This question comes up a lot from people looking to add a protein powder supplement to their health regimen.
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that there is a ton of misinformation out there surrounding supplements. Things promising rapid weight loss, huge muscle gains, and magical healing powers are everywhere.
And they’re allowed to be, because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements.
While we can debate whether they should, I don’t want to get into that.
Today, I want to differentiate some key aspects of 3 major types of protein supplement out there.
There are a few main protein sources out there that are typically found in animal-based protein supplements. They are:
Before we get into each, I also think it’s good to make sure you’re properly evaluating why you want to learn more about them.
Why do you want to take a protein supplement?
I’m not saying don’t take one. That’d be hypocritical; I take them.
But if you’re looking to incorporate a protein supplement into your routine, ask yourself why.
Is it something you could see yourself relying on too heavily? Could you add more whole-food sources of protein to your diet first? Do you think that somehow having this supplement in your diet will suddenly rapidly change your results?
If any of these are a possibility, I’d suggest addressing them before you even start supplementing.
Using protein powder as a main food group isn’t a great idea. There are key nutrients that even high-quality protein supplements lack, so if you’re using them as your main source… you’re probably skipping out on a lot of essential vitamins.
If you think your diet in general is just too low in protein, good for you for getting mindful. But why not try adding in some more meat or legumes into your meals before turning to a supplement?
The average person can for sure get their daily necessary protein from whole-food sources without having to break into the supplement world.
And lastly, if you’re trying to add a protein supplement into your cycle for “rapid results,” that’s just not how it works. Adding protein to your diet, only does so much.
It speeds up muscle growth a bit (1), but probably not as much as you’d like. The key to true, long-lasting muscles is time + consistency in training + nutrition, with time being a huge determinant.
Now that that is out of the way… here is a breakdown of the 3 major types of animal-based protein powder you’ll see on the market.
The Differences Between Whey, Casein, and Collagen Protein Powders
Whey Protein: The Bodybuilder’s Best Friend
This is the most common type of protein supplement we hear about. It’s my guess that this is because it was the first heavily-used and tested when sports & supplementation really exploded.
Whey protein is a type of protein found in dairy – from any animal. But the supplement you’ll see on the market is from cow dairy, since that’s the most-farmed type.
Whey specifically began being derived from the whole milk when scientists noticed that it seemed to be absorbed and shuffled into muscles a bit quicker (2) than other protein types. It’s a molecule structured for fast absorption (3), and therefore doesn’t need to be broken down for as long a time as other proteins.
On top of that, whey does have an insulin-spiking effect (4), which has been shown to help improve nutrient absorption post-workout.
This seemed to prove beneficial for athletes trying to improve their muscle growth. So, it worked its way into the arena.
Whey is still heavily used today, particularly by bodybuilders. Many people will chug a whey shake soon after a workout to “enhance” the muscle repair & regrowth benefits. But there is skepticism around the post-workout window (5) and whether it actually does anything to advance muscle repair.
Whether or not that feeding window matters, whey is an extremely easy way to get more protein into an otherwise-healthy diet and push it toward muscular growth. It doesn’t necessarily fill you up for a long time, so athletes won’t get full before they’re fully replenished.
There is also evidence that whey protein supplementation improves athletic performance (6). I know that’s vague, but that’s what we’ve got.
As you might imagine, a downside to whey protein is that it isn’t good for people who can’t tolerate dairy.
This is not to be confused with a lactose intolerance – which is the inability to break down a sugar molecule found in milk. But many people are actually intolerant to the proteins in dairy, too. AKA whey.
Even if one isn’t intolerant to dairy proteins when they begin supplementing with whey, an intolerance can develop. There are many cases of people supplementing regularly with whey whose bodies begin to respond worse to it as time goes on.
That means that supplementing, regardless of what you’re using, requires constant attention and checking in with your body to see if the thing is actually helping.
So, to recap on whey –
The benefits of supplementing with whey protein include:
Easy to consume so protein goals are reached
Faster absorption into the muscles than other proteins, with the help of an insulin spike
Possible improvements to overall athletic performance
The downfalls of whey protein consumption include:
Inflammatory reactions for those who cannot tolerate dairy
Possible development of whey intolerance with steady / high use
Not very satiating so if you’re looking to stay full longer, this won’t help much
Not great for those already insulin intolerant
Casein Protein: A Good Bet for Weight Loss
Whey may be derived from dairy, but it’s not the only protein in there.
Casein is also a dairy-derived protein. However, while whey is “light” and quickly digested, casein is the opposite.
Casein protein supplements are also derived from cow milk. This molecule is much larger and therefore takes a lot longer to break down in the body.
This is great for when you want to remain full for a long time. Many bodybuilders will use casein right before bed during a “cut” – a calorie deficit period to lean out – to keep themselves from waking up in the middle of the night, hungry.
The slower breakdown period for casein also means there’s a more steady flow of protein entering the bloodstream, allowing the body to benefit from casein’s beneficial recovery protein for a longer period of time.
However, the larger molecule is tough on many people’s guts.
The casein molecule, in fact, is very similarly shaped to gluten. So similar that those who are diagnosed gluten intolerant or Celiac actually have huge chance of also being dairy intolerant, thanks to this similarity.
Many functional medicine doctors tend to shy away from casein completely because of this. Gluten has been shunned as an extremely inflammatory substance by many, so if there is a substance that the body might attack like gluten, why risk it?
The interesting thing with casein is that developing an intolerance hasn’t really been reported much. Unlike whey, it seems that if your body can handle casein, you’re probably fine to use it.
But there’s always a risk with it, like with gluten, that it could be causing issues long-term in your gut that will be a mess to sort out later.
A recap on casein –
The benefits of supplementing with casein are:
Longer breakdown period in the body, resulting in prolonged muscle repair assistance (7)
Keeps you fuller longer because of the longer breakdown time needed
Not as much of a risk of developing an insensitivity if you don’t have one from the beginning
The downfalls of supplementing with casein are:
This is probably the protein you’re sensitive to if you’re dairy intolerant (again, that’s different from lactose intolerant)
The molecule is very similar to gluten & many bodies react to the two in the same way, so if you’re gluten intolerant then casein is probably not for you
Possible gut damage, similar top that of gluten that might result in worse complications long-term (whether you’re “intolerant” or not)
Collagen Protein: The New Kid on the Block
Supplementing with collagen protein was unheard of ten years ago. Heck, it’s just now reaching its 5-year boom, thanks to a company called Vital Proteins that led a huge part of the movement.
Unlike whey and casein, collagen protein is not milk-based.
Collagen is actually the most abundant protein found in any animal’s body – including ours.
It’s the building block for joints, skin, nails, hair, bones… yeah. It’s pretty useful.
Before supplementing with collagen became a “thing,” people who couldn’t use whey or casein proteins usually stuck to plant-based proteins. Which are a fine option, too. But many of those had terrible tastes and textures, until recently.
The benefits of collagen have been known for a while, even if we didn’t know that’s what was benefitting us.
Many holistic health doctors boasted the benefits of drinking bone broth back in the early 2000’s, because it seemed to help repair symptoms of “leaky gut syndrome.”
Now that we know a bit more about the gut lining, which is a big shtick for most any functional health doctor, we know that those things are true. And the reason the gut seemed to heal was thanks to bone broth’s high collagen content.
Bringing it back to Vital Proteins for a minute: this was the first company to get “big” that was extracting this protein in a shelf-stable way. They use grass-fed cow bones and hides to supply the collagen protein and many of the benefits of drinking bone broth seem to come from supplementing with theirs, and others’, collagen supplement powders.
People report a reduction in leaky gut symptoms, faster hair & skin growth, and improved joint soreness.
And the best part is that a dairy intolerance doesn’t get triggered from it because this protein isn’t dairy-derived!
On the athletic front, collagen protein is absorbed at a slower rate than whey. So it can help hold over hunger longer and slow-release to repair muscles all the same.
For those that report improved joint health, collagen seems to help their athletic performance because they’re no longer in pain.
And whether or not the gut / beauty benefits are legitimate, this is still an added form of protein being absorbed by the body. Which means that your muscles will benefit somewhat, because you’re providing them with repair & building blocks.
One thing to note is that collagen supplementation is still very new in the wide-scale arena.
That in mind, there isn’t a ton of research on it. There is plenty of extrapolation of studies done on bone broth (also still in its infancy) to prove the benefits of collagen supplementation. Case studies and self-reported success stories are driving much of this part of the industry right now.
We do know that the body seems to break down and use more collagen in a day than it recreates for itself. It has been theorized that this is why we see wrinkles and sagging skin, brittle joints / nails, and thinner hair with age.
One of the key arguments for collagen supplementation is that it provides the amount of collagen we need to replenish how much we burn in a day, thus resulting in some anti-aging benefits.
One of the things that might be a bit discouraging about it is the fact that we don’t really know what it’s going to “target” within a person. If someone is taking collagen for joint health, some of it could also go to growing their hair faster. There’s not really a way to know how the body will distribute or use it at this time.
We still have a long while to go before we can determine long-term benefits and side effects of supplementing with powdered collagen. But so far, it seems promising.
Once more about the very early years of collagen supplementation (more research is needed on all of this) –
The benefits of supplementing with collagen protein are:
Improved joint health
Improved strength of hair, nails, skin elasticity
Improved gut lining / reduction of leaky gut symptoms / overall gut health
Improved muscle repair
Possible improvement in athletic performance, thanks to joint healing + muscle growth
Not dairy-based so those intolerant can still take it
The downfalls of supplementing with collagen protein are:
We don’t know long-term effects of collagen powder supplementation because it’s so new
No control over / knowledge of what benefits you will receive from it (does it go everywhere? Does it go where your body needs it most? We still don’t know)
Finding the right protein for you
If you think that supplementing with protein is something you’d like to do, this is a great resource to get you started.
Of course, there are also plant-based proteins that are quite good nowadays. But these are the 3 most common animal-derived sources you’ll find at present.
The final note is this: write down the goals you want to achieve with a protein supplement. Look at how your body reacts to things. And decide, intelligently, which form seems like it’ll help get you there.
And lastly, please make sure that whatever form you go with is a pure source that’s not laden with extra additives / fake sugars / real sugars and is certified to some extent as authentic. There are too many fake supplements out there.
But there are many that are high-quality, so don’t waste your money if you’re going to supplement. The “good” stuff might cost a bit more, but it’ll actually save you money long-term.
Some high-quality brands I recommend are:
Natural Stacks - for a combination whey + collagen blend
John’s Killer Protein - Nighttime Blend, for an 80/20 casein/whey blend
So get out there and get that work done – you’ll see those results before you know it.
Sources for this article
(1) Hulmi, J.J., Lockwood, C.M., Stout, J.R. (2010). Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-7-51
(2) Pennings, B. et.al. (2011). Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93 (997–1005). doi: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.008102
(3) Kollias, H. (n.d.) Research Review: Fast vs. slow whey for protein synthesis. Precision Nutrition. Retrieved from: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/whey-vs-casein
(4) Finn, C. (n.d.). On Whey Protein, Insulin Spikes and Losing Fat. Muscle Evo. Retrieved from: https://muscleevo.net/on-whey-and-getting-ripped/
(5) Aragon, A.A., Schoenfeld, B.J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5
(6) Taylor, L.W. et. al. (2015). Eight weeks of pre- and postexercise whey protein supplementation increases lean body mass and improves performance in Division III collegiate female basketball players. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 41 (249-254). doi: https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2015-0463
(7) Mawer, R. (2016). Why Casein Is One of The Best Proteins You Can Take. Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/casein-protein-is-highly-underrated