Written by Ben Carlisle
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
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The paleo diet, AKA the caveman diet, tries to mimic the way humans ate in ancient hunter-gatherer societies 10,000 years ago. It is highly beneficial for weight loss and for managing lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Followers of the paleo diet avoid processed foods, sugar, dairy, grains, and legumes.
The paleo diet is a low-carb, high-protein diet that consists only of whole foods - meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, seeds, and nuts. Therefore, protein powders made from pea, hemp, soy, and rice protein, as well as egg white and collagen protein, are paleo.
It may seem as if protein powders are at odds with the paleo diet because they are not whole foods. While it is true that many protein supplements are loaded with highly processed ingredients and sugar, there are certain kinds that are paleo friendly.
The majority of protein powders on the market are the furthest thing from paleo. They are heavily processed, contain lots of different food additives, and their ingredients come mainly from dairy.
Cavemen did not have access to protein powders, so how can a protein powder be paleo? Well, it depends on how strictly you follow the diet.
If you adhere to the rules of the paleo diet 100%, then most protein powders are off the menu. The most common types of protein powders – whey and casein – are not allowed because they are derived from cow’s milk (1).
However, if you have a more flexible approach to eating paleo, some dairy products are allowed. It is actually beneficial to eat some dairy, as cutting this food group out completely often leads to vitamin D and calcium deficiencies.
To people following a flexible paleo diet, whey or casein protein powders derived from high quality, grass-fed cow’s milk is okay to eat.
With so many different products on the market, it can be tough to choose a protein powder, especially a paleo friendly one!
There is a range of factors one should consider when choosing a paleo protein powder. The source of the protein is not the most important thing to think about.
It is crucial to look at the things that are added to the protein powder – sugar, sweeteners, sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol, colorants, flavorings, and preservatives.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners are not allowed in a paleo diet. Sugar alcohols are allowed, but we recommend avoiding them because they cause gastrointestinal problems (2).
Natural sweeteners like coconut sugar, stevia, honey, maple syrup, dates, and molasses are all allowed as part of a paleo diet.
BCAA’s – branched chain amino acids – are another thing to look out for when choosing a paleo protein powder. These amino acids enable our bodies to build and maintain muscle.
Lastly, the digestibility and absorption of the protein is a factor to consider. The faster your body is able to use the nutrients in the protein powder, the better. Certain protein sources have a better digestibility score than others.
There is a surprisingly wide variety of paleo friendly protein powders to choose from. Let’s take a look at the different options – what they contain, their pros and cons, and why you should consider them.
Egg white protein powder is made from – you guessed it – the whites of eggs. Egg whites are low in fat and rich in protein.
It is a great way to get the benefit of eggs without the fat and extra calories. A whole egg has 71 calories, while an egg white only has 18 calories and contains 4 grams of protein.
Egg white protein powder contains all 9 of the essential amino acids – it is a complete protein. It is also free from lactose, glucose, FODMAP, and cholesterol.
It is high in BCAAs and leucine. These play an important role in synthesizing protein, repairing muscle, and gaining body mass.
Research has shown that egg white protein is more easily digestible than other proteins derived from soy, wheat, beef, and cow’s milk (3).
Beef isolate protein powder is not what it sounds like. It is not a ground-up fillet steak that you can add to your protein shakes! Beef isolate protein powder contains mainly hydrolyzed gelatin and hydrolyzed beef protein isolate.
Another term for beef isolate protein powder is collagen protein powder. It is made from the gelatin and collagen that comes from beef offcuts – the hooves, ligaments, and so on.
Beef isolate protein powder, or collagen, is very similar to whey protein in terms of the macronutrient profile and the way it affects your body composition (4). It is a great way to add more protein to your diet without the negative effects that come with eating more red meat.
A benefit of beef isolate protein powder is that it is great for preserving muscle mass, especially in the lower body, while reducing overall body mass, especially in athletes between 35 and 60 years of age (5).
This makes beef isolate protein powder a better choice than whey protein powder for older athletes who want to maintain their muscle mass while losing weight.
Because beef protein powder is a meat derivative, it is technically a paleo protein powder. However, if you follow a strict paleo diet, you may not consume beef protein powder because of how heavily processed it is.
Another issue with beef protein powder is that it is not a complete source of protein. It does not contain all 9 of the essential amino acids, and it has lower levels of BCAAs than whey protein. BCAAs are important for building muscle, so they are definitely something you want lots of in a protein powder.
In terms of digestibility and how well your body can absorb the nutrients, egg white protein is far superior to beef protein powder. When you take beef protein powder, not as much of the protein gets to your muscles (6).
Plant-based protein powders are becoming widely popular, especially amongst people who are trying to consume less meat and animal products. Pea protein powder packs a surprising punch compared to whey, collagen, and egg white protein.
Pea protein powder is about 75% protein! Considering whey protein concentrate is about 70 to 80% protein, pea protein powder is on par with animal-derived protein sources (7). It is a great product to increase the amount of protein in your diet.
Pea protein powder helps to increase athletic performance by supporting the building of muscle while promoting weight loss. It is high in iron, contains all the essential amino acids, and is hypoallergenic.
One drawback of pea protein powder is that it is low in methionine, one of the essential amino acids (8). If you take pea protein powder, you should consume other paleo foods that are high in methionine, like fish, beef, pork, turkey, or quinoa.
So, how is pea protein made?
Yellow peas are what are used to make pea protein powder. The peas are first shelled and then ground down into flour. This pea flour is rich in protein, starch, and soluble fiber.
The pea flour is mixed with water so that the fiber and starch are dissolved and can be separated from the pea protein. The resulting pea protein isolate is a whiteish powder that can be dissolved in water.
There are generally three different kinds of pea protein powder available on the market:
Hemp protein is becoming a popular plant-based, paleo friendly protein source because it is not heavily processed. It is made from finely ground hemp seeds.
The grinding process removes most of the oil in the hemp seeds, leaving only about 10% of the original fat content as well as the hemp protein.
How the hemp seeds are processed is important to the nutritional value of the hemp protein powder. Cold-pressed hemp seeds are way more digestible than hemp seeds that have been heating in their processing.
Cold-pressed hemp protein is 91 to 98% digestible. It is easy for our bodies to absorb because it contains edestin and albumin – proteins that our bodies can quickly break down to use (9).
Hemp protein is not a complete protein source. Compared to pea protein, hemp protein powder contains lower levels of essential amino acids. The levels of leucine, valine, and lysine in hemp protein powder are lower than WHO guidelines (10).
Leucine is key for building muscle, so people who are looking for a paleo protein powder to support muscle gain will not benefit as much from hemp protein.
However, hemp protein powder does contain high levels of arginine. It is not an essential amino acid, but it is great for promoting cardiovascular functioning (11).
Soy protein is often added to other protein powder blends, and it is added to many dairy-alternative products and infant soy milk. Soy has a complete amino acid profile and is hypoallergenic.
Research findings suggest that soy protein can assist in weight loss (12). However, it has also been shown that whey protein is better for supporting muscle gain than soy protein (13).
Soy protein powder can be heavily processed, depending on how it is produced. Depending on the brand, soy protein powder can contain between 61 and 91% protein, so it is important to read the label carefully (13).
In terms of digestibility, soy protein powder has a score of 100 (14). It is the only plant-based protein source with a digestibility score comparable to protein from whey, casein, or eggs. Your body is able to break it down and use it very quickly.
Rice is typically not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of protein sources, but brown rice protein powder is actually a great source of protein, essential amino acids, and BCAAs.
Research has shown that brown rice protein powder supports weight loss and muscle development and can be an effective supplement for treating diabetes and obesity (15).
While brown rice protein is not a complete protein source (very low in lysine), it can be combined with other plant-based protein sources, like pea or hemp protein, to provide all the essential amino acids (16).
If you are using brown rice protein powder as a stand-alone protein supplement, you should eat other lysine-rich foods like tofu, fish, poultry, pork, and red meat (16).
Compared to white rice protein, brown rice protein is not that different. They have very similar amino acid profiles, but brown rice contains marginally higher levels of protein. Therefore, most rice protein powders are made from brown rice.
There is actually quite a wide variety to choose from when it comes to paleo friendly protein powders. There are those that come from derivatives of animal products, like egg white protein powder and beef isolate protein powder/collagen protein powder. Plant-based protein powders are derived from crops like pea, hemp, soy, and rice.
One can choose to use one of these products or use a combination of them. Egg white protein and soy protein are both complete protein sources, containing all nine of the essential amino acids. Because of soy protein’s low digestibility score, it should not be taken on its own. Egg white protein powder can be used on its own.
Plant-based protein powders can be used in combination to ensure you get all the BCAAs, amino acids, and micronutrients you require to support your fitness goals.