for organic pea-based protein powders to avoid GMOs.
PROS: Plant-based, easy to source, complete protein, relatively inexpensive.
CONS: Legumes are difficult for some to digest, may cause gas, may add a chalky texture.
While many products contain a blend of proteins, and there are numerous other types not listed here (like watermelon seed protein, for example), these top 3 seem to be the most commonly recommended and reviewed. Next, let's take a look at some other types of protein that are common but come with caveats and cautions.
2 types of protein powder that are less ideal for Thyroid Thrivers:
Hemp Protein: Hemp is a borderline-complete protein meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids but not enough of some of them to be considered complete. Hemp is high in fiber, Omega-3, and Omega-6 fats. One big downside is that hemp imparts a strong earthy taste that overpowers other smoothie ingredients. A scoop of hemp protein may work in some smoothies, but this option doesn’t make an ideal choice for everyday use.
PROS: Plant-based, relatively affordable, healthy fats, fiber
CONS: Strong overpowering flavor, borderline-complete protein
Rice Protein: While rice protein can be easier to digest than whey or egg protein, it is not considered a complete protein and must be combined with other proteins to be considered complete. Additionally, because of the way rice is grown in water, it can be high in heavy metals, especially arsenic, so using rice protein daily may not be an ideal choice.
PROS: Plant-based, relatively inexpensive, easy to source
CONS: Incomplete protein, may be high in arsenic and other heavy metals
We each have to make our own choices about which protein powder is right for us, but it's important to be aware of some of the issues present in certain options. Some protein sources should be approached with caution. Let's wrap it up by looking at some of the least suitable options for Thyroid Thrivers.
3 types of protein powder that are most risky for Thyroid Thrivers:
Whey Protein: While whey is considered anti-inflammatory for those who tolerate dairy, it’s considered inflammatory to Thyroid Thrivers who are sensitive to dairy, and that means most of us. Whey is a dairy byproduct and therefore contains dairy proteins like casein and lactose. These proteins can be hard to digest for some and can lead to bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, joint pain, and other symptoms.
Egg Protein: Like dairy, eggs can be a good source of protein for some and troublesome for others. This depends on whether or not we’re sensitive to eggs, which many of us are to varying degrees. The lysozyme in eggs, which is a protective enzyme, can be inflammatory in some people with autoimmune disease or thyroid issues. In an egg-based protein supplement, those potentially problematic proteins or enzymes are highly concentrated, making egg protein a risky option.
Soy Protein: Soy has some positive nutritional qualities but isn’t recommended for those with thyroid issues. Functional thyroid experts, like Dr. Izabella Wentz, recommend avoiding soy because it is an endocrine disruptor, xenoestrogen, and particularly disruptive to thyroid function. Soy is considered a "goitrogen" or thyroid-suppressing ingredient, and whereas other goitrogenic foods can be cooked or fermented to reduce their thyroid-inhibiting compounds, this does not apply to soy.
Looking at the differences between types of protein, it becomes clear that our specific needs as Thyroid Thrivers differ from those of the general population. Are these "risky" types of protein inherently bad? Not necessarily. All three of these options come with their unique health pros and cons, but when so many of us are intolerant to dairy, when so many of us are more prone to food sensitivities like eggs, and when so many of us want to avoid thyroid-disrupting foods like soy, these options come with a higher degree of risk. If you're drinking a protein shake or smoothie on a daily basis, that risk is multiplied. So, why not choose a type of protein that is less likely to trigger inflammation and other issues?
Other Ingredients to Watch Out For in Protein Powder
As with any packaged food, it’s essential to carefully read protein powder labels. Typically, the fewer ingredients, the better, as protein powders may contain added fillers and supplemental ingredients that may be problematic, including added sugars, unhealthy fats, caffeine, or high amounts of iodine from ingredients like kelp powder.
Also, pay attention to the quality of the ingredients. Are they whole-food-based? Is the beef grass-fed? Is it third-party tested for purity? Looking for these qualifiers on the label helps ensure you are getting a quality product that won’t contribute to your inflammation or toxic burden.
Some plant-based protein powders have been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. While this has become a contentious topic among scientific analysts and protein powder manufacturers, it illuminates potential hidden dangers that are important for Thyroid Thrivers. Heavy metals are particularly harmful to the thyroid, so it's a good idea to do some detective work on this before purchasing your protein powder. Read the reviews, search the internet for "[the name of your protein powder] + heavy metals" to see what comes up, reach out to the company directly, or look for products that are third-party tested for purity. Due to very high levels of industrial pollution and, therefore, heavy metal contamination, some experts recommend avoiding protein powders from China.
Keep in mind that protein powders are considered supplements, which the FDA does not regulate, so sleuthing and careful sourcing are required.
Speaking of supplements, use caution with protein powders that come with a long list of added herbs, mushrooms, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or "wholefood blends." When there's a laundry list of additives in your protein powder, even so-called "healthy" ones, it becomes impossible to isolate food sensitivities. If you react to something in that protein powder with 30+ ingredients, how do you know which ingredient you're reacting to?
Additionally, when you take your magnifying glass to those super-long ingredient lists, you may find that they're packed with sneaky energy boosters like caffeine. You could be getting a massive energy boost, thinking it's from the protein when it's actually from added stimulants like coffee or green tea extract.
Another thing Thyroid Thrivers need to be aware of are protein powders that contain biotin. Biotin can be great for Thyroid Thrivers and supports hair, skin, and nail health. The problem is that it can skew your thyroid test results. According to the American Thyroid Association, "Biotin use can result in falsely high levels of T4 and T3 and falsely low levels of TSH, leading to either a wrong diagnosis of hyperthyroidism or that the thyroid hormone dose is too high." The ATA recommends avoiding biotin for at least two days prior to thyroid testing to avoid skewed results.
Supplements are a big money industry, and with a lack of FDA regulation, it really is buyer beware. Skepticism, research, and a critical eye are highly encouraged for Thyroid Thrivers who are shopping for supplements of any kind, including protein powders.
ON THE MENU: Banana Orange Creamsicle Smoothie
My Protein Powder Picks
I've tried a lot of protein powders and had to kiss a few frogs before I found my protein powder prince(s). Only two made the cut. Sadly, quite a few of the protein powders I sampled ended up in the trash can. Some products I found unpalatable due to super-high amounts of natural sweeteners like stevia. Some caused a lot of GI upset, like gas, bloating, or constipation. Some products tainted every smoothie I added them to with overpowering flavors, colors, or textures. This helped me narrow my search to looking for a plain, unflavored, unsweetened protein powder.
There are also countless protein powders I haven't tried, and I've heard from many of you who are passionate about your chosen ones. So, I may update these recommendations as I am able to sample and find more options I feel good about sharing with you. For now, these are the two products I like most and can recommend with integrity, one plant-based and one animal-based.
My favorite plant-based protein powder: Earth Chimp Plain & Unsweetened
This recommendation came to me via my DMs from a fellow Thyroid Thriver. I liked the pure and relatively simple ingredient list of this organic, plant-based product from Ireland. Each item was recognizable and made sense. I also liked that it contained some of my favorite anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric, or blood-sugar-balancing cinnamon. I decided to give it a shot, and I'm so glad I did!
This hand-crafted blend of pea, pumpkin, coconut, and sunflower provides 21 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per two-scoop serving (35 grams). It's also about half the price of animal-based products. It was created in Dublin by an athlete/doctor husband/wife team who were tired of searching for the quality they wanted from a plant-based protein shake.
Like other plant-based protein powders, it can be challenging for some to digest. The fiber is high, which can take a bit for your gut to get used to. If gas and bloating are an issue for you with plant-based protein, try starting with less and slowly working your way up to a whole serving. The addition of digestive enzymes and probiotics helps ease this protein through the digestive tract.
PROS: Relatively affordable, clean and simple ingredients, complete protein
CONS: Mildly chalky, may cause gas/bloating, esp. at first, lower protein content per serving vs. my favorite beef protein (below), and lower servings per bag. Some may not want the supplemental ingredients like probiotics and digestive enzymes.
My favorite animal-based protein powder: Be Well by Kelly LeVeque, Unflavored Grass-fed Protein Powder
To be honest, I had never heard of Kelly LeVeque before I started my hunt for the perfect protein powder, but it turns out she's got a loyal fan base as a celebrity nutritionist and wellness expert. This product contains just one simple ingredient: beef protein isolate.
While many other beef-based products out there are dodgy about whether or not their products are a complete protein (some are collagen-only), what led me to Kelly is that she clearly states that her product is a complete protein, boasting 23 grams of bioavailable protein per scoop.
The other highlight of Be Well is purity. It's made without chemical processing, with beef from Swedish cows. As a country, Sweden boasts some of the most stringent cattle-raising policies in the world. Under Swedish law, cows have a "bill of rights," including grazing rights, and the use of drugs or hormones to grow the cows faster is banned. European food policies also restrict the use of GMOs.
Some reviewers complained about this product sticking to the sides of their blender, which happens because this protein powder contains no added anti-caking agents. It's also an easy problem to fix. Simply add your ingredients to the blender, and add the protein powder on top, in the center of the well, then blend. Plopping in this protein powder first will result in much of it getting stuck to the bottom of the blender.
PROS: Complete protein, high protein content, mild taste, easy to digest, grass-fed beef, Paleo, and AIP compliant.
CONS: Expensive, can stick to sides of blender if not added correctly, adds frothiness to blended drinks that some may find unappealing.
Of these two products, it's hard to pick a favorite. Dietary diversity is a great way to ensure we're getting the variety of nutrients we need, so I keep both of these on hand and either alternate between the two or use a half-scoop of each in my smoothies. This also minimizes any of the less desirable effects of each product, like excess frothiness from the grass-fed beef powder or added "texture" (or gassiness) from the plant-based powder.
BONUS Recommendation: Great Lakes Collagen Peptides
I want to give a shout-out to Great Lakes Collagen Peptides as a source of protein and gut-healing amino acids. Collagen supports skin, hair, nails, and joint health, all of which are things we Thyroid Thrivers could use some extra help with. I love this product and have been using it in my smoothies and my morning matcha for years! But, as we discussed above, it's important to note that collagen protein is not a complete protein. To address this, I simply combine the collagen peptides with another complete protein source, such as the two powders listed above, or a side of something like this AIP Lamb Sausage.
Collagen protein is still protein. Incomplete protein does not equal BAD protein! It just lacks some of the nine essential amino acids our bodies require to use that protein for cell repair or the production of tissues like organs, bones, muscle, cartilage, and skin. Adding those essential amino acids to our smoothies and protein shakes in some other format can help us utilize more of the protein from the collagen peptides, and ensure our bodies are getting what they need to thrive.
PROS: High in amino acids like glycine, which are particularly supportive to our intestinal health. Supports skin, hair, nails, and joint health. Easy to source, reasonably priced. Dissolves in any liquid, hot or cold, and is virtually tasteless and textureless.
CONS: Collagen is not a complete protein.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide which of these products fits your current needs. When my health coaching clients or Thrivers Club Members ask me for recommendations, these are the three products I point them to. I hope this guide has given you the direction and tools you need to get the nutrients you need to thrive, and to find YOUR perfect protein powder.
Wishing you happy cooking, happy thriving, and the best of health,
P.S. Need more thyroid-friendly recipe inspiration? I’ve got you covered. My Thyroid-friendly Everyday eCookbook features over 50 quick and easy, thyroid-friendly recipes your whole family will love. To take a peek at what’s inside, CLICK HERE.